The Cartercar was a manifestation of unique and innovative automotive engineering.
The Cartercar, not to be confused with the Cartermobile manufactured in Hannibal, Missouri or the Cartermobile manufactured in Hyattsville, Maryland, was promoted in marketing campaigns as “The Car of A Thousand Speeds” and “The car with no gears to strip, no clutch to slip, no universal joints to break, no shaft drive to twist, no bevel gears to wear and howl, no noise to annoy.” It was an innovative car, to say the very least. It was the brain child of Byron J. Carter, a visionary career was cut short after an accident that led to the development of the electric automobile starter.
Carter was born during the American Civil War on August 17, 1863, in Jackson County, Michigan. In 1885, Byron Carter established the Steam Job Printing and Rubber Stamp Manufacturing business in at 167 Main Street in Jackson, Michigan. Jackson. In 1894, to capitalize on the tsunami of interest in bicycling, Carter, with his father, started a bicycle sales and repair company on the corner of Courtland and Jackson streets. Two years later, he launched the United States Tag Company, a printing business.
Even though there was still tremendous national interest in bicycles, it was the automobile that was the primary subject of interest among entrepreneurs, tinkerers and investors with vision. Carter had developed a working knowledge and interest in steam engines during his tenure with the Steam Job Printing Company. One of his first patents, in 1902, was for a three-cylinder steam engine. This was to be the cornerstone for the Jackson Automobile Company.
Buffalo Bill Cody at the tiller of a 1903 Michigan. Photo Jim Hinckley collection.
His first automotive endeavor was an experimental car with a gasoline engine that he built in 1899. His second endeavor was the Carter, a steamer built by the Michigan Automobile Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As an historic footnote the first automobile purchased by Buffalo Bill Cody was manufactured by this company.
In July of 1902, Carter returned to Jackson and entered into discussions with George A. Mathews, owner of the Fuller Buggy Company and the director of the Jackson City Bank, and Charles Lewis, president of the Lewis Spring & Axle Company as well as Union Bank. A partnership was formed and the Jackson Automobile Company was born.
On display at Ye Ole Carriage Shop in Spring Arbor, Michigan is the oldest existent vehicle manufactured by the Jackson Automobile Company of Jackson, Michigan
The first model produced by the company was the Jaxon, a steam powered car that used Carter’s patented engine. This was a one year old model but the company would manufacture gasoline powered cars, and trucks, including four-wheel drive models, for two decades. The cars would be marketed with the slogan “No hill to steep, no sand to deep.” Carter’s association with the company and his position as manufacturing superintendent was short lived as he was unable to sell his partners on the merits of his friction drive transmission.
In 1905, Carter organized the Motorcar Company in Jackson but relocated the enterprise to Detroit shortly afterwards after securing investment capital. Shortly after relocation the company was reorganized as Cartercar but before serious production could commence, manufacturing was transferred to the former Pontiac Spring & Wagon Works in Pontiac, Michigan. The car received positive reviews in the press, and owners offered glowing testimony.
Cartercar production showed slow but steady growth; 101 cars in 1906, 264 in 1907 and 323 in 1908. What might have been can only be conjectured. The Cartercar would soldier on until 1915 as a part of General Motors. However, Carter’s visionary talents were cut short when on April 6, 1908 he died after developing pneumonia that resulted from injuries sustained when the hand crank on a car he was attempting to start on the Belle Isle bridge near Detroit spun backwards striking him in the face.
Fittingly, Carter’s death would inspire automotive innovation that transformed the industry. We find the story in a biography of Charles Kettering, the man behind leaded gasoline, the air cooled Chevrolet debacle that led to the first automotive recall and the electric starter. “In the summer of 1910 a woman driving an automobile across the old Belle Island Bridge in Detroit, stalled her engine…. A man who happened by just then stopped and offered to crank the woman’s engine for her. He was Byron J. Carter, maker of the automobile called the Cartercar. Unfortunately the spark was not retarded. So the engine kicked back and the flying crank broke Carter’s jaw…. Carter was not a young man, and complications arising out of the accident caused his death. Now, it happened that Carter was a friend of Henry Leland, head man at Cadillac. Soon afterward, in Leland’s office, Kettering remarked that he thought it would be possible to do away with the hand crank, sometimes called the ‘arm-strong starter,’ by cranking cars electrically. In Leland’s distress at the loss of his friend Carter, he took up the suggestion at once.”
Okay, I may be stretching a point here. It may be like making the argument that the wheel bearing is connected to the muffler. Still, technically, the origins of Chevrolet are as an import.
The story kicks off on Christmas day, 1873. The was the day that Louis Joseph Chevrolet was born in Switzerland. By 1900, Chevrolet, and his brothers Arthur and Gaston, had firmly established themselves as very talented mechanics in France. That was also the year that his employer, DeDion-Bouton, sent Louis to the United States to set up a sales and service branch for those automobiles in New York City. His brothers followed shortly afterwards. Five years later the brothers were working as mechanics and developmental engineers for Fiat Motor Company in New York.
It was in the employ of Fiat that Louis began his racing career. His performances and first place finishes in prestigious events such as the Vanderbilt Cup Race provided Fiat with a sales boost, and Chevrolet with national name recognition. In 1905 he bested the legendary Barney Oldfield three times. From 1906 to 1908, after Arthur and Gaston joined the race team, the Chevrolet family garnered international headlines for their racing prowess.
Thanks to the generosity of the Route 66 Cruizers, visitors from the Netherlands had an opportunity to experience a cruise on Route 66 in classic American cars.
Meanwhile, in 1907, the swashbuckling entrepreneur William C. Durant was building an automotive empire named General Motors on the foundation of Buick, a company he had recently acquired. Durant was a master of marketing. So recognizing the value of the Chevrolet name, he lured Arthur and Louis from Fiat to establish a factory race team to promote Buick. Buick sales soared and GM soared, in spite of the economic recession but storm clouds were forming on the horizon. Durant had over extended the company, first with the acquisition of automobile and parts manufacturers, and then in the acquisition of overvalued companies as he competed against Benjamin Briscoe who had used Maxwell-Briscoe as the foundation for the United States Motor Company, a GM type tiered manufacturer.
As a result the GM board of directors pushed Durant from the company. Durant, however, had friends in high places with deep pockets. He also had a reputation for making money and so he set out to establish an all new automobile manufacturing company. First he acquired the Little Motor Car Company and the Mason Motor Car Company. Next he dusted off an engine that Louis Chevrolet had designed in 1909 while employed with GM. Then he facilitated an arrangement with Chevrolet. Now he had a company, recognized name association, and a technologically advanced engine. He also had willing and eager investors. On November 3, 1911, Durant’s fledgling automotive enterprise was reorganized as the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.
From its inception Durant and Chevrolet were at odds about the direction of the company. Durant wanted to manufacture a low priced car to compete head to head with Ford, and to use the company as the means with which he would regain control of General Motors. Chevrolet wanted to build a more prestigious vehicle that was fast, a sports car in the luxury car price range. In 1914, Louis left the company but Durant remained in control of the enterprise as well as the Chevrolet name.
Durant used Chevrolet as a basis for a series of complicated corporate maneuverings and stock swaps to regain control of GM in 1918. Shortly afterwards Durant repeated previous failures, over leveraged the company and was forced form the company by the board of directors. Chevrolet remained as a GM division.
There are two more chapters of note in the early history of Chevrolet. After Durant was forced from GM in 1920, the board of directors set out to salvage the company. The first step was evaluation of company assets and recommendations for the trimming of dead wood. The Chevrolet division was added to the chopping block but at the eleventh hour Alfred Sloan Jr., executive vice president, intervened. Then in 1922, a radical new air cooled Chevrolet resulted in the first automotive recall. Once again the decision was made to cull Chevrolet from GM and once again Sloan intervened.
The rest, as the old adage says, is history. Chevrolet would continue as an important component in the success of GM. It would also evolve to become an American icon forever linked with apple pie, hot dogs and patriotism.
Out to pasture along Route 66 in western Arizona is this rare Moreland truck. These trucks were built in Burbank, California.
There is a pantheon of automotive pioneers that obtained a dubious form of immortality as the reward for the transforming of obscure concepts and ideas into realities. As with Jello or Kleenex, it is as a brand name that they are remembered while their first names, as well as some of their most astounding accomplishments, are less than historical footnotes. As an example few who drive a Chevrolet give thought to Louis Chevrolet, the contributions that he made toward the development of General Motors, his racing prowess or his headline grabbing performance during the 1914 Desert Classic auto race. Likewise with people who drive a Ford never knowing that Henry Ford helped lay the foundation for Cadillac, that it was the Dodge brothers, Horace and John, who ensured his success, or that Henry pioneered the use of synthetic materials.
The infancy of the American auto industry is a tangled web of intrigue, tragedy, genius, corporate incest, smoky back room deals, and get rich quick schemes. It is also the story of innovation, vision, genius, and eccentricity. As a case in point consider David Buick, the man who gave the world the cast iron bathtub with white porcelain finish, and who, in conjunction with Walter Marr and Eugene Richard, engineered a revolutionary gasoline engine with a valve in head design for marine or farm application in their Jackson, Michigan workshop. This highly advanced engine would serve as the cornerstone for the establishment of the Buick Motor Company in 1903.
In turn, the acquisition of Buick Motor Company was to serve as the foundation for a vast automotive empire named General Motors established by William Crapo Durant. As Durant soared ever higher with each success, David Buick sank lower with each new endeavor and after an endless string of failed enterprises he ended his days as the information desk clerk at the Detroit School of Trades. It was almost as though when his ship came in he was patiently waiting at the train depot.
Eventually Durant would follow Buick on the road to ruin but not before transforming General Motors into an industrial giant, not before loosing control of the company and regaining it through the creation of a company named Chevrolet, or before challenging the dominance of Ford with a company named Durant. In February of 1936, Durant the last chapter of his astounding story was written when he declared personal bankruptcy and shortly afterwards ended his days as a partner in a bowling alley with lunchroom and grocery store.
Durant and Buick were not the only men to flirt with fame and fortune during the heady days when the American auto industry was a swiftly churning blend of gold rush and carnival. Nor were they the only pioneers to become forgotten immortals.
Swiss born Louis Joseph Chevrolet arrived in New York as an agent for the French automobile company, De Dion-Bouton. However, it was as a mechanic for Fiat, and as a driver for the racing team that included brothers Arthur and Gaston, that Louis Chevrolet developed a reputation that garnered international acclaim. It was this notoriety and household name recognition that led William Durant to retain Louis and Arthur for the factory sponsored Buick race team he was developing as a promotional venue. And after loosing control of General Motors for the first time, Durant again hired Louis but this time as an engineer to design an engine that would power a new automobile, one that would carry the Chevrolet name.
This too proved to be a short-lived endeavor, at least for Mr. Chevrolet. Durant had established the company with a focus on using it as as a vehicle for regaining control of General Motors. Louis left the company and his trademarked name in 1914, resumed his racing career, competed against Barney Oldfield in the Desert Classic race from Los Angeles to Phoenix, designed several race cars including the one his brother, Gaston, and drove to victory in the Indianapolis 500 in 1920.
Those who gained the hollow immortality of having their names transformed into a brand were the fortunate few. For men such as Henry Leland, the mists of time obscured their accomplishments and in time they were less than historic footnotes. Leland was a pioneer in precision engineering that had apprenticed under Samuel Colt, the legendary firearms maker, and launched his financial empire with the invention of an improved clipper designed for barbers. As the owner of a precision machine shop in Detroit at the dawn of the auto industry, one of his first automotive endeavors was the design of a new engine for Ransom Olds of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company.
However, before the Leland designed engine could be utilized in what was to be a new and improved Olds, a disastrous fire at the Olds factory made it financially impossible for the company to adopt it and as a result, the company continued production of the highly successful 1902 “curved dash” model. In retrospect, this was a fortuitous turn of events for the American auto industry as the directors of the Henry Ford Company that had hired Leland as a consulting engineer were in need of an engine.
The Henry Ford Company represented Henry’s second attempt at automobile manufacturing. However, as with the first endeavor, backers were seeing little return for their investment and as a result had retained Leland to evaluate the feasibility of pouring more money into the enterprise. Ford was a man possessed of an oversize ego and he was incensed by what he perceived as an affront. Henry Ford stormed from the company after demanding a cash settlement and that his name be removed from the company. Undaunted the directors reorganized the company under a name associated with Detroit’s founding, Le Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac, and utilized the engine designed by Leland.
J Walter Christie pioneered the use of front wheel drive in the development of his race cars. Who remembers Mr. Christie today.
Leland would shepherd Cadillac through its formative years, and assist during the transition after the company was acquired by William Durant for inclusion in his newly formed company, General Motors combine. In 1917, after another with William Durant, Leland and his son left General Motors and established a company to manufacture Liberty aircraft engines under government contract. As an historic side note Leland named this company for the first president for whom he had voted in 1864, Abraham Lincoln.
Production had barely commenced when the Armistice of WWI negated his government contract. Faced with mounting debts, seventy-four year old Leland swiftly transformed his factory, and reorganized the company, to produce automobiles. Attesting to Leland’s reputation for quality workmanship, attention to detail, and honesty is the fact that $6.5 million dollars of common stock in the new company was subscribed within three hours of it being placed on sale. As it turned out Leland’s association with the company was relatively short.
A four wheel drive Hamlin. When was the last time you saw one of these at a car show?
Obsession over mechanical perfection, dated styling, and post war material shortages hindered development as well as production. On February 4, 1922, the board of directors overrode Leland’s objections and placed the company in receivership. The company sold for $8 million dollars to Henry Ford who appointed his son, Edsel, as president of Lincoln Motor Company.
With the passing of time, Leland joined the pantheon of forgotten automotive pioneers. He was, however, in good company as this is the final resting place for many of the giants from the infancy of the American auto industry, men like Benjamin Briscoe, Childe Harold Wills, H.J. Hipple, and Howard E. Coffin to name but a few.
The new Tesla Cybertuck debuted to mixed reviews. It was but the latest manifestation of Elon Musk’s eccentric genius and vision. There is, however a question. Was this revolutionary truck a glimpse of the future or was it just plain crazy? Back in 1934 a vehicle that was just as futuristic at the time made its debut and the reviews were even less favorable. And it was also a manifestation of the future as seen through the eyes of a visionary, Walter P. Chrysler.
As with the Edsel, Chrysler launched an extensive promotional and marketing campaign before the public was even given a glimpse of the Airflow. As the new model was the first to be designed with engineering focused on aerodynamics, the company launched a publicity stunt in which they reversed the axles and steering gear of a conventional 1933 model. This allowed the car to be driven “backwards” throughout Detroit. The stunt captured the public’s attention and related advertising campaigns called attention to the fact that most cars were more streamlined in the rear than the front. Promotion also noted that soon Chrysler would introduce the car of the future.
A rare 1937 Chrysler Airflow on display at Dunton Motors Dream Machines in Kingman, Arizona.
The Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow was heavily influenced by the then popular streamlining and Art Deco movements that was influencing everything from hotel construction to radio design. With the exception of costly custom models and special orders from companies such as Duesenberg and Packard, and the Czechoslovakian built Tatra, there wasn’t a car on the road that compared with the Airflow. It was sleek and low, the grille presented a smooth, rounded waterfall look, and headlights were built into the fenders rather than in the conventional design of pods on stanchions or bar that crossed in front of the radiator. In the rear, Airflow models encased the rear wheels through the use of fender skirts adorned with sedate but noticeable chrome accents.
Instead of a the industry standard of a flat panel of glass windshield, on the Airflow two sheets of glass were used in a racked “vee.” All windows used something new, safety glass. And as with the Cybertruck, in a vehicle debut a professional baseball player pitched a ball into a side glass with dramatic results. While most companies were still using a metal attached to wood framing construction method, the Airflow was built entirely of steel which provided superb structural integrity. The car also possessed a better power to weight ratio of most production cars.
The rear wheel fender skirts enhanced the Airflow’s aerodynamic styling.
As with the Edsel, initial models introduced in January 1934 were plagued with numerous problems, many were resultant of the rush to production and others came about because of the significant manufacturing challenges required to produce such a futuristic car. These problems as well as the resultant bad press, and the unconventional styling kept customers away in droves. Only 6,212 units had been produced by May 1934.
Publicity stunts, expensive marketing campaigns, refinements, and positive reviews were of little avail. The Airflow sold poorly, and in 1937 the company discontinued the model. As an interesting historic footnote many attributes of the Airflow would be incorporated in other models and influence automotive design and engineering for decades to come.
Today the Airflow provides a glimpse of the future as seen from 1934. And for the savvy collector that wants a vintage car that can be driven as a modern car, the Airflow is the best of both worlds. Take a look at this video from an Airflow promotion, and see if you are not inspired to take one for a spin.
Old Michigan Avenue near Grass Lake, Michigan. Photo copyright Jim Hinckley’s America
An argument could be made that U.S. 12 in southern Michigan, the former Chicago-Detroit Road and before that the Sauk Trail is the oldest road in America. There is evidence to indicate that its origins were a game trail, a path through the nearly impenetrable forest used by herds of bison. Then it served as a Native America trade route. That trail was used by early French and British explorers, and later American pioneers that came to crave homesteads from the wilderness. Father Gabriel Richard, the Michigan Territory’s first delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, began petitioning Congress to appropriate money for the construction of the Chicago-Detroit Road in 1825. In 1827 a military survey team traveled 263 miles as they designated the course for the new road, and construction crews followed. By 1833, at a cost of $87,000, the road was complete. As an historic footnote, shortly afterwards the road was often referenced as Michigan Avenue.
Remnants of this long and colorful history abound all along U.S. 12 and Michigan Avenue in southern Michigan. One example is Walker Tavern that began life as a large farmhouse in about 1832. As it was located at the junction of the Chicago-Detroit Road (U.S.12) and the Monroe Pike (M-50), Calvin Snell, the owner, began operating the facility as a tavern. In 1838 he leased the property to Sylvester and Lucy Walker, pioneers that had recently relocated from New York. In 1842 the Walker’s purchased the property, renamed it Walker Tavern, and managed it as an inn as well as tavern. It is purported that Daniel Webster and James Fenimore Cooper were guests. Today the tavern is the focal point of a state historic park.
An exhibit at the Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake, Michigan
I never tire of driving this old highway. Aside from the scenery, especially during the months of October when the shade dappled roadway is boarded by brilliant displays of fall color, I find the old towns and villages to be refreshing. As a bonus, even though my association with this historic road dates back more than a half century, I make new and fascinating discoveries on every trip. This year was no exception. A tangible link to the infancy of the American auto industry was found in Jonesville, a nearly forgotten railroad history was discovered at the Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake, and we met a craftsman with extraordinary talents was met at Circus Farm.
Before relocating to Jonesville and establishing a blacksmith shop in 1857, Jacob J Deal had apprenticed in New York. He had also worked with a partner on the construction of carriages, a skill set he put to use in his new home with the manufacture of lumber and heavy wagons. In 1865, Deal sold the blacksmith shop and established a company for the manufacture and repair of wagons, buggies, carriages, and on occasion, a sleigh. In 1887 the company produced 1,200 carts, 300 wagons and carriages and several hundred sleighs. By 1890 the company was prosperous enough to warrant construction of a modern, factory, a red brick building that still stands on West Street in Jonesville.
The Deal on display at the city offices in Jonesville, Michigan is one of only two cars known to exist.
The following year Jacob’s son, George joined the company and it was reorganized as J.J. Deal & Son. Shortly before 1900 experimentation began on a new product, an automobile, and a small number of motorized delivery trucks were manufactured in the years that followed. In 1908, automobile manufacturing became an integral part of the company and as with the wagons, the Deal quickly developed a reputation for being a quality product.
Automotive trade journals and related publications of the era gave the vehicles manufactured by the Deal Motor Vehicle Company favorable reviews. Still, as with many pioneering automobile manufacturing companies, the Deal automobile was a short lived affair. Production ceased in 1911, and wagon manufacturing was suspended in 1915, the year the company closed its doors.
From Barbie doll accessories to automobiles, the fascinating Deal factory in Jonesville, Michigan.
That isn’t the end of the story. In fact there are two more chapters, but these will have to be shared in next weeks post. At that time I will also introduce you to Ken Soderbeck, a man who restores fire trucks, trolleys, and the occasional vintage truck, and take you back to a time when an expansive network of electric interurban railways connected small towns like Jonesville with the main railroad line in Jackson.