Lessons Learned

The embryonic electric vehicle museum is the first and only museum dedicated to this style of vehicle. Credit Historic Electric Vehicle Foundation

Mention Porsche and visions of fast, sleek cars come to mind. But for the company’s namesake Ferdinand Porsche it was electricity, not gasoline, that first piqued his interest.

In 1893, at age 18, Porsche electrified his parents’ house. Before the turn of the century he was working for the Vereinigte Elektrizitäts-AG Béla Egger company in Vienna. It was that company that he first began designing and experimenting with automobiles. They were battery driven electric cars.

In 1900 he designed a highly advanced automobile. The ‘Semper Vivus’, his second car, was launched as the production-ready Lohner-Porsche ‘Mixte’. It had an internal gasoline engine powered by naptha. But rather than driving the car the engine was used to power a generator that sent a charge to the wheel hubs for propulsion.

The first decades of the 20th century, much like the first decades of the 21st century, were an era of innovation in the auto industry. But the innovators of the 21st century had a slight advantage as they were standing of the shoulders of pioneers.

Byron Carter capitalized on the bicycle mania of the 1890s and produced a quality two wheeld product in Jackson, Michigan. Still, there was little to differernate his bicycles from hundreds of others on the market at the time.

His, cars, however, were another matter. The Cartercar was friction drive, which eliminated the need for a transmission. The Carter Two Engine was even more radical in design. It was a four cylinder automobile, with conventional transmission. The selling point was reliability. Under the hood was a second four cyclinder engine, in case of mechanical failure with the first engine!

Before the introduction of the electric starter on the 1912 Cadillac, steam and electric powered cars were the industry leaders. These were the trend setters. A White steamer was the first automobile to replace carriages at the White House. A Stanley built steamer set a land speed record of nearly 150 miles an hour in 1906.

Rapid advancement of gasoline engine technology, and development of an electrical system that included starter and lights, proved the death knell for steeam powered cars. Electric cars fell out of favor, but as we see today, they still pique the interest of innovators who see a different future for the automobile.

Detroit Electric enjoyed strong brand loyalty. And they found a market in the growing number of female drivers as they were relatively clean and easy to operate, especially in comparison to cars such as the Model T Ford. Still, by 1914 the company reached its zenith when annual production topped 4,000 vehicles. The comapny continued producing vehicles into the 1930s, and even built a limited edition vehicle that used by the postal service.

The past, the present and the future of alternative energy vehicles, and supportive infrastructure are a regular topic of discussion on Car Talk From The Main Street of America, a podcast from Jim Hinckley’s America. We guarantee that the program will provide lots of fodder for trivia fueled discussions, be filled with surprising stories, and will have you looking at Tesla built cars in a whole new way.

An Edsel For The 21st Century

An Edsel For The 21st Century

Age is a funny thing. As an example, several years ago I was visiting the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, California where they literally take you for a drive. One of the vehicles on display was an AMC Pacer, a car that had been dubbed the fishbowl when I was working in a used car lot garage back in the mid-1970s. In my mind’s eye that was just a couple of years ago.

So, it was a shock to see cars like a Pacer and Gremlin that I had worked on when they were almost new on display in a museum. Again, in my mind’s eye I was still 20 or 25 years of age but here was glaring evidence that I was of the I Like Ike button, tail fins on Cadillac and Edsel era, and that was a very long time ago.

An even more jarring brush with the passing of time occurred this past spring at the annual Route 66 Fun Run in western Arizona. There amongst the hundreds of vehicles on display, parked in a line of vehicles that included a battered 1929 Ford AA truck, a couple of 1960s Corvettes, a beautiful 1955 Mercury convertible and a pristine Plymouth Volare was a Saturn S1 coupe.

Now, since the trip to El Segundo, I have slowly been able to accept the fact that a Volare is now considered a classic vehicle. But a Saturn? To say the very least it was a bit disturbing to see this little coupe sporting historic vehicle plates.

A milestone on the path to adulthood is acceptance of the fact that taxes and death are an inevitable part of life. A milestone on the path to maturity, and learning to simply enjoy a simple life, is acceptance of the fact that times change.

Every aspect of Route 66 in 1930 was dramatically different from the Route 66 or 1950, or 1960. I am not quite as old as rope but daily it becomes more evident that I am mere months away from being viewed as a relic. In 1990, I cranked out my first professionaly written feature article on a battered 1948 Underwood typewriter with a “t” key that stuck at the most inopportune times. A majority of my research was accomplished with a typed letter, an envelope, a stamp, and a long wait, and visits to the library. A research trip that took me out on the road required a pocket full of change as the pay phone was my best friend.

Research for an upcoming presentation about the dark side of life in territorial Arizona during the closing years of the territorial era and infancy of statehood was the catalyst for these thoughts. As I was perusing newspaper archives in search of stories for the program, little details in articles led me to taking notes unrelated to the poject at hand. I have little doubt that that these notes will morph into other stories at some poinit in the future.

As an example, who was Jim Hendrickson? The sparse details in his obituary piqued the imagination.

How did a man born in 1845 adapt to the world of 1912? He was a Civil War veteran that had arrived in the Arizona territory in about 1869. He had been a teamster in the Mojave Desert, and survived two attacks by Native Americans that were battling what they saw as invaders. In one of those skirmishes Jim Hendrickson was wounded and left for dead.

Apparently he was a moderately succesful rancher, and itinerant prospector. He had once been married but his wife had died in childbirth. And when he died of bronchitis in Los Angeles, he was on a business trip. He was looking into securing an agency to sell shiny new Maxwell automobiles in Kingman.

Hendrickson had traveled across the continent on foot and by horseback. He had witnessed the transition from steamboats on the Colorado River, and arduous travels across the harsh deserts, to railroads and even automobiles. He had been a part of an unprecedented migration, and played a role in the transformation of a sparsely inhabited wilderness into a modern world of towns and cities with electric lights.

This photo of the first Packard dealership in Kingman is courtesy the Mohave Museum of History & Arts.

Thoughts of Mr. Hendrickson were the seeds that sprouted as an episode about the rise and fall of Saturn on Car Talk From The Main Street of America, a Jim Hinckley’s America podcast. Those thoughts were also an opportunity for me to consider the changes that I have witnessed, my ability to adapt, and to speculate on what the future might hold for a man born in the era of the Edsel.

Times change. Learn to adapt, develop a fascination for new technologies, make friends of all ages, enjoy lively conversation with people who have a different world view, and limit the amount of time you spend strolling down Memory Lane.


Legend of The Doozy

E.L. Cord built an automotive empire based on prestige and innovation as made manifest in this front wheel drive Cord. authors collection

“It’s a doozy.” A simple phrase. A superlative. A testimonial to an astounding automobile and the genius of two brothers named Duesenberg. A standard against which all automobiles are measured. The mighty, the stylish Duesenberg.

In 1885 the German-born brothers Frederick and August Duesenberg arrived in the United States. They were ambitious, they were talented, and they were visionaries. As did many automotive pioneers, they capitalized on the bicycle craze that swept the country in the 1890s by building bicycles and promoting them through racing. By 1900, the brothers began modifying gasoline engines, installing them in their bicycles and launching a line of motorcycles.

In 1901, Fred Duesenberg opened a garage and repair facility for automobiles in Des Moines, Iowa and then acquired a used Marion car. Through experimentation they redesigned the air-cooled engine making an array of improvements that enhanced performance. Then Fred entered the car in a race at the annual County Fair in Mason City, Iowa, and claimed first place. This was only the opening act. The brothers Duesenberg were about to change the world.

In 1906, Edward R. Mason, a Des Moines attorney, launched the Mason Motor Company with Frederick Duesenberg as the developmental engineer. The engine designed by Duesenberg was an overhead valve twin-cylinder engine with both the bore and stroke being equal at 5 inches that produced 24 horsepower from its 196 cubic inches. It enabled the Mason to quickly earn a reputation as a rugged and powerful automobile as well as a superb hill climbing competitor. As Alanson Brush had done to demonstrate the prowess of the introductory model of the Cadillac, Fred drove the vehicle up the steps leading to the Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines. And then, at the top of the steps, he turned the vehicle around, descended the steps, and repeated the display in reverse.

In 1910 the Mason Motor Company was sold to Fred L. Maytag, but the Duesenberg brothers chose to continue work on the development of high-performance cars for use on the race circuit with financial backing from Edward Mason. In June 1913, Fred and Augie struck out on their own and established the Duesenberg Motor Company in Minnesota for the manufacture of engines for aircraft, automobile, and marine applications.

Undercapitalized, the company struggled until 1916 when a United States government contract was received for the manufacture of marine and aircraft engines. This allowed for relocation of manufacturing to a large, modern facility in New Jersey. The brother’s reputation for the engineering of high-performance engines was growing and shortly afterwards Ettore Bugatti contracted the Duesenberg Motor Company to build a 500-hp V-16 engine.

In 1919, the brothers sold their interests in the New Jersey manufacturing facility and relocated to Indianapolis to develop a performance luxury car that used the recently developed prototype single overhead cam Duesenberg Eight engine. In early spring 1920 production commenced at the new factory established for the manufacture of racing vehicles and components under the Duesenberg Brothers name, and passenger cars under the Duesenberg Automobiles & Motors name.

The first Duesenberg passenger car rolled from the factory near the Indianapolis Speedway in 1921. It featured the brother’s revolutionary straight eight engines as well as four-wheel hydraulic actuated brakes and carried a hefty sales price – $6500 to $8800. Reputation and advanced engineering were not enough to carry the company, and in a relatively short time bankruptcy was looming.

Errett Lobban Cord was still in his teens when he began buying used Fords, converting them with speedster bodies, and reselling them for a tidy profit. The trucking company he launched to provide services to remote western mining companies did not fare as well. But he rebounded quickly, relocated to Chicago, began selling Moon automobiles and in a few short months had risen to regional sales manager. Then through contacts in the banking industry and deft maneuverings, he gained control of the nearly moribund Auburn Automobile Company. In 1926 he purchased Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors, and within five years would acquire Stinson Aircraft, Lycoming Engines, gain controlling interest in Checker Cab Manufacturing Company and launch the revolutionary front wheel drive Cord as part of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg enterprise.

The Model X harnessed the power of the 100-horsepower, 322 cubic-inch displacement single overhead cam inline eight-cylinder engine that had been used in the Model A, but with modifications that included the generator and water pump being relocated to the rear, and manifolds moved to the right side. The Model X was the last model built by Duesenberg before its acquisition by Cord. The car continued in limited production, but E.L. Cord had shifted focus and resources toward development of the Model J.

Digital Camera

The new company was renamed Duesenberg, Inc. and Fred was appointed vice president of engineering and experimental work. August was tasked with producing Duesenberg racing cars. Resultant of his work a number of engineering achievements, including centrifugal superchargers, would find their way on to production models of the Auburn and Cord.

In 1928 at the New York City Auto Show, Cord introduced the Model J. It was the most powerful and most technologically advanced production car in America. It was also stylish with luxurious interior appointments. The twin overhead cam developed a reported 265-horsepower. The base sales price of a chassis without coachwork was an astounding $8500. In comparison a top of the line Ford sold new for just $585!

As Cord’s goal was to create the world’s most luxurious and most powerful automobile to compete with the likes of Rolls Royce or Hispano-Suiza, the Model J underwent a near continuous series of improvements. The 265-horsepower, 420 c.i.d. inline eight-cylinder engine produced 80-horsepower more than the competing Cadillac powered by a 452-c.i.d. V16. The launch of the companion SJ model was a game changer. Outfitted with a supercharger the SJ was rated at an astounding 320-horsepower.

Even thought the production models averaged 5,000 pounds in weight, their performance was extraordinary. An SJ convertible coup was tested at the Indianapolis Speedway and reached a sustained speed of 129-miles per hour, a new record for an American production automobile. In 1935, Ab Jenkins broke this record by reaching 152.1 miles per hour. A streamlined car dubbed the Mormon Meteor was then driven for twenty-four hours at Bonneville with an average speed of 135.5 miles per hour.

By October 1929, the company had manufactured two hundred cars, and only an additional one hundred by the end of 1930. Fittingly the limited production Duesenberg was marketed with bold slogans. “The only car that could pass a Duesenberg is another Duesenberg – and that was with the first owner’s consent”. The Model J and SJ quickly became the ultimate status symbol for the rich and famous throughout the world who commissioned custom bodies from companies such as Derham, Judkins, Murphy and LeBaron in the United States, and in Europe by Saoutchik and Gurney Nutting. Counted among the proud owners were Harpo Marx, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Howard Hughes, Mae West, Greta Garbo, William Randolph Hearst and members of European royalty; the Duke of Windsor, Prince Nicholas of Romania, Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and King Alfonso XIII of Spain.

A Duesenberg on display at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. Photo ©Jim Hinckley

Even in the best of times, a company that manufactured limited production cars that sold for astronomical prices would be challenged to survive. Even bolstered by Auburn sales, the bread and butter of the company, and Cord, the company struggled during the depths of the Great Depression. Compounding the company’s woes, Fred Duesenberg died on July 26, 1932 of pneumonia that resulted from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in Pennsylvania while behind the wheel of a Murphy-bodied SJ convertible on his way from New York City to Auburn, Indiana.

In 1937 Cord’s intertwined financial empire collapsed. The final chapter for the once mighty Duesenberg was rather anticlimactic. Parts on hand were gathered and two more cars were assembled, one for German artist Rudolf Bauer in April 1940. Used Duesenberg’s appeared on car lots and even with prices equal to that of an old Ford, remained unsold. A few savvy buyers acquired the once prestigious automobiles and taking advantage of the powerful drive trains and heavy frames, converted them into trucks.

The Duesenberg name is enshrined as the car to which all others are compared, the doozy. Today the survivors are highly prized among collectors. When they change hands, the price is often in the millions of dollars, and the Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg Museum housed in the former factory and headquarters is a revered shine for automobile enthusiasts from throughout the world.

Pandemics, Elections & Automotive History

Dodge introduced automotive test facilities, an industry first, a their factory in 1916. Photo Detroit Public Library

Horace and John Dodge epitomized the American dream of rising from humble beginnings to vast wealth. They were rough and tumble, hard drinking blue-collar men from Niles, Michigan. John Francis was born in 1864, Horace Elgin in 1868. Their grandfathers, father and uncles were machinists. Both were mechanically inclined. John was somewhat reserved; Horace developed a reputation for a hair trigger temper. Together the redheaded Dodge boys were an inseparable team. They started with the manufacture of bicycles and then together they built an automotive empire, and played an integral role in the success of companies such as Olds Motor Works and Ford Company.

The Spanish Flu pandemic that began its relentless march around the world in 1918, much like COVID 19 today, had far reaching implications. It was while at the January 1920 National Automobile Show in New York City in that both John and Horace Dodge became sick. There is still some debate over their illness but at the time the consensus was that they had been infected with the last wave of the devastating Spanish flu pandemic that killed over 50 million. As with many victims of COVID 19, on January 14, mere days after becoming ill, John was afflicted with pneumonia and died in his hotel room at the age of 55. Even though he suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, the official cause of death, Horace recovered from influenza and pneumonia but was nearly bedridden for most of a year at his home in Florida before dying on December 10 at the age of 52.

President Wilson contracted influenza shortly after arriving in Paris in April 1919 for peace talks aimed at mapping the reconstruction of a post-World War I Europe. White House doctor Cary T. Grayson wrote  the diagnosis arrived at a decidedly inopportune moment: “The president was suddenly taken violently sick with the influenza at a time when the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance.” Plagued by fever Wilson began hallucinating and issuing odd orders. On several occasions he argued about missing furniture, and even displayed paranoia in conversations in which he expressed concerns that he was surrounded by French spies. As a result, he was to play a minimal role in the development of policies pertaining to German reparations, creation of the League of Nations, and the

By Theodor Horydczak – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division

negotiation of agreements pertaining to American factories, including automobile manufacturers, being established in Europe.

Roy Dikeman Chapin Sr. was born in Lansing Michigan on February 23, 1880. His automotive career was launched by working for Ransom E. Olds of the Olds Motor Works. For the princely sum of $35 a month he took publicity photographs and performed other tasks. In 1901, he drove one of the new Curved Dash Oldsmobiles to New York City for a display at the second annual Auto Show in 1901. The 820-mile trip took seven days to complete and was a promotional boon for the pioneering automobile manufacturer. As a result of the deplorable road conditions, Chapin became an ardent supporter of the good roads movement. Chapin, along with Henry B. Joy of the Packard Motor Car Company, spearheaded efforts to build the Lincoln Highway.

Chapin was a gifted salesman and helped propel Olds Motor Works sales to record levels. He left the company in April 1906 and played key roles in establishment of Thomas-Detroit Company, Chalmers-Detroit Company, and several others. In 1908, Chapin facilitated a partnership of automotive engineers from Chalmers, and leading businessmen and founded the Hudson Motor Car Company in 1908. He served as the company’s president for several years. In this position he was able to establish the Essex Motors Company in 1918.

On August 8, 1932, President Herbert Hoover appointed Chapin to succeed Robert Lamont as secretary of commerce, a position he held until the end of Hoover’s term in 1933. It was in this position that he developed a series of controversial measures to stem an escalation of bank failures that threatened to surpass those of the post WWI recession. His initiative centered on evaluating which banks were to big to fail, creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and then facilitating cooperative partnerships to bail them out.

As he was associated with Detroit banks through Hudson, efforts to protect several of the largest financial institutions stirred a great deal of political controversy. In mid 1930, a run began on Detroit’s largest banks. Prior to February, 1933, more than $250,000,000 was withdrawn from the First National Bank of Detroit, the Union Guardian Trust Company and the Guardian National Bank of Commerce. The situation became so serious that the First National Bank was forced to liquidate most liquid and unpledged assets, and the Union Guardian Trust Company was compelled to borrow from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).  Edsel Ford was Chairman of the Board of the Union Guardian Group, a banking consortium that was a part of Chapin’s investment portfolio. The group was also linked with Hudson.

A last ditch series of negotiations that centered on Henry Ford’s bailout of the Guardian Group was initiated. Ford’s refusal to assist and avert a financial failure led to the Michigan Bank Holiday, the first in a series of bank holidays. This ultimately led to the passage of Roosevelt administration’s Emergency Banking Act 1933.

The formative years of the American auto industry were not just steered by innovation, technological advancements, and an unbridled entrepreneurial spirt. It was also guided by politics, natural and man made disasters, sudden death and pandemics.



Bathtubs, Birdcages & A Man Named Chevrolet

Bathtubs, Birdcages & A Man Named Chevrolet

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 America presentation. 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.