Driven: 1931 Franklin Series 15 convertible coupe

1931 Franklin provides air-cooled power, and driving experience as well   Nick Kurczewski photos
1931 Franklin provides air-cooled power, and driving experience as well | Nick Kurczewski photos

A dreary and grey morning forecast called for anything but top-down driving in a nearly 86-year-old convertible. Little did we realize this 1931 Franklin was once a champion of foul weather.

According to its previous owner, many decades ago it deftly navigated through rain and deep puddles that literally sunk lesser automobiles. All things considered, however, we weren’t complaining when the skies cleared and the sun broke through the clouds just in time for our test drive.

Left side has STOP light, right side has step into runble seat
Left side has STOP light, right side has step into runble seat

Part of the Nicola Bulgari collection since 2014, this butterscotch-and-brown 1931 Franklin Series 15 convertible coupe couldn’t be more charming unless you filled the cabin with Labrador puppies. From the wide whitewall tires and wood-spoked wheels to the rumble-seat rear and its side golf-bag access panel, this vintage Franklin makes you want to hop aboard and find the nearest speakeasy.

Just make sure you have some driving gloves first, because man-handling this car takes upper body strength and strong hands.

Zipping around a private test track that is part of the sprawling NB Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the Franklin proved a rolling and rollicking delight – that is, until you cranked the steering wheel to avoid skidding off the still-wet course. What can we say, we have fun doing this job!

The Franklin’s solid front and rear axles, both with full-elliptic leaf spring suspension, work to keep things on a relatively even keel throughout any wheel-twirling excitement.

Under the hood and powering the rear wheels is a 100-horsepower, 274 cubic-inch, L-head 6-cylinder engine. This being a Franklin, there is a little trickery involved when it comes to what you’re seeing and what’s pushing this chirpy convertible down the road.

See that proud front grille? It’s a phony.

Engine is air-cooled
Engine is air-cooled

Franklin cars were air-cooled, so keeping the motor at operating temperature is done without the aid of a large, upright front radiator that was common to cars of the era. Like today’s electric-powered Tesla Model S, with its dummy front grille, some technical leaps need to be tempered by clever (if unnecessary) design tweaks.

Franklin cars had a reputation for being extremely robust and economical, and firmly on the luxury side of the pricing spectrum. That didn’t help matters when the Syracuse-based automobile company found itself fighting to survive the Great Depression. Without any bargain models in its lineup – or the strength of a corporate giant like GM, Ford, or Chrysler behind it – Franklin struggled mightily until finally going in bankruptcy in 1934.

It’s a shame because, from the driver’s seat, this car is a peach.

The cabin is simple in the extreme. The “wood” dashboard is actually painted metal, while the central instrument cluster consists of tiny gauges for things such as fuel level, amps, speed, as well as a handsome Waltham 8 Day automobile clock tucked on the bottom left.

The bench seat has plenty of room for two, or three if you’re feeling intimate. Corner hard and you’d better hold on, because this car was built long before bucket seats and side bolstering came to keep you snug in place (or ruin amorous automotive encounters, depending on your point of view).

Clutch and brake pedals are separated by steering column
Clutch and brake pedals are separated by steering column

Turning the car on requires a simple twist of the key and a press of the floor-mounted starter button, located to the right of a surprisingly delicate-looking metal gas pedal. The larger, square-shaped brake and clutch pedals sit on either side of the steering column. It takes a little adjustment to get your brain and feet in harmony with the Franklin’s ergonomics but, once you do, everything comes naturally.

The long lever for the 3-speed manual transmission clicks into each gear with that mechanical feel that makes modern cars feel like video games. Yes, you can crunch things and get the gears grumbling if you rush the process. Then again, if you’re feeling lazy, the ample torque of the air-cooled engine means gear changes are rarely needed to keep the Franklin merrily motoring along.

Thankfully, the hydraulic brakes at each corner do a nice job of bringing things to a stop, too. A nice touch is the “Stop” brake light at the rear of the Franklin, located only on the driver’s side.

This model, chassis No. 51207210L18, is highly original and was owned by the same family until its arrival at the NB Center. The subject of an “older restoration,” per the NB Center, over time the car’s exhaust system, brake lines, electrics and other items have been replaced or repaired. The color combination is factory correct, but it has been repainted and restored.

Originally bought by the president of South Boston Savings Bank, the car was used as a daily driver until his passing roughly 20 years later. From that point, the Franklin was inherited by his daughter and her husband before passing to the third generation of the same family. It was their son, the Franklin’s owner prior to its joining the Bulgari collection, who described the car’s wet weather prowess.

A flood-prone section of road outside his family’s home proved no match for the “high riding Franklin.” The car simply powered through deep puddles, as he and his sister waved to hapless motorists who’d gotten stuck in the mud and muck.

He recalled another soggy adventure when, on the way home from a picnic, he and his sister rode back in the golf bag compartment “with the rumble seat closed.”

Rain or shine, we chose not to attempt that particular driving experience.

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