Exactly why the Aluminum Company of America decided to diversify and initiate plans for the development of an automobile is a mystery. The timing is equally curious as in late 1919 the world was gripped by an intense post war economic recession. Another fascinating aspect of the project is the fact that the company retained the services of Laurence H. Pomeroy to oversee development.
Born in London, England, Pomeroy had apprenticed as an engineer with the North London Railway Company. In 1905 he accepted a position with Vauxhall Ironworks Company and in late 1907 was tasked with a project to redesign one of the company’s engines to allow for Vauxhall to compete in the 1908 RAC 2000-mile trial run. The cars modified by Pomeroy won several classes and as a result he was promoted to the post of Works Manager. In 1910 he modified a 20hp Vauxhall that reached speeds of 100 miles per hour at Brooklands.
This was also the year that he designed a car to participate in the German Prince Henry Tours that were held from 1905 to 1911. This would become the basis for the now legendary Vauxhall “Prince Henry” models manufactured by Vauxhall from 1911 to 1914. These limited production models were internationally acclaimed for speed as well as durability. In 1914, H. Massac Buist, a leading automotive journalist noted that, “Of the three Vauxhalls which ran in the Prince Henry Tour, two got full marks for reliability, and all did about 65 miles an hour in the speed trial, which was really quite good for that engine with a four-seated body and a full complement of passengers. So many people desired cars of this special type that in 1911 it was made a regular product of the Vauxhall works, and, during the last year or so a new style has sprung up. In this the engine dimensions are 95 by 140 mm., the old bore-stroke ratio having penalized the car under many hill-climbing formulae. All such formulae which do not involve the cubic capacity of the engine are by common acceptance considered advantageous to engines with small bore and long stroke. The chassis follows the lines of the original Prince Henry but has rather a longer wheelbase.”
Pomeroy was also an early proponent for the use of aluminum in automobiles. However, in this he was not alone. Numerous automobile manufacturing companies, most notably Franklin of Syracuse, New York, were pioneering the use of the lightweight metal to enhance the performance of their durable air-cooled vehicles. Still, the car envisioned by the Aluminum Company of America, was to be a true industry leader. The Pomeroy, as the car was named, was to utilize aluminum in eighty-five percent of its construction including body panels, crankcase, transmission case and dashboard.
Purportedly several hundred thousand dollars was spent on the top-secret project before six cars were completed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1921. The four-cylinder cars were vigorously tested before their introduction to the public the following year. Then arrangement was made with the luxury automobile manufacturer Pierce-Arrow to develop an extended wheelbase, 133-inches versus 126-inches, model powered by a 75-horsepower, aluminum six-cylinder engine. It was a logical partnership as Pierce-Arrow was another early proponent of aluminum having made extensive use of the metal in the 1916 Model 66.
Charles Nash, born in 1864, was an abandoned child that became a ward of the court. He ran away from an abusive situation at age 12, got a job on a farm, and in the years that followed learned carpentry skills, clerked in a grocery store and worked stuffing cushions for a wagon company. And he read books. In 1895 he was employed as the manager of the Durant Dort Carriage Company. Fifteen years later he was in charge of Buick, and in 1912 was president of General Motors. In 1916 he launched the Nash Motors Company and became one of the leading manufacturers of automobiles in the United States.
Henry Martyn Leland was born in 1843 and apprenticed under Samuel Colt, the firearms manufacturer, to learn precision tooling. He developed a hair clipper that revolutionized the barbershop. In 1894 he launched the first precision machine shop in Detroit specializing in gear manufacturing. Two years later Leland developed a line of gasoline and steam engines for use in streetcars as well as boats. In 1901 he developed an innovative engine for Ransom E Olds. Resultant of a factory fire that prevented Olds from the envisioned expansion, Leland took his engine to the men behind the Henry Ford Company. And that led to reorganization and the launch of a new company – Cadillac. In 1917 Leland organized a new company to produce aircraft engines under the Lincoln name. This company would become a leading manufacture of luxury automobiles.
There are lessons to be learned in history. Consider these two me as a case study. Nash overcame debilitating poverty and hardship, and never forgot. When new equipment was installed at Nash, he donned overalls and worked on the factory floor to learn its operation side by side with employees. During the depths of the Great Depression he had coal and apples delivered to laid off employees. And he survived and thrived during the economic collapse of the 1890s and the post WWI recession, and a world wide pandemic.
Leland may not have endured poverty but he was well acquainted with business disasters. After spending years working to develop Cadillac he was roughly shown the door. At an age when when most people have been enjoying retirement for nearly a decade, he launched a new company, and lost control of a company. He too survived economic downturn, and a couple of pandemics.
So, what lessons can be learned. Tenacity, perseverance and knowledge are key to surviving crisis, economic or natural. You are never old to learn. Linked with that, when you quit learning the world will pass you by. Flexibility is needed to survive changing times.
So, don’t be so quick to accept and regurgitate what you hear. Learn from history. You might just discover that when ever you are alive it is the best of times, and the worst of times. You might just find that politicians are playing you for a sucker. You might just find opportunity in a time of crises.
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.