The Wanderwell Expedition, an incredible story of the 1920’s, lost in time and worthy of a new telling. This adventure epitomizes the durability of the Model T Ford and demonstrates the bravery of a pair of adventurers who helped forge the early days of romantic motorized exploration. Their remarkable automobile trip around the world is one of the most incredible and least known automobile expeditions of our time.
Captain Walter Wanderwell, an adventurer, inventor and former sailor with an itch for world travel, conceived the notion of circling the globe by automobile. An emigrant from Poland, he changed his name from the un-pronounceable ‘Johannes Pieczynski’, to Wanderwell during a 1914 walking tour of America. This rugged individual was yet to meet Aloha, his young partner on this extraordinary odyssey, who would become the first woman to circle the globe in an automobile!
Capt. Wanderwell started from Atlanta GA on September 22, 1919, shortly after the Armistice, with the objective to help restore the broken links of international travel and good fellowship. The Wanderwell party was without funding and lacked money except what they earned en route. The purpose was to visit every country in the world and to record its experiences for educational purposes in writing and motion pictures.
The first leg of the adventure was a trial trip stretching from Mexico to Alaska using a large 6 cylinder Continental powered vehicle. Wanderwell decided the tremendous weight of the machine and difficulty getting spare parts was just not practical for such a journey. To manage the daring trip, only a special type of automobile could be depended upon. Such an automobile had to be sturdy, lightweight, and provide an un-compromising endurance to withstand the grueling wear and un-known hazards. The only vehicle to fit the bill was of course Henry Ford’s universal car, the Model T Ford; a car already respected for its stout abilities.
Capt. Wanderwell selected the Model T Ford not only for all these well-known attributes, but because he knew service and replacement parts could be found at hundreds of places around the world. However, the Ford car was to be modified for the special requirements of such a trip. While the car chassis, engine, transmission, and suspension were all Ford; special steel-plated bodies were constructed to provide for more storage of gear, supplies of gasoline, water, oil and protection for the crew. All metal disc-type Disteel wheels replaced wooden-spoke wheels for more assurance against breakdown. The cars were equipped with Ruckstell rear axles for 4 forward speeds to negotiate any terrain with full loads. Each car carried spare wheel and spare clincher tires. Rifle scabbards were mounted on each Ford, a testimony to the unknown conditions in primitive lands.
My research through Ford archive records uncovered the invoice for the chassis of Unit 2 (car # 2) as a 1919 with motor # 2,978,928. The “T used chassis as is” was sold to Capt. Wanderwell for $50 by the W.B. Deyo Co., Ford dealer Detroit MI, and shipped via general delivery to New Orleans, LA. There the chassis was modified with the special body and equipment, and replaced the Unit 1 (6-cylinder car) for the balance of the wonderful journey. Wanderwell, in France, later built a third car, Unit 3, in 1922, from a used Model T World War ambulance chassis, which served as a backup and tow vehicle.
On November 27, 1921, with the blessing of Henry Ford, Capt. Wanderwell and his crew left Detroit in the special Ford Model T automobile and made their European leg of this multi-year journey by way of tramp steamer to London. When he reached Paris, France, in January of 1922, Capt. Wanderwell had no idea of what destiny awaited him by a chance meeting with a young woman.
Aloha’s story begins on Vancouver Island, Canada. Aloha’s family set out to build their dream life in the wilderness – a dream rudely shattered by the World War. When her father enlisted in the British Army, Aloha, her mother, and younger sister followed him from training fields to barracks to battlefield until he was tragically killed in Belgium in 1917.
After the Armistice, Aloha enrolled in a French boarding school situated in a convent run by an elite, contemplative order. She paid little attention to her studies, dreaming of exotic adventures, movie stardom, romance, and true love. Reading about the arrival of Capt. Wanderwell in Paris, she made it her destiny to meet him.
Obtaining his autograph, Aloha struck up a conversation with Wanderwell persuading him to make her part of the expedition. Aloha proved to be indispensable. Fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, and marginally fluent in Russian, Chinese and Japanese, Aloha functioned as a translator, a driver, seamstress/laundress and all-round goodwill ambassador. A six-foot beauty with piercing eyes and engaging smile, Aloha emerged as the star of the expedition, capturing the hearts and minds of people everywhere. Aloha recalls in her autobiography, Call to Adventure!, a conversation the Captain had with her mother,
“This is no millionaire’s pleasure tour, Mrs. Vernon. We are to visit as many countries in the world as possible- we’re to earn our way. I don’t pretend the thing is any more than a gamble, but there will be valuable records and moving-picture film. I left Detroit a few months ago with the specially built and equipped cars; I earned enough for tramp-steamer fare to England, sailing from New Orleans; in England I made enough to come to France. I’m getting assistants as I go along. They may stay a short time or the whole period—that is up to them; but I need someone to pose in the moving pictures and to appear on stage when they are being shown.”
By taking command of Unit 2, Aloha became the first woman to drive from Paris to Peking as well as the first woman to girdle the globe south of the Himalayas. Together, the two Ford cars covered Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Italy, San Marino, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, Russia, Ro mania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, crossing the Red Sea then to India, Burma, Indo-China, Siberia, Japan, the Sandwich Islands, and arrived by steam ship January 5, 1925 in San Francisco, for the last leg of the around the world tour.
Throughout India and China, travels were especially difficult. Aloha wrote they used kerosene for gasoline, water and elephant fat for oil in the engine, and crushed bananas for grease in the Ruckstell differentials, and in China, where civil war in 1924 made gasoline unavailable, coolies towed the car for hundreds of miles. Cars often had to be towed or pushed through mud and rivers. A near wreck passing over a bridge almost lost Unit 2. Aloha recalled,
“A sloping bank to the wood bridge turned abruptly and Number Two came to a standstill with the front wheel deeply off the edge. My poor little lizzie made a heroic effort to stop, I pushed until I thought the pedal would break off. But I was on the bridge with no more than a flat tire and bent steering. We made the necessary repairs on the spot.”
Captain Wanderwell kept the expedition alive in a time where financial contributions from sponsors were unheard of. He sold ads and bartered with local merchants to bring in the revenue that kept them moving forward. He cranked tens of thousands of feet of film through 35-millimeter movie cameras along this fantastic journey. These films were shown in theaters to paying audiences in every city they visited, after which souvenir booklets of the trip were sold, thereby generating the money needed to buy gas and supplies so the expedition could continue.
Wanderwell kept contact with Ford in the early part of the venture. In a letter dated September 1922 from Dundee, Scotland, the Captain offered to supply photos at regular intervals to Ford. A reply letter dated August 1922, from E.G. Liebold, Henry Ford’s general secretary stated,
“Your clippings and photographs received, and we wish to assure you of our interest in your expedition. If you have anything further concerning same we will be glad to hear from you.”
Wanderwell would offer the chance for Ford to acquire all the photos and films in a June 1922 letter:
“We are depending for part of our expenses on the production of a news motion picture…. Now if you could interest Mr. Henry Ford in the matter, so I could get outright sales for the negative on a footage basis, with a guaranty of a certain amount each month.”
Alas, the reply came from Ford, via Frank Campsall, assistant secretary to Henry Ford, July 25, 1922,
“…we would not be interested in entering into any definite agreement regarding the pictures taken by you.”
Those historic films, still in existence today, remain lost to the eyes of generations. Ultimately, the Wanderwells drove through 43 countries on four continents, in nearly four years in travels, eventually ending up where Captain Wanderwell began, at the Ford Motor plant in Dearborn. (Unit 2 car was later donated to the Ford Greenfield Village Museum in a public ceremony in 1929.)
Inevitably the young Aloha and the Captain, 13 years her senior, would fall in love. The Captain married Aloha at city hall in Riverside, California, in 1925. Over the next seven years they had two children and continued to travel, film and lecture together. Captain Wanderwell founded an organization dedicated to the establishment of an international police force. The International Police, as envisioned by Wanderwell, would be comprised of volunteers from all countries and work under the umbrella of the League of Nations enforcing all inter-governmental laws and treaties to prevent war. This, however, was a dream he would not see realized.
In December 1932, the Wanderwells purchased a schooner and prepared to sail from California to the South Seas to make a new documentary film. A crew of six men and eight women had been assembled and were scheduled to depart Long Beach. Headlines screamed: “Wanderwell Murdered!” A member of a prior Wanderwell expedition, known to have a grudge against the Captain, was put on trial for the killing. With an airtight alibi, the accused was acquitted. To this day, the murder of Captain Wanderwell remains unsolved. Yet, what also remains is an exciting chapter of early automotive adventure, for these two daring adventurers made real history with the sturdy Model T Ford.
Sadly, the fate of Unit 2, the cherished ‘Little Lizzie’ driven by Aloha is almost as painful as the Captain’s death. Reported in the New York Times, November 30, 1929,
“Aloha Wanderwell, lecturer and adventurer will leave today for Detroit to present to Henry Ford for his museum in Dearborn the Ford automobile with which she and her husband, Capt. Walter Wanderwell have traveled with around the world… Last September the Wanderwells wrote from Europe asking Mr. Ford if he would accept the machine as a gift and E.G. Liebold, general secretary to Mr. Ford replied that it would be ‘gladly’ accepted. …in the care of a chauffeur, it started out from here yesterday under its own power on its last trip, to Detroit.”That last testament would be sorely true.
Years later, Aloha Wanderwell Baker inquired on the status of her ‘Little Lizzie’ by writing the curator of the Transportation Collections of the Ford Museum. Uncovered in the Ford archives the saddening letter, dated October 29, 1979.
“Dear Ms. Baker read the letter, …concerning your interest in determining the whereabouts of the Wanderwell around-the-world Ford car. After a considerable amount of research time by our registrar, we learned that this car was included in a group of old vehicles that Henry Ford decided in 1942 were of marginal historical importance. These vehicles were transferred to the Highland Park plant and eventually scrapped (for their metal content as part of the war effort). In subsequent years, many of us associated with the Museum have had occasion to express disappointment and dismay that such a decision was made, but it is a fact we must accept obviously. John A. Conde, Curator.”
A 2-page hand-written reply letter, in graceful and full strokes from the hand that drove Unit 2 around the world, was in the same record file in the archives. As I read the reply of June 5, 1980, signed by Aloha Wanderwell Baker, those lines she penned were truly heartfelt. She wrote to Mr. Conde:
“…the conclusion of your registrar that Wanderwell II was scrapped for war metal is an ironical waste indeed. For 1942 and all through that war, I gave orientation film programs in colleges and art institutes, and was in and out of Detroit, constantly in touch with the Ford Public Relations for it. It did not occur to me at the time that # 2 was other than in storage, intact. …I can never have the satisfaction of seeing again the object that had dominated the very best years of my life.”
So ends a remarkable story of adventure from the early years of the 20th century, and of these special Model T Fords, that now silently echo the lore and pride we share in Lizzie’s adventures and achievements.