Like Peter Parker and Mary Jane or Jonny Cash and June Carter, men can be motivated to great things for the love of a woman.
The same might be said for Robert “Bobby” Sheldon, the inventor of Alaska’s first automobile.
The year was 1905 and Sheldon, an 18-year-old Skagway resident, had his eye on a certain lovely lady. Compounding the matter for Sheldon, so too did a number of eligible bachelors. It was the son of a doctor, however, who drove a horse and fancy carriage that Sheldon found his greatest rival in the battle to win the good lady’s favor.
It was in the pursuit of a woman Sheldon would find greatness with the help of only pictures of cars he’d seen in magazines, inspiration was sparked.
Sheldon got to work building a frame for his car out of wood. He bolted four buggy wheels and some barroom chairs to the frame and salvaged a marine engine from a sunken boat. It was a single-cylinder 2-cylce engine with about 3.5 horsepower. Throw on some gears and a chain drive, some gas piping for a tiller and some tin and oilcloth for a hood and trunk cover, and voila: Alaska’s first automobile was born.
The car could go about 15 mph and Sheldon made many trips in the car. He called it the Runabout, and he would take the girl for many rides in it.
“They wave at me toot-a-lee-doo-ing, what they now call rubbing it in,” Sheldon said in a recorded interview at the age of 45 in the early 1930s.
(Bobby Sheldon (smiling) sits on the hood of his Runabout. The lady he was trying to woo poses wearing white and Sheldon's driving cap and goggles.)
So, did Sheldon and the apple of his eye get married? Well, no, they did not.
“But three other fellows have married her since then,” Sheldon recalled in an interview.
Sheldon wouldn’t let his unrequited love keep him down, though. The Skagway native went on to become Alaska’s foremost automotive transportation pioneer – quite literally at times. His love for cars would take him far. His car would arrive three years before the first assembly-line cars would be shipped to Alaska in 1908.
He and his Runabout made the first successful automobile trip from Fairbanks to Valdez. He was prolific during the early days of Alaska’s car racing, building his own early racecars.
Though Sheldon may never have won the girl, he helped usher in a bright future of automotive innovation in Alaska. His influence in Alaska helped motivate the development of paved highways. His innovative means for building Alaska’s first car earned him recognition in Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not.
In 1934, Sheldon donated his Runabout to the University of Alaska Museum. Today the car is prominently displayed at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks.