An odd idea from the fertile imagination of Milton Reeves. Photo authors collection
Milton O. Reeves was not a man without imagination. He was a modestly successful businessman. He was a visionary of sorts. He was also a man with steadfast determination not afraid of ridicule or derision. This is a particularly desirable quality if you intend to manufacture and market an automobile that is a manifestation of your eccentricity.
Reeves was born on a farm in Rush County, Indiana on August 25, 1864. Even as a child, in his imagination devices were conceived to save time or labor, or to streamline a process.
Fast forward to 1879. While working at a sawmill in Columbus, Indiana, Reeves noted that if the speed of the saws could be controlled in a uniform manner there would be a reduction of waste which in turn would result in increased profits. This would also curtail the need for a large workforce. And so, he devised a variable speed transmission that utilized a series of tapered pulleys.
Marshal, Milton’s brother, was also a successful inventor as well as businessmen. In 1869 he had patented an improved version of the standard corn plow, and in 1875 launched the Hoosier Boy Cultivator Company in partnership with his father and an uncle.
Milton’s variable speed transmission piqued their interest and in 1888 the Reeves brothers purchased the Edinburg Pulley Company and renamed it the Reeves Pulley Company. In a moment of insightful brilliance Milton Reeves devised a promotional idea for the company that was linked to the bicycling mania that had become a national obsession in the early 1890s. In 1896 he introduced a motorcycle powered by a Sintz engine coupled to a Reeves variable speed transmission that was the Reeves Pulley Company’s most popular product. This seemed to have inspired Milton Reeves. The following year he introduced a four-wheel horseless carriage with the same mechanical components.
However, the transmission he had hoped to promote through the endeavor was lost in the public outcry over noise and the horses that were terrorized by the vehicle as Reeves drove the streets of Columbus, Indiana. Undaunted Reeves devised two innovations that he hoped would resolve these issues, and perhaps, become marketable commodities.
The first was a muffler, an ingenious round metal box that housed a set of tubes with holes that dramatically curtailed noise. Reeves and his brother patented the device. It was the first muffler designed specifically for automobiles in 1897.
Milton Reeves second idea was nothing short of bizarre. He purchased a life-sized papier-mache horse that was being used to promote a blacksmith shop, cut it off at the front shoulders and mounted it on the front of the vehicle. The thought was that this would curtail the nervousness of horses. As if that was not odd enough, Reeves used the hollow horse neck to house the gasoline tank. The muffler stayed, the horse head was discarded, and the car was given a polished ebony body in late 1897.
The Reeves Motocycle garnered a surprising amount of press, and even more surprisingly, the company received unsolicited orders for five vehicles. The first two vehicles used the two-cylinder, two cycle, six horsepower Sintz Gas Engine Company engine and double chain drive unit coupled to the Reeves variable speed transmission. The other three, however, utilized an air-cooled engine designed by Milton Reeves. After filling the orders, the company announced that they would not continue producing automobiles but would instead focus on the manufacture of the Reeves transmissions and motors only. This, however, was not the end of Milton Reeves automotive ventures.
Milton Reeves Octoauto. Photo authors collection
In late 1905, Alexander Y. Malcomson ordered an entire year’s production (500 units) of air-cooled engines for an automobile manufacturing company that he was launching in Detroit. His Aerocar venture proved to be short lived and so Reeves found himself with controlling interest in a moribund company. Undaunted Reeves began cobbling together a variety of cars; some with shaft drive, some chain drive and even a high wheeler marketed as a Go Buggy in 1907 offered at $450 without a body.
The final chapters in Reeves automotive endeavors were truly unusual. After manufacturing a variety of vehicles and evaluating automobiles currently on the market, he had determined that riding comfort, and tire life, would be improved by moving beyond the industry standard of four wheels. The first endeavor was the Octoauto built from a highly modified Overland chassis. The eight-wheeled oddity on a 180-inch (457-cm) wheelbase was finished for display at the inaugural 1911 Indianapolis 500.
Reeves honestly felt that the concept was marketable. “The eight-wheel concept is applicable to any vehicle. Therefore, if interested contact any automobile manufacturer or myself.” This is the opening for a promotional brochure published for the debut.
For obvious reasons, the project ended with the single prototype. And so, Reeves set out to build the Sextoauto, a six wheeled vehicle. Two were built. The first was the Octoauto with one front axle removed. The second was manufactured on a modified Stutz chassis and promoted as a luxury car with variable speed transmission. There was even an abbreviated promotional tour that included a cross-country jaunt. The endeavor was as successful as the Octoauto.
Reeves, the first patent for an automotive muffler, the Octoauto and Sextoauto are today forgotten chapters in the history of the automobile industry. They are examples of the stories that I like to share in features written for Motoring NZ. These are the type of stories that add a bit of seasoning to Jim Hinckley’s America.
Carlos F. Hurd was a reporter that had gained international notoriety in 1912 for his series of interviews with survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. He was no stranger to disaster, to stories of human suffering and to gut wrenching stories of family tragedy. Nothing, however, prepared him for coverage of the vicious race riots in East St. Louis during the summer of 1917. His initial story published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on July 3 opened with, “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless Negroes at Broadway and 4th Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant.”
His first person report continued with shocking detail. The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport. There was a horribly cold deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it.” Additional articles provided gruesome and proven details; a person nearly beheaded by an assailant with a butcher knife, a twelve-year old girl pulled from a trolley, people shot as they desperately tried to escape by swimming the Mississippi River, a mother beaten to death in front of her children.
Even though the incident took place before certification of Route 66, I wrote of it in my latest book, Murder and Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales from Bloody 66. The riot in East St. Louis was not an isolated incident. There was a similar event in Springfield, Illinois in the same period, and a few years later, an even more horrendous riot occurred in Tulsa, the city where Cyrus Avery, the man heralded as the father of Route 66, owned businesses. These prejudices, these racial hostilities would be woven into the fabric of Route 66 development and it would affect everything from tourism to trucking, motels to restaurants.
In Santa Fe, one of the oldest cities in America, passenger cars crowded the plaza and travelers such as Emily Post shared the road with ox carts.
The years between 1890 and 1930 were an incredible period of dramatic technological advancement and societal upheaval and evolution. A tsunami of immigration was transforming the very fabric of the country. The era of the western frontier was drawing to a close but there were still violent clashes with Native Americans such as the incident at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in December 1890. The labor movement was dawning, and that too led to violent clashes.
One of these was an incident now known as the the Bisbee Deportation. On July 12, 1917, in Bisbee, Arizona, about 1,300 striking mine workers, their supporters, and citizen bystanders were attached members of a deputized posse. The deputies forced more than 1,200 men into cattle cars, at gunpoint, and shipped them to New Mexico without food, water, luggage or anything more than what they carried in their pockets and the clothes on their back.
Bicycle mania swept the country during the 1890s but in the shadows the automobile was about to take center stage. Ransom E. Olds was experimenting with steam and gasoline engines. The Duryea brothers had began building automobiles for sale, and the Barnum & Bailey Circus gave one of their “motor wagons” top billing over the albino and fat lady. The first automobile race in America took place in 1898, people were driving coast to coast by 1905, and in that year a Stanley steamer was driven to a new speed record that was just short of 150 miles per hour.
Between 1909 and 1930 the number of horse drawn vehicles manufactured plummeted but while automobile production soared. Traffic lights and motels, service stations and garages became a part of the roadside culture. In a span of less than thirty years air travel evolved from rudimentary experimentation to becoming an integral component of the modern military and even coast to coast passenger service.
A few points to ponder. Wyatt Earp of OK Corral fame died in Los Angeles in 1929. Geronimo was photographed in a Cadillac. Between 1898 and 1930 there were more than 1,500 automobile manufacturing companies launched. Ezra Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail by ox cart, and the National Old Trails Road by automobile. The movie theater was introduced and those movies became talkies.
These heady times are being woven into a rich and colorful tapestry, my latest presentation series – In The Beginning. It promises to be informative, fast paced and to inspire some interesting conversation. It is a bit of time travel to what is, perhaps, one of the most amazing forty year period in our nations history. Curious? Contact us today to schedule a presentation for your event, festival or fund raiser.
A child’s wagon manufactured by Pierce-Arrow. Photo Pierce Arrow Museum
Before launching a company that produced some of the most prestigious and luxurious automobiles in the United States, George N. Pierce Company was the successful manufacturer of an array of household goods including ice boxes, birdcages, and children’s wagons. Herbert and Eugene Adams of Dubuque, Iowa were the successful manufacturer of grave markers and concrete benches before they launched the Adams-Farwell company to produce automobiles. David Buick was a partner in a very successful plumbing supply business, and the man who patented the application of porcelain to cast Iron before launching the automobile company that bore his name.
The dawning of the American auto industry, and the 20th century, are an endless source of fascination for me. It was a period of amazing transition. On September 4, 1886, Geronimo, the fearless Apache warrior surrendered to General Miles. This was the same year that Ransom E. Olds of Oldsmobile fame received his first patent for a gasoline-powered car. Ten years later the Duryea brothers were manufacturing automobiles for sale, and two years after that the first automobile race in America took place in Chicago. In the 1870’s, Studebaker was the largest manufacturer of wheeled vehicles in the world. In 1899 the company took its first steps toward becoming an automobile manufacturer with an electric car designed by Thomas Edison. In the Territory of Arizona, in the remote community of Kingman, a Ford dealerships was established in about 1911. And yet, horse or mule drawn stagecoaches connected Kingman with mining camps until 1916.
In 1890 there were a handful of bicycle manufacturers in the United States. By 1896 there were hundred and hundreds of manufacturers as well as countless shops and stores selling accessories. The Wright brothers of aeronautical fame produced and repaired bicycles. In 1900 there were a scant handful of automobile manufacturers. Within two decades automobiles and automobile related industries accounted for almost eighty percent of all employment in the United States directly or indirectly. In the mid 1890’s the automobile was literally a circus side show curiosity. By 1910 it was a multi million dollar industry.
Ezra Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail with an ox cart in the 1850’s. He traveled America in a National automobile in 1914. Wyatt Earp of OK Corral fame was working as film consultant in Los Angeles during the 1920’s. And then there was the Swiss immigrant named Louis Chevrolet that gave rise to an American legend.
In an exciting new presentation I take the audience on a bit of time travel to the dawning of the American auto industry, and introduce them to what, in my humble opinion, was one of the most fascinating times in history. I will be kicking off the presentation at an event in Jackson, Michigan at the Hackett Auto Museum. This is a rather appropriate place to kick off the fall tour for this Jim Hinckley’s Americapresentation. After all Jackson came very close to becoming America’s motor city. More than twenty companies were manufacturing vehicles in this city. The largest manufacturer of automobile horns, Spartan, was headquartered in Jackson. Kelsey Hays had a major manufacturing facility in the city.
Stay tuned for more information. And stay tuned for some special live programs with auto enthusiasts and from fascinating auto museums.
One of the overlooked chapters from the story about the dawning of the American auto industry is how it went from being a circus sideshow curiosity to multi-million dollar industry in less than two decades.
“Take the children to see the fad before it passes.” Even astute entrepreneurs with vision can be wrong when it comes to predicting the future. These words were spoken by Montgomery Ward, the pioneering department store tycoon, in 1896 when the circus came to town with promotional posters that gave a Duryea Motor Wagon top billing over the albino, bearded lady and dog boy. It was the dawn of a new era, a time of such dramatic transition that within 20 years every aspect of American society had been transformed.
Buffalo Bill Cody at the tiler of a 1903 Michigan. Photo Jim Hinckley collection.
Within seven years of Ward’s recommendation, shorty after the turn of the century, an automobile had been driven from coast to coast. David Buick, Henry Ford, Ransom E. Olds, and dozens of swashbuckling captains of industry were establishing automotive manufacturing empires worth tens of millions of dollars. By 1906 a steamer built by the Stanley brothers had been driven to nearly 150 miles per hour, a new record, on Ormond Beach in Florida. In 1909, 828,000 horse drawn vehicles and 125,000 automobiles rolled from American factories. Two decades later a mere 4,000 horse drawn vehicles were manufactured.
What fueled such a dramatic societal evolution? Marketing. Advertisement. Promotion. An advertisement for the 1900 Porter Stanhope featured a small lithograph type print of the car and a heading in bold print, The Only Perfect Automobile.” Several hundred words of descriptive prose followed. It was groundbreaking, after all in the May 1897 issue of Motorcycle, editor Edward Goff said, “The manufacture of a motorcycle (or automobile) is in a position to take advantage of more free advertisement than any other industry.”
As early as 1903, even though the automobile was still somewhat of a novelty, a tsunami of competition in the industry necessitated advertisement, marketing, and promotion if an automotive manufacturer was to survive. Enter Ernest Elmo Calkins, owner of an advertising agency that chose artistic standards that showcased cars in attention getting scenes rather than lengthy word pictures. Within a few years Calkins & Holden, with the luxury auto manufacturer Pierce Arrow as a primary client, had become the first company to exclusively develop automotive advertising campaigns.
As automotive technologies were being advanced with stunning speed, it was appropriate that the next stage in advertising and marketing would utilize something new as well as exciting. Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey, Cal to his friends, launched his career in automotive marketing with Maxwell-Briscoe. His promotional stunts were worthy of P.T. Barnum. Then in 1907 he contracted with Lubin Film Studios, a pioneering cinematography company that specialized in the making of nickelodeon films for theaters in the northeast, to film his stunts. The automotive commercial was born.
Automobile manufacturers sold dreams made manifest in steel and glass. Automobile marketing companies simply sold the dream. They transformed the automobile from sideshow curiosity to necessity. They replaced the horse by instilling a hunger for horsepower. The art of selling the sizzle rather the steak, that is the fuel that drove the evolution transformed America, and the world.
In August of 1902, William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen, the men with the money that were backing Henry Ford’s second automotive manufacturing endeavor, had reached their limits. They were exasperated. Rather than produce a vehicle that could be sold, Ford was focused mostly on experimentation, and the building of racing cars to test those experiments. Murphy and Bowen were wanting a return on investment.
Henry Leland had learned the art of precision machining while working as an apprentice for Samuel Colt, the firearms manufacturer. He perfected his skills with a variety of endeavors before applying them to automotive applications. In the summer of 1901, he contracted with Ransom E Olds of Olds Motor Works to produce an advanced new engine for the 1902 Oldsmobile. That fledgling partnership came to an abrupt end when a devastating fire at the Olds Motor Works almost destroyed the company.
The Dawn of Cadillac
Leland was well know in the burgeoning automotive manufacturing industry in Detroit. After the fire at Olds, Murphy and Bowen retained Leland as a consultant as they needed an evaluation of the manufacturing facility and equipment. Their plan was to ascertain a value of the company, and sell it to recoup a portion of their investment. Leland proposed a different direction; keep the company and use the engine he had designed for Olds to jump start production.
Ford was incensed. He made the directors an ultimatum; dismiss Leland or pay him $900 and remove his name from the company immediately. The directors chose the latter and the rest, as they say, is history.
The company was reorganized and named after the founder of Fort Detroit, the French explorer La Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. On October 17th, 1902, the first Cadillac was taken for a test drive.
The links between Henry Ford and Cadillac were not an unusual story during the infancy of the American auto industry. As an example, the driver who took that first Cadillac for a spin was Alanson P. Brush. In 1907, Brush launched his own automotive company. Shortly after this endeavor failed in 1911, he joined General Motors as a consulting engineer. In this position he was responsible for development of the Oakland line.
The remnants of the Brush Runabout Company were sold by Frank Briscoe, the primary financial backer of the endeavor, to Benjamin Briscoe, his brother, who was launching the United States Motor Company to compete directly with GM. Benjamin Briscoe was the initial money man behind David Buick, and partner in Jonathan Maxwell’s Maxwell-Briscoe Company. Maxwell had launched his automotive career with Olds Motor Works.
With the collapse of United States Motor Company, Maxwell-Briscoe was reorganized as Maxwell. In 1924, Walter Chrysler acquired control of Maxwell and the Chrysler was born.
Leland would stay with Cadillac after its acquisition by General Motors. At the advent of WWII he started a company to manufacture aircraft engines. This company would undergo a rather dramatic transition soon after and begin producing automobiles under the Lincoln name. When that company slipped into receivership, it was acquired by Henry Ford who promptly placed his son, Edsel, at the helm.
The infancy of the American auto industry was a wild swashbuckling battle of tycoons, shysters, and daring entrepreneurs. It was a time of dramatic societal upheaval where fortunes were made and lost at dizzying speed. It was an amazing time, an era when a man like Henry Ford could loose two companies, build a third, and in the process launch not one but two automotive dynasties.