OF THE AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE
Bathtubs, Birdcages & Chevrolet (The Automotive Gold Rush)
By Jim Hinckley
Charles E. Duryea in his 3rd Automobile, 1893 or 1894
In the closing
years of the 19th century, the fledgling automobile was such a novelty
that a Duryea Motor Wagon warranted top billing over the albino, the
giant, and the fat lady in promotions for the Barnum & Bailey Circus in
1896. Even astute businessmen such as Montgomery Ward saw the automobile
as little more than a fad that would soon pass.
However, for a few visionary geniuses the automobile was not a laughing
matter, it was the future. In an interview published in Scientific
American on May 21, 1892, Ransom E. Olds was quoted as saying about the
automobile that, "...it never kicks or bite, never tires on long runs,
and never sweats in hot weather. It does not require care in the stable
and only eats while on the road."
persistence of men like Ransom Olds, and Alexander Winton, steadfastly
moved the automobile from the realm of curiosity to multi million-dollar
business within a few short years, and by 1900 automobile mania was
sweeping Wall Street, and the world of high finance. The resultant
industrial gold rush led the owners of established and profitable
businesses to abandon everything in the quest to become an automobile
manufacturer and tycoon. It also fueled a new breed of unscrupulous
hucksters, and unleashed the imagination of countless dreamers.
company that would rise to prominence as one of the nations leading
manufacturers of luxury automobiles during the teens had its origins in
the production of clothes wringers. With the explosion of bicycle
popularity in the last decade of the 19th century, the company
diversified production to include the two-wheeled wonders.
Pierce-Arrow, another leader in the manufacture of American luxury cars
during the teens, had as a cornerstone Heintz, Pierce & Munschauer, a
pioneer in the manufacture of iceboxes, birdcages, and other assorted
household goods. As with Peerless, the manufacture of bicycles served as
the interim step toward automobile production.
Herbert and Eugene Adams were a leading manufacturer of park benches and
grave markers in Iowa during the 1880s. Diversification came with the
manufacture of milling and foundry equipment. Their foray into
automobile production was resultant of experiments in the development of
internal combustion engines by company superintendent Fay Oliver
Farwell. Promoted as the car with an engine that "spins like a top," the
Adams-Farwell of 1905 featured a rotary engine with cylinders and
crankcase revolving horizontally on a fixed shaft.
In the summer
of 1906, with $22,000 in capital stock, George M. Harton, W.F. Heninger,
T.M. Harton, and C. MacKalip, incorporated the Amusement Company in
Delaware. The sales pitch was that the company would manufacture,
"nickelodeons, carousels, automobiles, and other amusements."
Apparently, the companies' primary sales were of stock.
investors eager to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing had
their limitations. A.B. Andrews of Center Point Iowa, in 1895,
unsuccessfully sought investors for the development and manufacture of
his Andrews Spring Motor Car, an automobile based on a spring-powered
baby carriage designed a few years previously.
"The device is attached under the hind axle, one piece on each side. At
each end are two main driving shafts, which mesh with cogwheels. The
springs are wound with levers. By throwing on the winding gear the
mechanism will wind itself up while going down hill..."
Woman sitting behind the wheel of a 1907 Buick
had made a fortune as a Detroit based sheet metal manufacturer. His initial
endeavor in the automobile business was a bust; the namesake David Buick of
the Buick Motor Company seemed incapable of moving from experimentation into
development of a product for sale, which left Briscoe with little more than
a few experimental models to show for his sizable investment.
Undaunted by the financial bottomless pit that was Buick Motor Company,
Briscoe divested himself of the company and joined forces with Jonathan
Maxwell. The subsequent Maxwell-Briscoe was a roaring success, at least
until Briscoe decided to use the company as a financial hinge pin in 1910 to
launch United States Motor Company, a conglomerate envisioned as a
challenger to General Motors.
Briscoe would rise
from the ashes of the United States Motor Company still convinced that the
automobile was the key to his financial future. Long after the swashbuckling
era of automobile manufacturing, during a time of industry standardization,
Benjamin Briscoe unleashed his vision of the automobiles future with
establishment of Briscoe Motor Corporation in Jackson, Michigan in 1913.
The initial model
was rather conventional, with the exception of Cyclops headlamp molded into
the radiator shell. Another unusual feature was the laminated papier-mache
For the 1916 model year, the Briscoe had abandoned the quirky headlamp
treatment for something more conventional. Still, this was not your ordinary
automobile as evidenced by promotional material that proclaimed, "Buy the
Four. Use it a month. If then you decide you want the Eight (a V-8), simply
pay the difference and a small charge for installation work."
Eager to invest in the new frontier of automobile manufacturing and
development businessmen of all stripes eagerly looked for inventors in need
of capital investment. As a result, in the first decades of the 20th century
most every town in America had at least one automobile company.
Enid, Oklahoma was home to the Geronimo Motor Company, a short-lived
enterprise that built automobiles as well as one-ton trucks and tractors. In
Arkadelphia, Arkansas, it was the Arkansas in 1913, and in 1919, the
Arkadelphia Motor Company.
In Boulder, Colorado, in 1909, it was with great fanfare that J.H. Wallace,
W.E. Whitacre, and R. Linderman of the American Machine & Manufacturing
Company announced the manufacture of automobiles would commence before years
end. Then there was the Bison Motor Company – organized in Buffalo, New York
to manufacture automobiles as well as marine engines.
How crazy was the
gold rush atmosphere pervading automobile manufacturing during the first
decades of the 20th century? Well, consider this:
In Birmingham, Alabama there were nine manufacturing companies organized. In
Jackson, Michigan, the number was twenty-two, in Butte, Montana, there were
two, and even in Yazoo City, Mississippi, there was a company organized, Orr
Modern Motor Car Company, a two-million dollar incorporation in 1907.
From Baden, Missouri to Bettendorf, Iowa, from Azusa, California to Skagway,
Alaska, inventors and dreamers had the ear of leading businessmen and
manufacturers. However, the surprise is not that so many companies appeared
on the industrial stage in such a short period of time, the surprise is how
many survived, how many made invaluable contributions to the technological
advancement of the automobile, and how many survived dramatic transitions
Even the great American icon that is Chevrolet had its origins in some
surprisingly diverse endeavors and barely survived a few very serious
missteps. Named for Swiss born Louis Chevrolet, the company was conceived by
William Durant as a means to capitalize on the Chevrolet name made popular
with Louis’s record of racing victories, and as the tool for him to regain
control of General Motors.
In 1923, the car later linked with hot dogs, baseball, and apple pie was the
victim of an experiment gone wrong and corporate politics that resulted in
the first major recall ever issued by a major automobile manufacturer. The
saga of the air cooled Chevrolet is, however, a story for another day.
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.
on Legends Of America
In the Beginning (Automotive Pioneers)
Introducing America's Most Modern Automobile -
Jackson - The Other Detroit
Two Heads are Better Than One (The Stanley Brothers)
King of the Road (The Continental Era)
In Praise of Eccentricity (The Thin Line between
Progressive and Insanity in American Auto History)
One Foot in the Stirrup and One on the Throttle
(The Race to Gain Public Interest in Motor Vehicles)
Dawning of a New Age (Setting the Stage for the
Battle of the Titans)
Pessimism and Myopic Visionaries - (Automobile Evolution)
Sizzle - Part One (Automotive Advertising)
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