OF THE AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE
In the Beginning - Automotive Pioneers
by Jim Hinckley
For many automotive pioneers a dubious form of immortality was the
reward for a lifetime spent developing world changing ideas into
realities. As with Jello or Kleenex, it is as a brand name that they are
remembered while their first names, as well as some of their most
astounding accomplishments, are less than an historical footnote.
Few who drive a Chevrolet give thought to Louis Chevrolet, his role in
the development of General Motors, or his racing prowess. Likewise with
people who drive a Ford not knowing that Henry Ford was the man who laid
the foundation for Cadillac, that it was the Dodge brothers, Horace and
John, who ensured his success, or that Henry pioneered the use of
Buick Roadster waits for horse drawn wagon near Liberty New York, 1912.
The infancy of
the American auto industry is a tangled web of intrigue, tragedy,
genius, and get rich quick schemes. It is also the story of innovation,
vision, and eccentricity.
As a case in point consider David Buick, the man who gave the world the
cast iron bathtub with white porcelain finish, and who, in conjunction
with Walter Marr and Eugene Richard, engineered a revolutionary gasoline
engine with a valve in head design for marine or farm application. This
highly advanced engine would serve as a foundational component for the
establishment of the Buick Motor Company in 1903.
In turn, the
acquisition of Buick Motor Company was the cornerstone for a vast
automotive empire named General Motors established by William Crapo
Durant. As Durantís rocket sailed toward the heavens, David Buickís
plummeted to the earth and after an endless string of failed enterprises
he ended his days as the information desk clerk at the Detroit School of
Durant would follow Buick on the road to ruin but not before
transforming General Motors into an industrial giant, not before losing
control of the company and regaining it through the creation of a
company named Chevrolet, or before challenging the dominance of Ford
with a company named Durant. In February of 1936, Durant declared
personal bankruptcy and ended his days as a partner in a bowling alley
with lunchroom and grocery store.
Buick were not the only men to flirt with fame and fortune during the
heady days when the American auto industry was a whirligig with an
atmosphere that hovered between that of a gold rush and a carnival. Nor
were they the only pioneers to become forgotten immortals.
Swiss born Louis Joseph Chevrolet arrived in New York as an agent for
the French automobile company, De Dion-Bouton. However, it was his
skills as a mechanic for Fiat, and as a driver for the racing team that
included brothers Arthur and Gaston, that Louis Chevrolet developed a
reputation that garnered headlines.
This notoriety led William Durant to retain Louis and Arthur for the
Buick race team he was developing as a promotional venue. After loosing
control of General Motors for the first time, Durant again hired Louis
but this time as an engineer to design an engine that would power a new
automobile, one that would carry the Chevrolet name.
proved to be a short-lived endeavor for Mr. Chevrolet as Durant had
established the company as a vehicle for regaining the control of
General Motors. Louis left the company and his trademarked name in 1914,
resumed his racing career, and designed several race cars including the
one his brother, Gaston, drove to victory in the Indianapolis 500 in
Henry Leland (right) and Robert Faulconer (left) at Leland & Faulconer
Manufacturing Co., Detroit MI.
Photo by Detroit Publishing Co.
Those who gained
the hollow immortality of having their names transformed into a brand were
the fortunate few. For men such as Henry Leland, obscurity was their only
Henry Leland, a pioneer in precision engineering, had apprenticed under
Samuel Colt and launched his financial empire with the invention of an
improved clipper designed for barbers. As the owner of a precision machine
shop in Detroit, one of his first automotive endeavors was the design of a
new engine for Ransom Olds of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company.
Before the Leland
designed engine could be utilized in what was to be a new and improved Olds,
a disastrous fire at the Olds factory made it financially impossible for the
company to adopt it and as a result, continued production of the highly
successful 1902 model. In retrospect, this was a fortuitous turn of events
for the American auto industry as the directors of the Henry Ford Company
that had hired Leland as a consulting engineer were in need of an engine.
The Henry Ford
Company represented Henryís second attempt at automobile manufacturing.
However, as with the first endeavor, backers were seeing little return for
their investment and as a result had retained Leland to evaluate the
feasibility of pouring more money into the enterprise.
Incensed by what
he perceived as an affront, Henry Ford stormed from the company. Undaunted
the directors reorganized the company under a name associated with Detroitís
founding, Le Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac, and utilized the engine designed by
Leland would shepherd Cadillac through its formative years, and assist with
its absorption into the General Motors combine, but in 1917, a dispute with
William Durant led to his departure and the establishment of a company to
manufacture Liberty aircraft engines. As an historic side note Leland named
this company for the first president for whom he had voted in 1864, Abraham
Production had barely commenced when the Armistice negated his government
contract. Faced with mounting debts, seventy-four year old Leland swiftly
transformed his factory, and reorganized the company, to produce
Lelandís reputation for quality workmanship, attention to detail, and
honesty is the fact that $6.5 million dollars of common stock in the new
company was subscribed within three hours of it being placed on sale. As it
turned out Lelandís association with the company was relatively short.
Obsession over mechanical perfection, dated styling, and post war material
shortages hindered development as well as production. On February 4, 1922,
the board of directors overrode Lelandís objections and placed the company
The company sold for $8 million dollars to Henry Ford. His son, Edsel,
assumed the presidency of Lincoln Motor Company before the end of the year.
With the passing
of time, Leland joined the pantheon of forgotten automotive pioneers. He
was, however, in good company as this is the final resting place for many of
the giants from the infancy of the American auto industry, men like Ralph
Teetor, Childe Harold Wills, H.J. Hipple, and Howard E. Coffin to name but a
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
Introducing America's Most Modern Automobile -
Two Heads are Better Than One (The Stanley Brothers)
Bathtubs, Birdcages & Chevrolet (Automotive
Jackson - The Other Detroit
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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