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.