The Cartercar, not to be confused with the Cartermobile manufactured in Hannibal, Missouri or the Cartermobile manufactured in Hyattsville, Maryland, was promoted in marketing campaigns as “The Car of A Thousand Speeds” and “The car with no gears to strip, no clutch to slip, no universal joints to break, no shaft drive to twist, no bevel gears to wear and howl, no noise to annoy.” It was an innovative car, to say the very least. It was the brain child of Byron J. Carter, a visionary career was cut short after an accident that led to the development of the electric automobile starter.
Carter was born during the American Civil War on August 17, 1863, in Jackson County, Michigan. In 1885, Byron Carter established the Steam Job Printing and Rubber Stamp Manufacturing business in at 167 Main Street in Jackson, Michigan. Jackson. In 1894, to capitalize on the tsunami of interest in bicycling, Carter, with his father, started a bicycle sales and repair company on the corner of Courtland and Jackson streets. Two years later, he launched the United States Tag Company, a printing business.
Even though there was still tremendous national interest in bicycles, it was the automobile that was the primary subject of interest among entrepreneurs, tinkerers and investors with vision. Carter had developed a working knowledge and interest in steam engines during his tenure with the Steam Job Printing Company. One of his first patents, in 1902, was for a three-cylinder steam engine. This was to be the cornerstone for the Jackson Automobile Company.
His first automotive endeavor was an experimental car with a gasoline engine that he built in 1899. His second endeavor was the Carter, a steamer built by the Michigan Automobile Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As an historic footnote the first automobile purchased by Buffalo Bill Cody was manufactured by this company.
In July of 1902, Carter returned to Jackson and entered into discussions with George A. Mathews, owner of the Fuller Buggy Company and the director of the Jackson City Bank, and Charles Lewis, president of the Lewis Spring & Axle Company as well as Union Bank. A partnership was formed and the Jackson Automobile Company was born.
The first model produced by the company was the Jaxon, a steam powered car that used Carter’s patented engine. This was a one year old model but the company would manufacture gasoline powered cars, and trucks, including four-wheel drive models, for two decades. The cars would be marketed with the slogan “No hill to steep, no sand to deep.” Carter’s association with the company and his position as manufacturing superintendent was short lived as he was unable to sell his partners on the merits of his friction drive transmission.
In 1905, Carter organized the Motorcar Company in Jackson but relocated the enterprise to Detroit shortly afterwards after securing investment capital. Shortly after relocation the company was reorganized as Cartercar but before serious production could commence, manufacturing was transferred to the former Pontiac Spring & Wagon Works in Pontiac, Michigan. The car received positive reviews in the press, and owners offered glowing testimony.
Cartercar production showed slow but steady growth; 101 cars in 1906, 264 in 1907 and 323 in 1908. What might have been can only be conjectured. The Cartercar would soldier on until 1915 as a part of General Motors. However, Carter’s visionary talents were cut short when on April 6, 1908 he died after developing pneumonia that resulted from injuries sustained when the hand crank on a car he was attempting to start on the Belle Isle bridge near Detroit spun backwards striking him in the face.
Fittingly, Carter’s death would inspire automotive innovation that transformed the industry. We find the story in a biography of Charles Kettering, the man behind leaded gasoline, the air cooled Chevrolet debacle that led to the first automotive recall and the electric starter. “In the summer of 1910 a woman driving an automobile across the old Belle Island Bridge in Detroit, stalled her engine…. A man who happened by just then stopped and offered to crank the woman’s engine for her. He was Byron J. Carter, maker of the automobile called the Cartercar. Unfortunately the spark was not retarded. So the engine kicked back and the flying crank broke Carter’s jaw…. Carter was not a young man, and complications arising out of the accident caused his death. Now, it happened that Carter was a friend of Henry Leland, head man at Cadillac. Soon afterward, in Leland’s office, Kettering remarked that he thought it would be possible to do away with the hand crank, sometimes called the ‘arm-strong starter,’ by cranking cars electrically. In Leland’s distress at the loss of his friend Carter, he took up the suggestion at once.”