The Sheldon Car - One of the museum’s most unique artifacts has just been cloned! An auto enthusiast named Don Langley, an American ex-pat living in Australia, recently completed a replica of the Sheldon Car, the first car in Alaska. Skagway resident Robert Sheldon completed it in 1905 without ever actually seeing one in person. He based the design on magazine illustrations.
Langley contacted Senior Collections Manager Angela Linn last year to ask permission to pursue his project. He sent an email requesting exact measurements, which were supplied by Willie Vinton of the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks, where the Sheldon Car is currently on display.
Langley decided it would be impossible to achieve an exact reproduction, so he decided to adopt Sheldon’s principle of using whatever was available. “The chassis and the engine compartment presented no problems,” he said. “I made those components as close as possible to the dimensions given to me.”
He adapted the rest of the car through a series of trial and error, from the 13 horsepower engine taken from a riding lawn mower to the seat he upholstered himself to the suspension springs he designed and commissioned a local blacksmith to make. “They work extremely well and create a lot of interest,” Langley said. “I also had to design and make the components and brackets to fit that type of spring to the chassis.”
Sheldon built his original version using materials available in the Southeast Alaska gold rush town where he lived, including a two-cycle marine engine, wheels from a buggy and two carbide mining lamps as headlights.
In 1934, University of Alaska president Charles Bunnell brought the car to Fairbanks from Juneau, where it had been in storage for almost a decade. The car was incorporated into the UA Museum of the North’s collection and later exhibited in the Gallery of Alaska.
“For us, the Sheldon car is a part of the history of Southeast Alaska, and it helped us tell that story for more than 30 years,” said Linn. “At the Antique Auto Museum, people get to see the car in a whole new light – as part of automotive history.”
Langley calculates that he spent about $4,000 Australian (approximately $3,700 US). “The project took me eight months and I have to pay tribute to my wife for her forbearance.” He named the car after her, calling it the Sheldon Isabella.
The couple recently drove the car in a local parade and it performed perfectly. Langley said the Bobby Sheldon story, which was displayed beside the car, also attracted considerable interest and comment.
Photos, from top: A side view of the Sheldon Isabella, constructed by Don Langley; basic chassis with seat in position; trimming wheels to the precise diameter; the Sheldon Car, on display in the museum’s Gallery of Alaska; historical photo depicting the first automobile in Alaska.