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.
An argument could easily be made that when it comes to transportation we have come full circle. The Good Roads movement that gave rise to the U.S. highway system, including Route 66, was rooted in the tsunami of interest in bicycling that swept the county in the late 19th century. Recently the Adventure Cycling Association mapped and designated Route 66 as a bicycle corridor. That iconic highway has spawned a resurgent love affair with the great American road trip, and an international fascination with the road that has come to symbolize the freedom of the open road that was the theme of movies such Easy Rider.
During the infancy of the American auto industry, electric vehicles were often viewed as the wave of the future. The first pedestrian struck and killed by an automobile, an unfortunate fellow named Bliss, died resultant of an encounter with an electric taxi cab in New York City. The year was 1899. Today the embryonic Route 66 Electric Vehicle Museum in Kingman, Arizona where the history of the electric vehicle is being preserved is becoming a destination for enthusiasts who see the electric vehicle as the ghost of Christmas future.
A few weeks ago, in serial format, we shared the adventurers of Alexander Winton who attempted to cross the continent by automobile in 1901. His adventure came to abrupt end in the sands of the Nevada desert that proved impassable. Before that we followed Edsel Ford west on his trip in 1915 by reprinting his journal as a serial. These were but two examples of the odysseys that birthed the beginning of a decades long love/hate relationship with the automobile, and the national obsession with the road trip for fun or out of desperation that influenced films (The Grapes of Wrath, They Drove By Night and Planes, Trains & Automobiles are examples).
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.