It was a short-lived venture. Few then and even fewer now know it existed. In spite of this obscurity, the short-lived Biddle Motor Car Company, Inc. of Philadelphia made quite a splash in its day.
The initial concept has been tried time and again, often with similar results. The Biddle was to be a medium sized car, “individually made and thoroughly refined” for the discriminating few at an affordable price. In the language of the auto industry, this meant the car would be quite ordinary with the exception of its styling that would give the illusion it was extraordinary.
The initial models, a touring car, and a roadster, introduced in mid October of 1915 were styled with “foreign lines.” Under the skin, it was an assembled automobile, a collection of parts from numerous sources.
Buda built its four-cylinder engine, the high-tension magneto ignition was by Dixie, and the electrics were by Westinghouse. Warner supplied the clutch as well as transmission, the Stewart Vacuum system provided fuel feed, and the carburetor was by Zenith.
As promised, the styling radiated distinction. However, for the discriminating eye it was obvious that here too liberties had been taken and much had been borrowed from other companies. The radiator was given a sharp “vee” that was truly unique – unless one was familiar with products built by the German manufacturer Mercedes. Dependant on the angle of view there were hints of Rolls Royce, Peerless, and Packard.
The press chose to overlook these shortcomings and lavished praise on the new car from Philadelphia, “…as compared with the average run of bodies offered the Biddle is a marked departure from anything even approaching conventionality.”
The reality of it was the Biddle represented dependable transportation. However, unlike the more plebian vehicles of the era such as Buick the Biddle managed to accomplish this with an appearance that made it appear to be a luxury car. Unfortunately, the initial price, $1865, priced it out of the range of transportation car. Moreover, the car was not up to the standards of cars such as Hudson that sold for a similar price.
In spite of this small matter, the company plodded along apparently oblivious to this flaw. Perhaps they could afford to do so as initial sales allowed the company to turn a modest profit.
For 1918, the company found an even more novel way of defying the odds and still turning a profit – offer but two styles of production models with little promotion. Then pour a large percentage of resources in to advertising Biddle as a one-stop source for cars built to the customers specifications.
Incredibly the custom bodied Biddle vehicles attracted such attention the resultant orders made it difficult for the company to meet the demand. There were phaetons with cane work panels on the sides, cars with leather fenders and touring models with two interchangeable tops. One had side exhausts of polished brass and another was painted bright canary yellow.
By this juncture, management had concluded that the key to their success was this individuality. In the instruction manual that year it was noted, “Many excellent motor cars are to be found today, but the Biddle can scarcely be found to compete or to compare directly with any other make. If the Biddle conception were but to add another car to an already overcrowded market, neither the purchaser nor the maker benefit to an unusual degree.”
Perhaps management had come to believe the promotional hype. On the other hand, perhaps it was the rising cost of production. For whatever reason the price of the Biddle began to rise exponentially – production models that ranged from $2200 to $3900 in 1917 leapt to a range between $2600 and $4100 in 1918.
However, there was another change at Biddle; the company was now offering truly unique automobiles that combined luxury, styling, and performance. The 1918 Model K was available in either sport or touring model. The engine was the highly advanced Duesenberg 350.5 c.i.d. four cylinder.
Now that the Biddle was coming into its own, a boost in promotion came from suppliers. Quiet often these suppliers, even Duesenberg, used the Biddle in their advertisements.
Nevertheless, the Biddle was a car built on illusion. Biddle brochures for 1919 noted agencies in seven cities as well as a foreign trade department in New York City. Impressive unless one dug deeper and found the company was producing less than five hundred vehicles per year.
By this date, the ability of an automobile manufacture to survive with low key, limited production was drawing to a close. Before the end of 1922, the Biddle slipped from the stage with little more than a passing obituary in a trade magazine, “The Biddle car enjoyed an excellent reputation and the failure of the company to survive was considered unfortunate.”
The final footnote in the Biddle story is that a surprising number of these cars still survive – testimony to how well built they were and how timeless their styling was.
To say the very least 2007, in our household, has been one for the record books. A quick summary would read something like this; two book contracts, acceptance by Cars & Parts as a regular contributor, my son was married, I became a grandfather, we renovated our front room, we had a water leak in the wall and renovated a large portion of the front room, and I am ending the year staring into the abyss of turning 50.
Other memorable moments of the year would include finalizing the needed adjustments and repairs to make Barney the Wonder Truck(I often wonder about this truck) a dependable daily driver. After several small forays along original alignments of Route 66/The National Old Trails Highway it seemed appropriate to make the official maiden voyage on the last incarnation of that iconic highway.
The planned trip was to be a hair shy of 100 miles, from Kingman to Peach Springs and back again. In Hackberry I stopped to check for fuel leaks as the needle on the gasoline gauge seemed to be dropping almost as fast as the popularity of George Bush. After church, before starting home, I again checked for fuel leaks.
The final tally for fuel economy was 11.25 miles per gallon. So a few weeks later I checked and adjusted everything from timing to the carburetor and set out, again on Route 66, for the Black Mountains. It was refreshing to see my hard work had paid off, the fuel economy on this trip had skyrocketed to 12 miles per gallon.
I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and this truck was a gift, a real bonafide blessing. This 1968 Adventurer was given to me as payment for a favor and in memory of a friend. Enough about Barny (how the truck received its moniker and other tales are posted in the archives for this blog).
My primary mode of transport for 2007, and most of the past six years, is a well worn but dependable 1988 Ford Crown Victoria LX Country Squire station wagon. I can honestly say this has been one of the most dependable, most versatile vehicles yet owned.
It is a near perfect blend of utility and economy with mileage, on the highway, often topping 23 miles per gallon. This tried and true road warrior has served as home on rainy nights high in the mountains near Flagstaff, has hauled family, friends, and luggage to all manner of events from weddings to funerals. It has faithfully transported Christmas trees, lumber, musical equipment, hundreds of pounds of canned goods for area food banks, hitchhikers with dogs, and even an injured bicyclist with the remains of the bicycle.
That is the good news. The bad news is the frustration I have with most every automobile manufactured since twelve volt electrical systems became standard, they replaced the generator with alternators and it was decided pick up trucks needed automatic transmissions and power steering – there is not a damn thing you can fix on this car. If it quits along the road it will most likely be without warning and will be unrepairable outside of a garage.
With that said I am in a quandary. The car is need of some small but possibly costly repair, namely potentially serious oil leaks.
In real dollars the car sporting its blue camo paint scheme (to anyone who asks about this splotchy paint scheme I inform them this car can be parked in any lake without being noticed) is worth maybe $500. However, if evaluated in regards to replacement value then that figure would be doubled and then doubled again.
With this pending decision swirling through my mind I again turn thoughts toward aquisition of a Studebaker. Anyone know where I can find a good Studebaker pick up with overdrive or a Studebaker station wagin with the retractable rear roof?
When it comes to transportation many who know me use the word cheap. I prefer frugal. Admittedly I may be stretching that point when it comes to my wife’s car.
This veteran of the highway, a well worn, down at the heels but wholly dependable 1973 Olds 88 sedan, has served us well for almost fourteen years. The most costly items replaced in that time have been tires. I change the oil and grease the old beast often, and have replaced the usual assortment of batteries, alternators, brakes and water pumps in that time. Overall, however, I believe we are close to recouping our initial $350.00 investment.
As with so many of our vehicles paint and such adornment is often secondary. I refer to this cars appearance as junk yard camouflage – I can park it in any junk yard in the nation and it will completely blend in with its surroundings.
In the grand scheme of things 2007 has unequivocally been the worst year of my life for reasons unnecessary to delve into here. It has also been the best year of my life. With that in mind I eagerly await 2008 with a hint of apprehension, a touch of eager anticipation, a mix of child like enthusiasm and a great deal of excitement.
It is my sincere hope that each and every reader will be richly blessed in the year to come. Thank you for making this a wonderful year!
Left – David Dunbar Buick, the man behind the icon.
Right – Even for 1904 this Buick logo seems rather dated.
*illustrations courtesy of General Motors, Buick Communications.
Edward Murphy was anxious to move his successful Pontiac Buggy Company into the modern era; after all, it was 1906. Alanson Brush had proven himself a veritable genius in the field of automotive engineering with work at Cadillac to such a degree he established an engineering consultant business in Detroit.
In their initial meeting Murphy’s enthusiasm and business acumen led Brush to allow him a peek at his designs for a small two-cylinder automobile that Cadillac had rejected. Murphy saw the answer to his dreams, immediately purchased the plans and in 1907 organized the Oakland Motor Car Company.
Lackluster sales after introduction in 1908 led to a dramatic change and for 1909, the Oakland exclusively featured four cylinder engines. However, in a whirlwind of change the success or failure of the new design was swept aside.
In April of 1909 through a complicated series of stock swaps, options transfers and cash Oakland was drawn into the fold known as General Motors that had recently been established by another buggy man; William Durant. Five months later, at the age of forty-four, Edward Murphy died suddenly.
As a division of General Motors, the Oakland soared and even became an industry leader in innovation and technological innovation. This as well as an ever-increasing record for durable performance sent sales ever higher.
By 1910, the Oakland had taken first place honors at twenty-five of the most grueling reliability and hill climbing events. In addition, also claimed by Oakland were speed records.
“The Car with a Conscience,” as it was promoted in 1913, featured a brutish 334 c.i.d. 6 cylinder engine on a 130-inch wheelbase. Standard equipment included electric lights and starter. For eye appeal at the prow was a dramatically “vee” radiator.
Even though the cars were not cheap, they sold well. The base model “45” with four-cylinder engine started at $1,400 and the six at $2,600.
By 1915, Oakland was one of the crown jewels for the General Motors empire. In addition to an improved six and four cylinder model an all new V-8 powered Model 50 was introduced.
The shortage of materials during the war, quality control issues (some vehicles had to repaired simply to get them off the factory property), and corporate intrigue with Durant’s return to the helm were to be seeds for the demise of Oakland. Another issue of grave concern was in regards to haphazard production that resulted in ten vehicles being completed one day and only ten the day after.
In the opening years of the 1920’s General Motors was in dire straights. Durant again been removed from control of the company but not before plunging it into a near critical state of financial duress.
Alfred Sloan Jr. took command and began immediate cost cutting evaluation. Among the proposals on the table was elimination or consolidation of several divisions; among those to be cut were Oakland and Chevrolet.
At the last minute, both companies were given a reprieve. For Oakland this translated to an entirely revamped vehicle that included an entirely redesigned engine, four wheel brakes, automatic spark advance and the all new Duco paint system in royal blue. The new Oakland was billed as, “True Blue Oakland.”
As GM began to recover an all out assault on every level and every manufacturer was launched. Oakland was initially set between Chevrolet and Buick but by 1930 with the launching of LaSalle as a low priced companion to Cadillac, Marquette as a companion to Buick, Viking as a companion to Olds and Pontiac for Oakland it was becoming lost in crowd.
In addition, there was the simple matter of the Pontiac being a near perfect blend of performance, styling, and price, which translated into sales. In fact, in the introductory year of 1926 Pontiac sales established a new record for maiden year vehicles.
Oakland lumbered on and for 1927; a revamped series introduced with appropriate patriotic flare was the All American Six. Nevertheless, no amount of advertisement whether promoting patriotism or Oakland’s proud lineage changed the fact it was really a Pontiac in bright trim. This, however, did not justify a price difference of more than one hundred percent.
The Oakland All American was short lived as it became painfully apparent that the entire division was a drain and duplication of precious resources. Nevertheless, there was to be a swan song for the Oakland that would allow the company to pass from the stage in grand style.
The 1931 Oakland Eight was more than just an automobile with subtly stately styling. Mechanically there was a synchromesh transmission, found only in luxury cars until this time, a technologically advanced V8 engine, steering, and some of the best brakes in the GM stable.
With the hard times of the Great Depression, ravaging the industry GM returned to the frugal, hard, cost cutting decisions as they had in the early 1920’s. For Oakland, the stay of execution given during that earlier time was rescinded and the company quietly fell by the wayside with its resources, including the V8 engine, being rolled into the Pontiac Motor Company.
As General Motors once again faces stormy waters and the future of the legendary namesake of the mighty warrior Pontiac hangs in the balance historic perspective is needed. With that thought in mind the Oakland story could serve as the ghost of Christmas past.
Over the years I have written for numerous publications, about my love for the back roads of America. Even though the Interstate highways have forever altered America it is the back roads that offer the best opportunities for discovering, or rediscovering, what fun a road trip once was.
For the younger set, those under forty, it may come as a surprise to learn that there once was, and in some rare instances still is, a non-generic world. When I speak on this subject I am always amazed by how many of this generation ask questions as though I had been talking about traveling by Conestoga wagon across the trackless waste.
Granted, traveling during that prehistoric time, say between 1955 and 1970, had its disadvantages. Imagine Highway 93, the portion from Kingman to Wickenburg, with, say, twice the traffic. That was the way most of the major highways, especially Route 66, was during their heyday.
Then there was the matter of summer travel. Air conditioning was a fairly rare option in most automobiles of that period so we, not really knowing different, simply lived with the heat as did countless generations before.
Lodging and food were often the biggest gamble. A motel, or hotel, could turn out to be a real dive complete with bugs, broken furniture and paper thin walls, the reason many chose roadside camping, or it could be a memorable experience with friendly owners that invited you in for breakfast, asked you to grab a cantaloupe from the garden before you left or helped you out of a sticky situation, the result of a breakdown. In one instance, sometime around 1963, we stopped at a motel in Ashfork and were asked to limit water use as it was brought in by rail car.
Even though the chains, such as McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s, were starting to explode upon the scene they had yet to crowd out the old-fashioned mom and pop establishments. As a result you could eat meatloaf that made you nervous because of the corral full of horses immediately in back or you could find a retired pastry chef making pies just because he liked to stay busy.
Regional drink specialties were another reason a kid looked forward to travel in those bygone times. One extremely hot sticky night in the delta country of Mississippi we stopped for gas at a place that looked as though it had changed little since it had been built to serve the needs of motorists traveling the dusty roads in their Model T Ford’s. The smells of the south during the summer are truly unique but my fondest memory of that night was the wonderful cool taste of a locally bottled peach soda.
That was another advantage of traveling without air conditioning, the smells that would waft through the car. Some, obviously, were not particularly pleasant but others, such as in the evening after a rain in the desert or in the farm country of the deep south, are beyond description.
I realize that some things change and that there is no way to hold back the hands of time. It is for that reason that I wax nostalgic.
The opportunities to experience these one of a kind adventures, or to allow our children to, are fast disappearing. The family owned eateries and lodging establishments are fast giving way to the generic chains in small town America. In some places the combination of bypassed highways and a dwindling population can even make it difficult to find a place to stay, eat or get fuel especially in the evenings.
And, to be perfectly honest, air conditioning, guaranteed room or meal quality and highways that are more than designated demolition derby tracks have made traveling better. But, like the cars that travel the modern roads, there is something missing – individuality.
With this somewhat long-winded narrative as the foundation I would like to suggest some routes that offer the best of both worlds and at least offer the opportunity to find modern conveniences without much effort.
Heading my list has to be Highway 54 from Tucumcari in New Mexico to Highway 36/Interstate 72, a few miles west of Springfield, Illinois. Lots of small town America, proximity to the Interstate system as well as larger communities allow for indulgence in modern generic eating or lodging and a number of truly American stops (the world’s largest hand dug well in Greensburg, Kansas) place this one in my top ten list.
Closer to home is Highway 180 from Holbrook, Arizona, to Deming, New Mexico. If I were rating a road for sheer beauty and time capsule businesses this would be number one. However, as there is little access to the Interstate once you leave Holbrook, there is little opportunity to take advantage of modern road trip “conveniences” I rate it as number two.
Another that falls into this category, just a bit farther down the scale on roadside beauty, is Highway 60 between Show Low, Arizona, and Socorro, New Mexico. If you try this one I highly recommend a return trip via I25 south, then state highway 152 through the Black Range to Silver City and Highway 180 north to Holbrook. If you enjoy scenery, taking pictures, real ghost towns, wild life and lots of mountains I guarantee this to be a trip without equal.
For a shorter adventure of similar stature, without the ghost towns and absolute wilderness, try Mormon Lake Road (paved) south from Flagstaff to state highway 87. Run south to Payson and turn east on state highway 260. This will take you to Springerville where you can catch Highway 180 north to Holbrook.