On June 28, 1945, the Detroit Free Press, New York Times and other leading newspapers throughout the world noted the death of Benjamin Briscoe. “BENJAMIN BRISCOE, President of First Maxwell Company, Financier That Launched David Buick’s Automotive Endeavors and Founder of United States Motor Company Dies.” So, who was Benjamin Briscoe, “the founder of the domestic American automobile industry” and the man behind numerous pioneering automobile manufacturers?
Briscoe was born in 1867 to a family of successful entrepreneurs and inventors. His grandfather was a railroad mechanic that was attributed with numerous innovations, and his father was the founder of Michigan Nut and Bolt, a company that produced an array of products using machines of his design. At age eighteen, Benjamin Briscoe using his own money established Benjamin Briscoe & Company that used metal stamping to manufacture buckets, barrels, a variety of cans and even bathtubs. And that led to an association with David Dunbar Buick that would later prove pivotal to the development of a pioneering automotive endeavor.
Buick was an innovative manufacturer of plumbing fixtures with more than a dozen patents to his credit, but profit remained elusive until Briscoe began supplying a wide array of related stamped metal supplies on credit. And then Buick perfected and patented a successful process for affixing porcelain to metal, expanded his endeavors, and began manufacturing toilets, sinks, bathtubs and related goods. Success was imminent.
Shortly after entering into the arrangement with Buick, Briscoe sold his business for a tidy profit and established the Detroit Galvanizing and Sheet Metal Works, and using a machine of his invention, began manufacturing corrugated pipe as well as sheet metal components for stoves, ranges and furnaces. In 1900, Briscoe’s brother Frank joined the company that was then reorganized as the Briscoe Manufacturing Company, and the product line was expanded to include cast iron radiators and copper units used to facilitate the cooling of industrial engines. It was the later which led to a project for Ransom E. Olds.
First, however, Briscoe had to overcome a major hurdle. The Detroit bank used by Briscoe had failed which in turn left Briscoe’s company facing bankruptcy. Undaunted by this potential disaster Briscoe brazenly, without introduction or endorsement, traveled to New York City, and talked his way into a meeting with financiers at J.P. Morgan and Company that included J.P. Morgan himself. Briscoe returned to Detroit with a commitment of a $100,000 investment in his company.
The arrangement with Olds was rooted in disaster. R.E. Olds chief engineer Jonathan Maxwell had perfected an improved cooling system for the Oldsmobile. However, a devastating factory fire in 1901 had decimated the company forcing Olds to seek an outside supplier for a radiator and so he approached Briscoe to negotiate the purchase of 4,500 radiators. Briscoe quickly closed the deal but, in the process, had negotiated for the manufacture of gas tanks as well.
In 1899, David Buick answered the Siren’s call that was the infant auto industry, sold the plumbing supply company and turned his attentions to the development of a valve in head engine, the first step in what he envisioned would become an automobile manufacturing company. By late 1902, Buick had exhausted his funds and yet his prototype being built in partnership with Walter Marr was not ready for display. As a result, there was little hope of attracting investors. Fortuitously Buick turned to Briscoe who agreed to forgive an outstanding loan, to pay off Buick’s other outstanding debts, and to provide the funds needed to finish the prototype. As per their agreement, Briscoe would become the owner of the completed vehicle, but Buick would use it to solicit for investors to initiate manufacturing.
Briscoe would eventually loan Buick an additional $1500. To protect his investment this arrangement included the stipulation that if the loan were not repaid within twelve months, Briscoe would become the sole owner of Buick Motor Company.
As Buick focused on development of the fledgling automobile company, Briscoe met with Jonathan Maxwell, the former Olds engineer that was now planning to launch a company of his own, and asked that he evaluate Buick’s project. Sensing an opportunity Maxwell noted the various flaws in the Buick design and presented Briscoe with a business plan for the establishment of a company to manufacture Maxwell’s automobile.
This partnership would lead to the building of two automotive empires, one of which would become the foundation for Chrysler. It would also lead to the establishment of two companies that forever transformed the international auto industry, the founding of an automobile company with a quirky claim to fame, and Briscoe’s diversification into an array of endeavors that would underpin many aspects of the infant auto industry.
The eccentricity of Julian Brown made manifest in the Julian. Photo authors collection.
The infancy of the auto industry was an era of swashbuckling entrepreneurs, dreamers and swindlers. It was a period of unprecedented societal evolution and technological advancement. And it was an almost magical opportunity for eccentrics and visionaries to craft their vision of transportations future.
Alexander T. Brown made a fortune as an inventor, an industrialist and as an investor in a diverse array of automotive endeavors including Brown-Lipe Gear Company and H.H. Franklin, a leading manufacturer of air-cooled automobiles. His son Julian benefitted greatly from his father’s wealth and enjoyed the best automobiles available. And, in spite of time invested in development of a reputation for being a leading New York playboy, he also obtained a first-class education with a focus on mechanical engineering.
In 1911, with backing from his father and his father’s friends as investors he launched the Julian Motor Company. There are scant details about the six-cylinder engine that he developed for use in trucks, automobiles and boats but it was billed as the most expensive engine in America. Needless to say, this was not a suitable basis for the launching of a successful marketing campaign and within one year the company had closed its doors.
In 1918, Julian launched a new endeavor, a company organized to manufacture “an exciting and revolutionary automobile.” It was truly a manifestation of his eccentricity. First, there was the engine, a “Twin Three” that he had designed. This V6 was set in a specially designed chassis that allowed for a 21-inch ground clearance, not overly practical in an era of deeply rutted roads. Incredibly the entire car weighed a mere 300-pounds (136 kilograms).
The Julian Motor Car Company had been organized with the goal being manufacture of the radical vehicle. However, the project never progressed beyond construction of one prototype and this company also closed within one year. This did not deter Julian Brown. He had money and he was a dreamer, an eccentric visionary.
In 1925 he unveiled another vehicle and launched the Julian Brown Development Company. This car was unlike anything else on the road and the June 4, 1925 issue of The Automobile / Automotive Industries devoted several pages to the vehicle.
After extensive study of radial aeronautical engines, and the Adams-Farwell automobile that had been produced with a radial engine around 1905, he developed an engine of his own design. “The engine is a six-cylinder fixed radial air-cooled type mounted at the rear of the chassis; it drives through a combination sliding pinion and planetary type of transmission giving four forward and two reverse speeds. Each of the rear axle shafts is connected through a universal joint to one of the side gears of the differential. The wheel bearings are mounted on tubes which terminate in a ball joint over the universal joint, which is fastened to the housing of the powerplant and differential.” Another unusual feature was four-wheel brakes that could be adjusted with thumb screws on the brake pedal.
Styling was somewhat antiquated. Fleetwood developed the custom body designed by Brown using aluminum panels over wood framing. The interior also was a reflection of his eccentricity. The drivers’ seat was centered in front and immediately behind was a bench for two passengers. Additionally, there were two folding seats on the sides behind the driver.
This venture proved to be far more successful than previous endeavors in that six vehicles were hand built and sold before the company declared bankruptcy. As with previous enterprises the last of Julian Brown’s attempt to build an automobile ended with extensive, costly and lengthy lawsuits.
Exactly why the Aluminum Company of America decided to diversify and initiate plans for the development of an automobile is a mystery. The timing is equally curious as in late 1919 the world was gripped by an intense post war economic recession. Another fascinating aspect of the project is the fact that the company retained the services of Laurence H. Pomeroy to oversee development.
Born in London, England, Pomeroy had apprenticed as an engineer with the North London Railway Company. In 1905 he accepted a position with Vauxhall Ironworks Company and in late 1907 was tasked with a project to redesign one of the company’s engines to allow for Vauxhall to compete in the 1908 RAC 2000-mile trial run. The cars modified by Pomeroy won several classes and as a result he was promoted to the post of Works Manager. In 1910 he modified a 20hp Vauxhall that reached speeds of 100 miles per hour at Brooklands.
This was also the year that he designed a car to participate in the German Prince Henry Tours that were held from 1905 to 1911. This would become the basis for the now legendary Vauxhall “Prince Henry” models manufactured by Vauxhall from 1911 to 1914. These limited production models were internationally acclaimed for speed as well as durability. In 1914, H. Massac Buist, a leading automotive journalist noted that, “Of the three Vauxhalls which ran in the Prince Henry Tour, two got full marks for reliability, and all did about 65 miles an hour in the speed trial, which was really quite good for that engine with a four-seated body and a full complement of passengers. So many people desired cars of this special type that in 1911 it was made a regular product of the Vauxhall works, and, during the last year or so a new style has sprung up. In this the engine dimensions are 95 by 140 mm., the old bore-stroke ratio having penalized the car under many hill-climbing formulae. All such formulae which do not involve the cubic capacity of the engine are by common acceptance considered advantageous to engines with small bore and long stroke. The chassis follows the lines of the original Prince Henry but has rather a longer wheelbase.”
Pomeroy was also an early proponent for the use of aluminum in automobiles. However, in this he was not alone. Numerous automobile manufacturing companies, most notably Franklin of Syracuse, New York, were pioneering the use of the lightweight metal to enhance the performance of their durable air-cooled vehicles. Still, the car envisioned by the Aluminum Company of America, was to be a true industry leader. The Pomeroy, as the car was named, was to utilize aluminum in eighty-five percent of its construction including body panels, crankcase, transmission case and dashboard.
Purportedly several hundred thousand dollars was spent on the top-secret project before six cars were completed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1921. The four-cylinder cars were vigorously tested before their introduction to the public the following year. Then arrangement was made with the luxury automobile manufacturer Pierce-Arrow to develop an extended wheelbase, 133-inches versus 126-inches, model powered by a 75-horsepower, aluminum six-cylinder engine. It was a logical partnership as Pierce-Arrow was another early proponent of aluminum having made extensive use of the metal in the 1916 Model 66.
I am confident that most of us are in the same boat. Every morning we put on a brave face and step out to meet a new day that is unlike any day ever experienced before. We hide our frustrations, fears and concerns behind false bravado. We desperately cling to the illusion of normal and avoid the reality by surrounding ourselves with people who won’t challenge us to think and who will affirm what we believe. We try to avoid asking the question what now, especially if we are an old timer that will have to fully reinvent themselves as a matter of survival.
And that takes me to the next project. I am currently working on a serious of programs to share what has been learned in recent months about changing direction after a persons 60th birthday. I will be sharing ideas, educational opportunities, networking suggestions and other ways to ensure continued survival. This is not to say I have all of the answers. However, I have more than I did several months ago, and really believe some inspiration can be provided.
At Jim Hinckley’s Americathis year started with such promise. I had a new book to promote and a slate of speaking engagements in three countries that stretched out to October. An interview for a British publication had given me a new moniker – “America’s storyteller.” Together with our tag line – Telling People Where to Go Since 1990 – I had marketing and promotional ideas that were only limited by the imagination.
On February 7, I kicked off the speaking tour to a packed house at a museum fund raiser in the historic El Garces Hotel in Needles, California. I was pleasantly surprised to find people had traveled from Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix for the presentation. Even better, the reviews were favorable, the audience engaged and the positive comments flowed freely.
The next four weeks were a blur. My pa passed away, I picked up three new advertising partners, confirmed two more speaking engagements (one in Spokane), revamped the entire website, finalized a partial sponsor for attendance of the European Route 66 Festival in Zlin, Czechia, resolved a dental issue and received notice that my new book, Murder and Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66 was being nominated for recognition at the Independent Publishers Award. And then it all started to unravel.
First there was a steady trickle of tour company cancellations that quickly became a torrent. Then I got sick but didn’t meet testing requirements for COVID 19 even though my temperature was ranging from 101 to 103.9 degrees and I could breathe. Then the speaking engagement cancellations began coming in, and as businesses closed, I suspended arrangements with advertising sponsors as a means of providing what assistance I could. To subsidize their continued promotion I began pushing the crowdfunding initiative and developing unique exclusive content to add value to the commitment of support.
And that takes us to today. The Sunday morning live stream Coffee With Jim program continues to grow in popularity, and generates a bit of income; tips, crowdfunding and small business advertisers. I am writing feature articles on automotive history for MotoringNZ, a New Zealand publication. These are linked to the 5 Minutes With Jim audio podcast. On line book sales have been anemic (issues courtesy COVID 19). In short, I am having to almost completely abandon my work with tour companies and the live speaking engagements. An online presence has never been more important, for survival for the author, photographer, artist or small business owner with e-commerce opportunity.
What now? The hardest part of answering that question is facing cold hard facts, casting off preconceived ideas and seeking real information. For me this has required an honest evaluation of tourism trends. First, international tourism to the United States will take more than a year or two to recover, largely resultant of our inability to get a handle on the COVID 19 pandemic. Staycations are the foreseeable future. But even these will be restricted because of the ongoing pandemic. So, again, developing an online presence is crucial.
Stay tuned. This old dog is learning new tricks. And I plan on sharing those with you, and perhaps, you can share a few with me. Mi amigos, we are in this together. Aside from on online presence, the next most important item for survival in the brave new world is partnerships.