By Jim Hinckley
Milton Reeves personified the visionary that saw a future beyond sideshow curiosity for the smoking, clanking horseless carriage in the closing of the nineteenth century. In the automobile, he envisioned the ultimate expression of personal freedom. However, as with so many of these early dreamers his vision of that future was, to say the very least, a bit different.
His initial endeavor in the realm of automobile design and production made its debut in 1896 as a rolling display for his variable speed transmission. In summary, Reeve’s transmission was a series of tapered pulleys upon which the drive belt rode that provided a nearly unlimited possibility for uninterrupted speeds. Designed for industrial application the device promised to be quite profitable for the Reeves Pulley Company provided it could be creatively marketed, hence his Motocycle.
As intended, the Motocycle attracted a great deal of attention to Reeves as well as his company. Unfortunately, the attention garnered was not what he had planned for or intended. The four-wheeled monstrosity, powered by a Sintz engine, terrified horses and enraged their owners everywhere it appeared resulting in the Reeves name often spoken in conjunction with a string of colorful invectives.
In an effort to redirect the focus, Reeves devised a two-fold plan. The first was an ingenious baffle system to quiet the engine exhaust, the first automotive muffler. The second was to obtain a life-size papier-mache horse from a former blacksmith and mount the front shoulders, neck, and head to his vehicle.
Reeves first automotive venture is less than an historical footnote today. However, the concept of his variable speed transmission received a new lease on life in the new Dodge Caliber.
In 1897, Reeves introduced a new and improved Motocycle. The muffler, engine, and transmission were the same as on the initial model. However, instead of a carriage and horse head this vehicle featured a polished ebony body. Reeves had accomplished his goal of drawing attention to his transmission, and with the receipt of orders for five similar vehicles inadvertently became an automobile manufacturer.
The first model completed was an exact duplicate with exception of the addition of dual chain drive. The following models utilized an air-cooled engine of Reeves design.
His next automotive creation was a bus of staggering proportions. The axles were seven feet long, the wheels were six feet high, and through a complicated series of pulleys, a double chain drive system was applied to both rear wheels.
In mid 1898, Reeves abandoned automotive production and focused on the manufacturer of his air-cooled engine and several versions of his variable speed transmissions. Shortly after the turn of the century, improvement to transmission design rendered his transmission obsolete for automotive application.
Reeves may have concentrated on development rather than production if it had not been for a manufacturer with grand vision but little capital. In late 1905, Reeves received an order for five hundred engines, an entire year’s production, from Alexander Malcomson who had recently established a company to build the Aerocar.
As the Aerocar venture proved to be little more than a flash in the pan Reeves turned, once again, to automobile production in an effort to profit from the large number of engines on hand. In this endeavor, he again chose to use production as a means to further his experimentation.
Some models featured four cylinder engines, others six cylinder. A few were chain drive with the smaller versions being shaft drive. In 1907, he expanded the available models with a two cylinder, high wheel “Go Buggy.”
Automobile production and development continued through mid 1909 but the increasing success, and resultant profits, of the manufacture of the VST industrial pulley transmission led Reeves to abandon automobiles in 1910. However, there would be one more automotive chapter for Reeves.
In 1911, to prove his theory that there was a direct correlation in riding comfort of an automobile and the number of wheels it had, modified a 1910 Overland into an eight wheel Octauto. Surely, this incredible automobile with a 180-inch wheelbase and overall length of 248 inches garnered a great deal of attention with its first public showing at the Indianapolis 500 that year.
The next endeavor to test his theory was the Sexauto, a six-wheeled behemoth. The first version was a modification of the Octauto; the second built on a modified Stutz chassis was no more successful than the first.
A visionary who saw things at the other end of the spectrum was Cadwallader Kelsey. A marketing genius who devised the concept of the filmed automotive commercial, was among the first to devise promotion targeting the female motorist and was the driving force behind the initial success of Maxwell-Briscoe, Kelsey envisioned an automobile that was extremely durable, that was as easy to repair as a Ford Model T, but that sold for less.
With that concept in mind and the skills garnered as sales manager for Maxwell, Kelsey went independent in 1910 to produce the Motorette. Kelsey’s diminutive automobile, with a mere 74-inch wheelbase and 56 ¾-inch front tread, was a technological wonder.
Amazing stability was accomplished with a front axle that utilized an anti sway bar that forced the full elliptic front springs to act together. The single rear wheel, connected to the chassis by a pair of inverted elliptic springs, further improved stability in addition to providing an extraordinarily smooth ride.
The entire chain driven vehicle weighed just 900 pounds. The two cylinder, two cycle water cooled engine designed by Kelsey was as advanced as the rest of the vehicle and was proven to be quite durable.
The promotional stunts devised to promote Maxwell were polished and improved for the Motorette. To demonstrate its towing capacity a stock Motorette pulled a 5700-pound Alcoa truck through Philadelphia. To promote its smooth ride another was put into service by Hillers Poultry to deliver eggs over rough rural roads.
The demise of the Motorette was not the result of poor sales or even demand but sabotage. To meet increasing demand in 1911 Kelsey contracted with Lycoming for the production of engines for the Motorette. Shortly after, a labor strike paralyzed that company leaving Kelsey with no engines for the completed chassis. This was the first blow.
The second came with the settlement of the strike and delivery of the engines. The large number of back orders was resultant in a few short cuts, namely installation of engines without adequate inspection. As it turned out each engine delivered had sand in the crankcase and soon the company was inundated with customer complaints, demands for refunds and vaporizing of sales.
Kelsey and Reeves, two forgotten dreamers, two prophets who saw more in the smoking clanking horseless carriage than mere sideshow curiosity. There were not alone. From its inception, the automobile has served as a canvas for visionaries, a safe haven for eccentrics to make their dreams of the future manifest.
Who today remembers the contributions of Reeves or Kelsey? How about Charles Kettering and his air cooled Chevrolets that resulted in the creation of leaded gas, Ralph Teetor, the creator of cruise control or Robert Stempel and his development of the catalytic converter as well as PCV system?
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