OF THE AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE
The Dawning of a New Age
(Setting the Stage for the Battle of the
By Jim Hinckley
Even though the draft horse still reigned supreme, most homes still
lacked indoor plumbing or electricity, and the horse mounted posse still
represented law and order on the western frontier, there was an almost
palpable sense of change in the air in the waning moments of the 19th
century. More often than not, especially in urban areas, that whiff of
change was in the form of automobile exhaust.
By 1897 the technologies behind the horseless carriage were poised to
change the world. There was, however, a daunting obstacle to overcome
and it was more than the fact that these primitive automobiles were
In an era when a horse and team could be purchased for $500 and board
for the animals would cost less than $200 per year, spending several
thousand dollars for an automobile relegated these clanking, smoking
contrivances to the realm of toys for the famous and rich, and that was
a very limited market. Then the fortuitous fire at Olds Motor Vehicle
Company in 1901 changed everything.
1902 advertisement for Oldsmobile, Galveston Daily News.
The pioneering company had dominated the fledgling American auto
industry at the turn of the century. Powered by gasoline or electric,
the company managed to find enough customers with deep pockets to make
the manufacture of an astounding eleven different hand-built models a
Still, in late 1900, company executives at Olds, as well as several
other manufacturers, were beginning to question a course of action that
focused on only catering to wealthy clients. The following year the fire
that left the company with but one low cost experimental gasoline model
resolved the debate.
Out of sheer desperation, production of the one-cylinder curved dash
Olds commenced. With a price tag of just $650, and surprisingly rugged
dependability, the car became America’s darling. Songs were written
about it, long distance records were set, and sales soared with more
than 12,000 models being sold in less than three years.
The curved dash Olds wasn’t the only thing to rise from the ashes of the
fire that devastated the Olds Motor Vehicle Company like the mythical.
Resultant of the fire, two automotive legends were born.
Before the fire, company executives at Olds were planning to stay the
course and focus on the manufacture of automobiles for the wealthy
client. Enter Henry Leland, a precision machinist who had apprenticed
under Samuel Colt.
In addition to having one of the most prestigious machine shops in
Detroit, Leland was also a mechanical designer and engineer of some
renown. Shortly before the fire, Olds had contracted with Leland for the
manufacture of a new type of engine to be used in a model that would
represent the latest in cutting edge technology, and set a new standard
in automotive prestige.
As the hopes and plans for a lavish new Olds simmered in the embers, the
directors of another automobile manufacturing company were reaching a
point of near desperation. They had backed a promising mechanical whiz
kid by the name of Henry Ford but the hoped for profitable return on
their investment was fading fast resultant of his focus on
experimentation rather than development of a viable automobile.
In a desperate bid to salvage the Henry Ford Motor Company, the board of
directors voted to hire Henry Leland as a consulting engineer. Incensed
at the perceived affront, Ford demanded a cash settlement of $800, and
that his name was removed from the company.
Henry Ford, of course, went on to bigger and better things. Meanwhile,
Leland stepped into the gap at the former Henry Ford Motor Company and
proposed the development of an automobile utilizing the engine
originally contracted for use by Olds.
The directors of the company accepted Leland’s offer and busied
themselves with the task of reorganization. One of the first orders of
business was finding a suitable name for the enterprise.
Who exactly proposed naming the company in honorarium of the man who
established the first settlement at the site of Detroit is unknown.
However, it can be said with a degree of certainty that applying the
name Cadillac to the company was the right choice.
By 1904, Cadillac and Olds were dominating the manufacture of
automobiles in America. To be counted among the hundreds of companies
that offered little or no competition was Buick, a company that produced
only 37 automobiles in 1904.
Of course that was before the swashbuckling entrepreneur William Crapo
Durant took the helm of David Buick’s namesake company. Within three
years Durant had transformed Buick into a veritable dynamo making the
company the second largest manufacturer of automobiles in the nation.
This, however, was only the beginning.
Benjamin Briscoe, a very successful manufacturer of sheet metal in
Detroit, had entered the automobile industry by backing David Buick, and
then moved on to form a partnership with Jonathan Maxwell. Even though
their automotive enterprise proved to be quite profitable, by 1905 it
was becoming rather apparent that a finite market being serviced by
hundreds of companies prohibited a company from reaching its full
potential. Briscoe had an idea as to how that situation could be
remedied, the market dominated, and the competition eliminated.
His vision to create an automotive combine that produced a vehicle for
every budget and need would become a reality but not as he had imagined.
The initial meetings to unify the manufacturing facilities of Olds, Ford
Motor Company, Buick, Maxwell-Briscoe, and several smaller companies
Durant, however, saw the concept as the key to absolute dominance of the
American automobile industry. On September 16, 1908, in Hudson County,
New Jersey, he filed incorporation papers and established General Motors
Company. With dizzying speed he acquired controlling interest in the
manufactures of automobiles and related components through purchase,
leverage, stock swaps, or other means; the Dort-Durant Company, one of
the largest manufacturer of wagons in the country, Buick, Olds,
Cadillac, Oakland, and dozens of other companies large and small.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Briscoe had not given up on his vision. Utilizing
Maxwell-Briscoe as the cornerstone, he set about to create an automotive
empire, the United States Motor Company, that would offer stiff
competition for Durant’s General Motors.
The dawning of a new age was at hand. American was about to become an
automobile nation and the battle of the titans was about to commence.
©Jim Hinckley - Legends Of America, July 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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Pessimism and Myopic Visionaries - (Automobile Evolution)
Sizzle - Part One (Automotive Advertising)
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