A Big Car for a Big Country

Now seems a good time for DTW to recall the Mohs Ostentatienne Opera Sedan.

Image : autobild.de
Image : autobild.de

I first knew about it from Car & Driver in the late 1960s. C&D is still a good magazine, but readerships have changed and it is no reflection on their current writers, who must function in a different publishing climate, if I refer to back then as their Golden Years. Back then, C&D had a dry and subversive wit missing from other car magazines and, when I started reading the article about the Mohs Ostentatienne Opera Sedan, I assumed that it was a smart joke, a parody of a review of a car that couldn’t really exist.

When I got to the bit about it being built on an International Harvester truck chassis, I chuckled, though thinking at the same time that it took the parody into the realm of the unbelievable. But, somehow, by the time I had reached the end of the article, it had dawned on me that the Mohs was real. It seemed then, to my sensitive, youthful soul, a gross and ugly thing, appealing to the most crass emotions, but a man called Bruce Mohs from Wisconsin was trying to sell it to America.

international-harvester-c-series-pickup-hagerty-com
International Harvester C Series – Image : hagerty.com

Around that time, I thought I knew a reasonable amount about the USA, since my father worked for the European arm of a Pennsylvania-based company. He visited the States regularly, and our family met and became friends with various Americans. These people conformed to no particular stereotype – some were humorous, some were deadly serious, some were very nice, a couple were somewhat unpleasant, some were very cosmopolitan, a few were rather insular. In other words they were like all of us. Surprise. But I could imagine none of the people I had met driving, or even aspiring to drive, the Mohs. Was there something about the US that I had missed?

mohs-5

Entry to the Opera Sedan was by a single lifting rear door. It offered a commanding view of the road and great visibility whilst remaining a luxury-home-from-luxury-home. A mere four seater, the car was well over 6 metres long and had a fridge, hot water heater and mains power outlets. There was deep carpet, very well upholstered seats and comprehensive switchgear in a timber dashboard.  In addition it boasted a raft of safety features, including seats that swung on cornering, impact side rails, a strong cantilevered roof and nitrogen-filled tyres.

Image : cargeekjournal.com
Image : cargeekjournal.com

Might the Mohs Ostentatienne conceivably have been an elaborate joke, not from Car & Driver, but on the part of Bruce Mohs? Looking for a clue, sometimes the solution to such things is concealed in an anagram. Ten Moonshine Teats? Hmmm. The project was marketed as a product of ‘The Mohs Seaplane Corporation’ of Madison, Wisconsin. Although Bruce might have shared a passion with his brother, Carl, for model aeroplane making and flying, and his company did at one time operate some seaplanes, there was never any full-scale Mohs seaplane manufactured. He had, however, in 1947 at the age of 14, offered the world another first, The King ‘O’ The Road, 4 seat motor scooter.

In fact Mohs was a serial inventor, prolific entrepreneur and a happy sounding eccentric as well. A member of a high-achieving Madison family, he patented a material to prevent implosions of TV tubes and, by the mid-Sixties claimed to be the world’s largest manufacturer of bicycle sidecars, mini motorcycles and electric and amphibious motor scooters. In the late Seventies he built a 10 metre long, working scale model of the battleship Wisconsin.

king-of-the-road-motoaus-com
Precocious Bruce : The 1947 Mohs King ‘O’ The Road – Image : motoaus.com

There have been various game changers in the history of motoring. The Model T, Mini, Fiat 128, Renault Espace, Range Rover …. and looked at from Bruce Mohs’ perspective, a man living in a big country, it’s conceivable that he could have been convinced that this would be one too, even at almost $20,000 in 1967 – the equivalent, as I write, of at least £112,000 today. If so, he was wrong, though he sounds like a man who preferred to go his own way and would have shed no tears over that – this was a man who titled his 1984 autobiography “The Amazing Mr. Mohs”. Only one car, the prototype, was made, and he retained ownership.

But, though the market is fickle, that should not affect history’s judgement. There’s a good-humoured, almost mischievous innocence to the Mohs that sets it apart from Mercedes ill-starred effort at the same theme, the Maybach brand. It’s hard to believe that Mohs had never seen an episode of Thunderbirds. With some cars you look at the interiors and think ‘I’d really like to sit there and drive that thing along’ and, for me, the Opera Sedan is one of those. Though I’d need a lot of space, I’d probably not be going to the opera and, I suspect, the novelty would not last forever. But I looked at the inside of a big VW SUV thingy the other day, and I had no desire to sit in that at all. Unlike that car, the Mohs has Breathing Space. So, has the time of the Ostentatienne finally arrived?

Image : autobild.de
Image : autobild.de

Bruce Mohs died in 2015, but had seen his only Ostentatienne restored to glory 6 years earlier by two local high Wisconsin schools. If you liked this, look out for Part II, our 20 January Inauguration Special article – Let’s Go Hunting with The Mohs Safarikar!

Autobild have some fine photos of the restored car.

Bruce Baldwin Mohs - image : madison.com
Bruce Baldwin Mohs – image : madison.com

 

5 thoughts on “A Big Car for a Big Country”

  1. Great article Sean a car I had long forgotten and never knew any details of.
    While it’s creator seemed interested in occupant safety that front would have redefined pedestrian safety!

  2. Is the Mohs the (premature) American answer to Britain’s Sinclair C5?

    A lovely read by any account though, Sean. Thanks for that!

  3. This is one of the very, very few cars that looks as if a child´s drawing has been professionally realised. It is remarkable that the man never thought to ask a design professional. It shows what it is that designer add to the proces: believability.

    1. Typical remark from you Richard. Bloody elitist! To quote Michael Gove – “(we’ve) had enough of experts”.

      It looks like the high engine bay of the International, plus production constraints dictated a lot. As an exercise, I started wondering how it would look if you started working with the details such as the cantilevered roof and the louvred lights, but with more harmonious proportions. Then I wondered what the hell I was thinking.

      Apart from the Autobild piece, the few articles I’ve come on about the Mohs online are predictably sneery. I can’t pretend that wasn’t my attitude on the few times I’ve thought about it over the years. But writing this I’ve sort of reassessed my position. Certainly Bruce Mohs was no Bill Lyons or Colin Chapman, but these days I have a default respect for anyone who makes their own car and, although I don’t believe that the Ostentatienne was just a big practical joke on his part, I’m sure that Mohs was aware of the oddity of it. But he was also asking “why not?”.

      As a starting point to ask exactly what it is that people want from cars, and why some cars really have no basis on what people actually need, or what actually looks good, it seems a more interesting place to begin than, say, a BMW X6 or a Suzuki X-90.

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