The line between visionary and eccentric is often one that overlaps. Among the many things that make the formative years of the American automobile industry fascinating are manifestations that blur that line.
On the visionary side of that line would be the optional swing away, electrically heated steering wheel available on the 1917 McFarlan. An example of the eccentric side would be the exceedingly odd eight-wheeled Octauto, or six-wheeled Sextoauto, devised by Milton O. Reeves.
Straddling the line would be the automobiles built by Benjamin Briscoe in Jackson, Michigan. The 1914 Briscoe models sported a single Cyclops headlight mounted dead center in the upper radiator shell and featured laminated papier-mâché body panels on wood framing “to ease with repair.” The 1916 models were sold with four cylinder engines and a promotion proclaiming, “Buy the Four. Use it a month. If then you decide you want the Eight, simply pay the difference and a small installation fee.”
Often, what appears as manifestations of eccentricity today was representative of innovative technology during the first decades of the industry. Promoted as, “The Friction Drive Car” was the 1907 Lambert, a vehicle that capitalized on the patented developments of Byron Carter.
Carter’s Cartercar received rave reviews from the automotive press and was the vehicle heralded as the future with promotion billing that proclaimed, “The car of a thousand speeds!” The companies’ slogan was, “No Clutch to Slip, No Gears to Strip.” Lambert and Cartercar were not the only automobiles to utilize the intriguing system devised by Carter. Other manufacturers included Metz, Petrel, Simplicity, and Sears.
For a very brief moment in time, the friction drive system with its paper fiber transmission rims seemed to represent the future of automotive engineering. Exemplifying this would be the purchase of the Cartercar Company by William Durant, the founder of General Motors, in 1909.
Then there are those innovations that simply defy any semblance of reason, even in the context of the times when built. Case in point; the 1913 Duck, a four-passenger touring car with the drivers’ seat being in the rear of the car!
The speed of technological advancement during this period quickly relegated the visionary developments of one year into a manifestation of eccentric oddity the next. In 1911, compressed air starters were among some of the most innovative options available on luxury automobiles. The McFarlan of 1912 offered an in house designed and built unit as standard equipment. This system was operated by a four cylinder Kellogg pump and a pressurized canister that stored air at 200 pounds of pressure.
In 1912, Cadillac advertisement promoted the new models as, “The Car That Has No Crank.” By 1914, the electric starter introduced by Cadillac two years previously had rendered the automotive compressed air starter system an historical artifact.
Often the innovative features of an automobile became its claim to fame in advertisement and promotion. Here too, the transformation of a company’s image from innovative to quirky happened quickly.
The Premier of 1918 was “The Aluminum Six with Magnetic Gear Shift.” Two years later the company that had manufactured automobiles featuring overhead valves, sliding gear transmissions, and shaft drive in 1904, was in its death throes. The troublesome magnetic gearshift proved to be the companies undoing.
On occasion, visionary and innovative thinking leapt ahead of the technological capabilities of the time. The first automotive recall in the United States, and the development of leaded gasoline, stemmed from of an engineering equivalent of getting the horse before the cart.
The air-cooled Chevrolet debacle of 1923 began with experimentation by Charles Kettering, the innovative genius behind the development of the electric starter that appeared on the 1912 Cadillac. It culminated with a rush to production fueled by a power struggle for control of General Motors.
Perhaps the most intriguing technological innovations from the formative years of the industry are those that were literally decades ahead of practical feasibility. The Woods Dual Power of 1916 was a hybrid featuring many of the engineering principles found on the Prius.
The first automotive endeavors of Studebaker were an electric powered vehicle designed by Thomas Edison. The initial offering by Knox in 1902-featured finned cylinder jugs that facilitated air-cooling, which were uncannily similar to those that appeared on the Volkswagen Type 1.
To be a visionary or eccentric requires independent thinking. From that perspective, during the formative years of the American automobile industry independent thinking reigned supreme.