On June 28, 1945, the Detroit Free Press, New York Times and other leading newspapers throughout the world noted the death of Benjamin Briscoe. “BENJAMIN BRISCOE, President of First Maxwell Company, Financier That Launched David Buick’s Automotive Endeavors and Founder of United States Motor Company Dies.” So, who was Benjamin Briscoe, “the founder of the domestic American automobile industry” and the man behind numerous pioneering automobile manufacturers?
Briscoe was born in 1867 to a family of successful entrepreneurs and inventors. His grandfather was a railroad mechanic that was attributed with numerous innovations, and his father was the founder of Michigan Nut and Bolt, a company that produced an array of products using machines of his design. At age eighteen, Benjamin Briscoe using his own money established Benjamin Briscoe & Company that used metal stamping to manufacture buckets, barrels, a variety of cans and even bathtubs. And that led to an association with David Dunbar Buick that would later prove pivotal to the development of a pioneering automotive endeavor.
Buick was an innovative manufacturer of plumbing fixtures with more than a dozen patents to his credit, but profit remained elusive until Briscoe began supplying a wide array of related stamped metal supplies on credit. And then Buick perfected and patented a successful process for affixing porcelain to metal, expanded his endeavors, and began manufacturing toilets, sinks, bathtubs and related goods. Success was imminent.
Shortly after entering into the arrangement with Buick, Briscoe sold his business for a tidy profit and established the Detroit Galvanizing and Sheet Metal Works, and using a machine of his invention, began manufacturing corrugated pipe as well as sheet metal components for stoves, ranges and furnaces. In 1900, Briscoe’s brother Frank joined the company that was then reorganized as the Briscoe Manufacturing Company, and the product line was expanded to include cast iron radiators and copper units used to facilitate the cooling of industrial engines. It was the later which led to a project for Ransom E. Olds.
First, however, Briscoe had to overcome a major hurdle. The Detroit bank used by Briscoe had failed which in turn left Briscoe’s company facing bankruptcy. Undaunted by this potential disaster Briscoe brazenly, without introduction or endorsement, traveled to New York City, and talked his way into a meeting with financiers at J.P. Morgan and Company that included J.P. Morgan himself. Briscoe returned to Detroit with a commitment of a $100,000 investment in his company.
The arrangement with Olds was rooted in disaster. R.E. Olds chief engineer Jonathan Maxwell had perfected an improved cooling system for the Oldsmobile. However, a devastating factory fire in 1901 had decimated the company forcing Olds to seek an outside supplier for a radiator and so he approached Briscoe to negotiate the purchase of 4,500 radiators. Briscoe quickly closed the deal but, in the process, had negotiated for the manufacture of gas tanks as well.
In 1899, David Buick answered the Siren’s call that was the infant auto industry, sold the plumbing supply company and turned his attentions to the development of a valve in head engine, the first step in what he envisioned would become an automobile manufacturing company. By late 1902, Buick had exhausted his funds and yet his prototype being built in partnership with Walter Marr was not ready for display. As a result, there was little hope of attracting investors. Fortuitously Buick turned to Briscoe who agreed to forgive an outstanding loan, to pay off Buick’s other outstanding debts, and to provide the funds needed to finish the prototype. As per their agreement, Briscoe would become the owner of the completed vehicle, but Buick would use it to solicit for investors to initiate manufacturing.
Briscoe would eventually loan Buick an additional $1500. To protect his investment this arrangement included the stipulation that if the loan were not repaid within twelve months, Briscoe would become the sole owner of Buick Motor Company.
As Buick focused on development of the fledgling automobile company, Briscoe met with Jonathan Maxwell, the former Olds engineer that was now planning to launch a company of his own, and asked that he evaluate Buick’s project. Sensing an opportunity Maxwell noted the various flaws in the Buick design and presented Briscoe with a business plan for the establishment of a company to manufacture Maxwell’s automobile.
This partnership would lead to the building of two automotive empires, one of which would become the foundation for Chrysler. It would also lead to the establishment of two companies that forever transformed the international auto industry, the founding of an automobile company with a quirky claim to fame, and Briscoe’s diversification into an array of endeavors that would underpin many aspects of the infant auto industry.
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.”
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.
Road conditions in the United States during the first decades of the 20th century were less than optimal for use by automobiles. As late as the summer of 1915, Edsel Ford noted in his travel journal that the drive from Williams to Kingman, Arizona, a distance of less than 150 miles required a long, hard drive. “Thursday July 15, Found Cadillac and Stutz crew at Harvey House Hotel at Williams waiting for us. All got supplies at garage. Talked to Ford Agent. Got going about eleven. Had lunch as Ash Forks. Bought some gas and oranges at Seligman. Arrived at Brunswick Hotel, Kingman at midnight. Very rough and dusty roads.”
As a result many automobile manufacturers touted the reliability and off road capabilities of their vehicles rather than promoting creature comforts. The Westcott was “The Car With A Longer Life.” The Allen was “The King of the Hill Climbers.” For the Jackson “No Hill To Steep, No Sand To Deep.”
I kicked off my career as a journalist and author with stories that chronicled the dawning of the American auto industry. In time I found opportunity to blend my passion for Route 66 and adventures on the back roads with the interest in automotive history. The result to date has been nineteen books on subjects as diverse as electrical system restoration on early 1950’s Chevy trucks and ghost towns of Route 66, and several hundred feature articles about equally obscure but interesting historic tidbits. Did you know that the inventor of cruise control was blind?
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
There are two pet projects that have simmered on the back burner for many, many years. One is a guide to U.S. 6, an intriguing and fascinating highway with a long and colorful history. It is lined with a stunning array of attractions, historic sites, and scenic wonders. The second idea has been on the burner even longer, since at least 1975. This project centers on Jackson, Michigan, specifically its rich and diverse industrial heritage between 1885 and 1940, and the far reaching connections that contributed so much to the development of the American auto industry.
The recent trip to Jackson rekindled the idea. A number of doors opened, and the one that I thought held the most promise closed. I had hoped that the Hackett Auto Museum project would be the platform for the envisioned book. The blatantly unprofessional management that was manifest when I made my presentation at the former Hackett manufacturing facility dashed that hope. If I had any doubts about my decision to discontinue association, I have recently learned that the roof has yet to be repaired and that their website is down. Even more tragic is the fact that the poorly managed endeavor will result in the loss of this important historic structure.
The headquarters for the former Jackson Automobile Company
Jackson, as with many industrial towns in the Midwest, has lost many of its historic structures in recent years. Still, there are a surprising array of buildings associated with the city’s rich industrial heritage. One of the most outstanding has to be the headquarters and many of the factory buildings from the former Jackson Automobile Company, a manufacturer that operated from 1903 to 1923. There are also some serious collectors and historians that are preserving Jackson’s manufacturing history. One of these is Lloyd Ganton who has collected eighteen examples from the twenty-four manufacturers that were once hardhearted in Jackson. He also has expansive collection of other products manufactured in Jackson including Spartan radios, and a great deal of original documentation including sales catalogs.
His private museum in Spring Arbor, Michigan, Ye Ole Carriage Shop is a sight to behold. Added inspiration for dusting off the long dreamed of project, and moving it to the front of the line was the meeting of a most fascinating archivist. That however, is a story for another day. To get you as fired up as I am, let me leave you with this video tour from Ganton’s stunning museum.
The 1913 Chevlon Canyon Bridge in Arizona, the first highway bridge built in the state.
Floyd Clymer’s obsession with all things automotive was not unusual for a young man during the first years of the 20th century. What was unusual was his entrepreneurial spirit made manifest in the establishment of a successful automotive dealership before reaching his teens and inspiring exploits such as participating in a cross country race from Denver to Spokane with his older brother at age nine.
The period between 1885 and 1930 was an era of unprecedented transformation. Not a single aspect of American society was untouched. Swashbuckling entrepreneurs were building industrial empires by manufacturing what had not existed five years prior. The owners of electric taxi cabs and buses competed with the owners of horse drawn hansom cabs. As late as 1916 in northwestern Arizona, teamsters with 20-mule teams and drivers of stagecoaches shared the road with an ever growing number of “automobilists.” Geronimo, the legendary Apache warrior, was photographed in a Cadillac. Blacksmiths became auto mechanics and livery stables transitioned into auto dealerships.
Buffalo Bill Cody at the tiler of a 1903 Michigan. Photo Jim Hinckley collection.
In the late 19th century, the exploits of Buffalo Bill Cody chronicled in dime novels ignited the imagination of boys who dreamed of adventure on the western prairies. By the early 20th century Cody was the owner of a Michigan roadster, and a vocal member of the growing Good Roads movement. The boys with an adventuresome spirit were now young men who through their exploits with automobiles inspired a new generation. One of these young men was Floyd Clymer.
Clymer was born in 1895 but his family relocated to Berthoud, Colorado shortly after the turn of the century. In 1902, Clymer’s father, a doctor, purchased a one cylinder Curved Dash Oldsmobile, the first automobile in this frontier era mining camp. At age seven his father yielded to young Clymer’s persistent pleading and taught him to drive the Olds. In 1904, Clymer and his younger brother participated in the first Reliability Run from Denver to Spokane, a grueling test of man and machine. Near destruction of the Flanders 20 thwarted the brothers successful completion of the race.
Incredibly, at age ten, with his fathers full support and financial backing, Clymer began buying and selling cars. His endeavor proved so successful that his father allowed his son to set up an office in what was formerly a dentist’s office and establish Berthound Auto Co. that specialized in Maxwell and Cadillac, and later REO cars. Needless to say, these manufacturers took notice when they learned that it was young Clymer, not his father, that sold twenty six vehicles in two years. Motor Field, an early publication for automobile enthusiasts, ran an article on Clymer, “the Kid Agent,” in their February 1907 issue. Clymer shrewdly used the article as a sales pitch and claimed, “I can supply your wants in repairs and supplies, and can save you money.” A man who sold everything on the hog including the squeal, Clymer later reprinted the entire issue after the magazine folded and sold copies for one dollar.
A few years later Clymer turned his attention to motorcycles and purchases a Yale and Thomas Auto-Bi, both manufactured in California. In 1912, he won his first amateur bike race in Boulder, Colorado. In 1916, he won the very first Pike’s Peak Hill Climb with an Excelsior. This endeavor led to an offer from Harley Davidson and Clymer becoming a member of the company’s factory racing team. Building on his fame, Clymer moved to Greeley, Colorado and opened up a shop to sell and service motorcycles.
The next chapter in the Clymer story was written in Denver when he established Floyd Clymer, Inc., the largest distributor of Indian, Excelsior and Henderson bikes in the western United States. This was followed by relocation to Los Angeles, purchasing Al Crocker’s West Coast Indian distributorship and the launching of a mail order parts business.
During World War II, Clymer launched a new business endeavor that was built on his collection of vintage automotive sales literature and photographs. Published in 1944, Floyd Clymer’s Historical Motor Scrapbook featured advertisements and period articles from two hundred fifty brass era vehicle manufacturers. With favorable reviews from publications such as Time, book sales exceeded expectations. This would serve as the foundation for what would become the largest publisher of automotive books.
In the 1960s, Clymer once again turned his entrepreneurial abilities toward motorcycles and established himself as a distributor of the German-built Munch Mammoth IV, a $4,000 motorcycle that he promoted and marketed as the “Ferrari of motorcycles.” During this period he also attempted to resurrect Indian motorcycles. The final page of the amazing Clymer story was written in 1970 when he succumbed to a heart attack.
It is human nature to seek adventure, even if it is through vicarious means. The recent “Storm Area 51” tsunami on social media networks is one example. A few, however, prefer to live the adventure and provide the inspiration for making the most of every day.
If this story piqued your interest I know you will enjoy my latest presentation, In The Beginning! I am now scheduling appearances for fall and winter.