King of the Road - The Continental Era
By Jim Hinckley
If asked to compose a list of the ten men most responsible for the
development of the American automobile industry, who would you include?
Would Henry Ford, David Buick, Walter Chrysler, Ransom Olds, Benjamin
Briscoe, and Charles Nash make that list? Would it include A.W. Tobin
and Ross Judson, two men who laid many of the industries foundational
Tobin and Judson, in the first decades of the 21st century, may be less
than an obscure footnote to automotive history but the business they
created provided a staggering number of famous and forgotten
manufacturers with a rock solid foundation upon which to build. In
addition, it also served as an integral component in the development of
the fledgling American aeronautical industry.
Assembling jeep engines at Continental
Motors, Michigan. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer 1942.
The establishment of the Tobin and Judson automotive empire can be
traced to 1901 when Ross Judson, a gifted mechanical engineering
student, examined a Mercedes L-head four-cylinder engine and noticed a
number of inherent flaws. Following on the heels of this discovery was
the conviction that he could resolve these issues and vastly improve
In 1902, almost immediately after graduation from the Armour Institute
of Technology, Judson drafted a sales pitch that he presented to his
brother in law, A.W. Tobin. His enthusiasm for the project presented
against the background of a developing gold rush atmosphere that was the
auto industry carried the day and Judson soon had a partner in Tobin, a
$2,000 investment of capital from his partner, a hayloft converted to a
machine shop in Chicago, and a company named Autocar.
Judson promoted his first engine with an eye-catching display that
debuted at the1903 Chicago Automobile Show. Obviously, to display their
product at such a prestigious event Judson and Tobin must have had high
expectations from this endeavor but the inundation of orders left them
overwhelmed and ill prepared.
To fill these initial orders the company launched full-scale production
simultaneously with expansion of their fledgling facilities. By 1904,
resultant of the exponential increase in orders, Judson and Tobin found
themselves in the enviable position of needing to find a location
suitable for dramatic expansion.
Numerous communities and municipalities were offering prospective
automotive manufactures a wide array of incentives in exchange for
establishment of manufacturing facilities. The automotive industry was
fast becoming a cash creation dynamo and every town wanted their share
of the pie.
Judson and Tobin evaluated a number of communities before allowing
themselves to be wooed by the incentive package offered by Muskegon,
Michigan, which resulted in the relocation of Autocar operations and the
construction of a state of the art, 16,000 square foot factory in that
city in 1905. The following year the company experienced equally
dramatic changes; Studebaker increased its order from 100 engines to
1,000, discovery that a company in Ardmore, Pennsylvania had used the
name Autocar since 1899 led to reorganization under the Continental
name, production of a wide array of stationary engines commenced, and
the number of employees increased from 25 to almost 600.
One year later the company expanded operations to include an aircraft
engine production and development division. This division, as with the
rest of the company, would evolve with the rapidly changing
technological innovations spurred by the automobile industry and in
1929; it would become a subsidiary, Continental Aircraft Engine with the
A-70, a 170 horsepower radial engine, as the foundation.
Receipt of an order for 10,000 engines by a new automotive manufacturing
concern, Hudson, in late 1910, provided the funding for Continental to
launch an ambitious expansion program that included expansion to the
Muskegon facility, construction of a factory in Detroit, and the
outfitting of both factories with state of the art equipment.
Airplane engines assembled for testing at
Continental Motors, Michigan. Alfred T. Palmer 1942.
years later Walter Frederick, a former engineer for the truck manufacturing
concern Autocar, assumed Judson’s position as chief engineer. Utilizing his
extensive experience and knowledge, the company expanded the engineering
department and launched the development of an innovative program that
included the manufacture of standardized engines for catalog sales to
automobile manufacturers, companies in need of stationary industrial
engines, aircraft firms, or tractor manufacturers.
Additionally, the company offered various options for these engines. As a
result, if a client requested engine specifications not listed in the
catalog, staff engineers modified existing models accordingly.
next two decades were a golden era for Continental. Automobiles manufactured
by Apperson and Case, Crawford and Jordan, Ace and Vellie, Durant, including
Star, and Erskine, and dozens of other companies utilized engines by
Continental. Numerous companies that manufactured trucks exclusively
including Corbitt, Federal, Schacht, Selden, Sterling, and Reo (derived from
the initials of the founder, Ransom E. Olds) used their engines as well.
The 1920s was another pivotal period of transition for the company. W.R.
Angell, a member of the companies’ board of directors, finalized an
agreement with William Durant, the founder of General Motors who was
building a similar company, to supply engines for his new line of
automobiles – Durant, Star, and Flint. During the same period tentative
merger negotiations initiated between Continental and three manufacturers
that utilized that company’s products, Peerless, Moon, and Jordan that had
the potential for making a tremendous impact on the American automobile
industry, collapsed in the initial stage of development.
The dawn of a new decade at Continental began with the retirement of Ross
Judson and the rise of W.R. Angell to the presidency of the company. His
expansion of the diesel truck, aircraft, and agricultural engine divisions
of the company kept it afloat during the tumultuous days of the Great
Depression. However, at the same time his decision to initiate the launch of
a Continental manufactured automobile, and the purchase of a truck
manufacturing enterprise, Divco, brought the company to the brink of
Together the short-lived Continental Beacon, Flyer, and Ace, in actuality
little more than new emblems on the equally short-lived De Vaux, and the
acquisition of Divco in 1932 resulted in the companies first financial
The diverse legacy of Continental did not end with the Great Depression or
the post war era of unprecedented optimism. Continental engines powered the
grandfather of the Jeep, the Bantam Reconnaissance and Command Car
prototype, and the iconic Checker taxi through early 1964. Then there are
the contributions of the reincarnated Continental, Ryan Aeronautical, and
Teledyne Continental Motors, a fitting legacy of two forgotten pioneers,
Tobin and Judson.
©Jim Hinckley, February 2013
About the Author:
Jim Hinckley is an award winning author and photographer, and an
official contributor to Legends Of America through a partnership developed
in October 2012. Hinckley is a former Associate Editor of Cars and Parts
Magazine, and author of multiple books, including several on Route 66.
His latest "The Route 66 Encyclopedia" is available with autograph via
Route 66 Chronicles, Jim's Blog.
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