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.
In August of 1902, William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen, the men with the money that were backing Henry Ford’s second automotive manufacturing endeavor, had reached their limits. They were exasperated. Rather than produce a vehicle that could be sold, Ford was focused mostly on experimentation, and the building of racing cars to test those experiments. Murphy and Bowen were wanting a return on investment.
Henry Leland had learned the art of precision machining while working as an apprentice for Samuel Colt, the firearms manufacturer. He perfected his skills with a variety of endeavors before applying them to automotive applications. In the summer of 1901, he contracted with Ransom E Olds of Olds Motor Works to produce an advanced new engine for the 1902 Oldsmobile. That fledgling partnership came to an abrupt end when a devastating fire at the Olds Motor Works almost destroyed the company.
The Dawn of Cadillac
Leland was well know in the burgeoning automotive manufacturing industry in Detroit. After the fire at Olds, Murphy and Bowen retained Leland as a consultant as they needed an evaluation of the manufacturing facility and equipment. Their plan was to ascertain a value of the company, and sell it to recoup a portion of their investment. Leland proposed a different direction; keep the company and use the engine he had designed for Olds to jump start production.
Ford was incensed. He made the directors an ultimatum; dismiss Leland or pay him $900 and remove his name from the company immediately. The directors chose the latter and the rest, as they say, is history.
The company was reorganized and named after the founder of Fort Detroit, the French explorer La Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. On October 17th, 1902, the first Cadillac was taken for a test drive.
The links between Henry Ford and Cadillac were not an unusual story during the infancy of the American auto industry. As an example, the driver who took that first Cadillac for a spin was Alanson P. Brush. In 1907, Brush launched his own automotive company. Shortly after this endeavor failed in 1911, he joined General Motors as a consulting engineer. In this position he was responsible for development of the Oakland line.
The remnants of the Brush Runabout Company were sold by Frank Briscoe, the primary financial backer of the endeavor, to Benjamin Briscoe, his brother, who was launching the United States Motor Company to compete directly with GM. Benjamin Briscoe was the initial money man behind David Buick, and partner in Jonathan Maxwell’s Maxwell-Briscoe Company. Maxwell had launched his automotive career with Olds Motor Works.
With the collapse of United States Motor Company, Maxwell-Briscoe was reorganized as Maxwell. In 1924, Walter Chrysler acquired control of Maxwell and the Chrysler was born.
Leland would stay with Cadillac after its acquisition by General Motors. At the advent of WWII he started a company to manufacture aircraft engines. This company would undergo a rather dramatic transition soon after and begin producing automobiles under the Lincoln name. When that company slipped into receivership, it was acquired by Henry Ford who promptly placed his son, Edsel, at the helm.
The infancy of the American auto industry was a wild swashbuckling battle of tycoons, shysters, and daring entrepreneurs. It was a time of dramatic societal upheaval where fortunes were made and lost at dizzying speed. It was an amazing time, an era when a man like Henry Ford could loose two companies, build a third, and in the process launch not one but two automotive dynasties.
A bit of perspective, that is what we get when studying
history. Without that perspective we are easily manipulated by politicians, demagogues, car salesman, snake oil salesman, televangelists, newspaper reporters, and people armed with alternative facts or altered facts that profit from our ignorance. Without that perspective we can’t even tell if they are alternative facts, altered facts, facts based on half truths, or truth itself.
Let’s set our way back machine to the teens of a century ago. President Wilson was running the show here in America. Without reservation he believed that “America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.” In a speech before Congress about the war (WWI), he warned, “There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, … who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life…Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.” A manifestation of his “divine appointment by God” was the Espionage Act that he called an imperative necessity.
Congress balked at the legalization of press censorship but the rest of the bill passed with almost unanimous support. Included in the bill was authorization for Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson to refuse to deliver magazines, newspapers, or mail he deemed unpatriotic or critical of the administration. Attorney General Thomas Gregory felt that the law did not go far enough, and pushed a new law, the Sedition Act that made it punishable by twenty years in jail to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal,profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.” To enforce the legislation the American Protective League under administration by the Justice Department was formed and within a year there were 200,000 members, some of whom initiated vigilante justice with impunity in communities.
In Rockford, Illinois, the army asked league members for assistance in acquiring confessions from twenty-one African-American men accused of assaulting white women. League patrols targeted seditious speakers, performed citizens arrests or called upon police to break up “unpatriotic” gatherings. States outlawed the teaching of German, an Iowa legislature called for the expulsion or deportation of all first generation German immigrants, people who publicly spoke German were subject to immediate arrest, and government approved front page banners warned that every German or Austrian, unless an acquaintance of years, should be considered a spy.
Meanwhile, as the war raged in Europe with ever mounting casualties, the American auto industry surged with development. War contracts, and unlike in WWII, a burgeoning consumer hunger enabled record profits. Still, numerous companies foundered. Even though the Good Roads movement fostered dramatic improvements in rural “highways” the railroad still served as the primary mode of transport for troops, goods, passengers, and raw materials.
Shortly after the dawn of 1917, Henry Leland resigned his position as chief engineer at Cadillac. A rock solid reputation for business integrity, visionary innovation, and engineering perfection enabled him to establish Lincoln Motor Company, and secure a government contract for the manufacture of 6,000 Liberty aircraft engines. Even more amazing, he was also awarded a $10 million dollar advance to launch the project!
Production had only just begun when the signing of the armistice negated the project leaving Leland in debt with a newly equipped factory and a work force of 6,000 men. So, he decided to retool the factory for the production of automobiles, and within three hours of listing the new venture sold $6.5 million in capital stock.
Charles Nash, like Leland, walked from his position at General Motors when founder William Durant regained control. Nash had been with the company from its inception, and worked his way up through the ranks from cushion stuffing to President of the Buick Division, and eventually, President of General Motors.
With another former GM employee, James Storrow, as his partner, Nash acquired the Kenosha, Wisconsin based Thomas B. Jeffrey Company, manufacturer of the Rambler as well as the four-wheel drive Jeffrey truck, the military’s primary motorized transport vehicle. Reorganization resulted in the establishment of Nash Motors Company on July 29, 1916.
Pierce Arrow exemplified the gulf between the haves and have nots during the teens.
In 1919, Walter Chrysler followed he path of Nash and Leland. Resultant of a heated disagreement with William Durant, he reigned his position as President of the Buick Division. After accepting a position with Chase National Bank to restore Willys Overland to solvency, his next salvage operation was at Maxwell Motor Corporation that had recently merged with Chalmers, a disastrous financial arrangement. This time, however, Chrysler had ulterior motives and after gaining full control of the company, reorganized as Chrysler Motors Corporation.
Even though there was a huge wage disparity between factory workers and factory owners, and conditions were often grueling with little or no compensation for injuries or illness, labor problems were almost nonexistent. President Wilson’s draconian policies had almost completely crushed the fledgling unionization movement, and through extensive use of propaganda, many workers viewed unions as unpatriotic.
As an example, in Bisbee, Arizona league members incited vigilantes to round up 1,200 “union members and agitators”, seize their possessions, beat them, force them into boxcars, and then transport them to a siding across the New Mexico state line. Before being released, the prisoners locked in the box cars endured days under the desert sun without food or water.
Before the institution of Wilson’s policies, Henry Ford had set what many deemed a very dangerous precedent. In January 1914, a time when many companies were pushing the envelope of automotive manufacturing technology to cut labor associated costs, Ford streamlined the production process to trim expenses. This included simplifying the only product he had produced since 1909, the Model T. In turn he continued to lower the sale price of a new Ford, and then doubled the prevailing industry wage from $2.50 per day to $5.00.
A deep economic recession followed the signing of the armistice, and the auto industry was hard hit. Many weak companies fell by the wayside. As the economy tanked, there was a perception that drastic and unprecedented monetary policies at the federal level were needed. These new policies coupled with the dawn of finance programs such as GMAC that allowed the consumer, for the first time, to buy on the installment plan acted like a jolt of adrenaline and the American economy soared. The prosperity, however, was an illusion built on easy credit for the consumer as well as the corporation. The day of reckoning came in October of 1929, and by 1932, the nation and the world was immersed in the worst economic collapse in modern history.
As a final note from the “history repeats itself file”, President Hoover instituted an array of policies in a misguided attempt to stem the onslaught of the Great Depression. One of these was a plan to bail out banks deemed to big to allow to fail.
Okay class, that is our history lesson for the day. Do you see any similarities? Does history repeat itself or is that merely a myth?
With the passing of time, when writing about history,
it becomes quite a challenge to separate myth and legend from fact and fiction. Even first person accounts can be fictitious when compared to facts if enough time has passed, and a story can be told so often that myth becomes truth. Adding weight to legends that become fact are first person accounts, an interview at the time of an incident that provides a perspective derived from fear, prejudice, or even shadowing that obscured detail.
Case in point, the honeymoon suite for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard at the hotel in Oatman, Arizona. Yes, the couple did marry in Kingman late one afternoon, at the Methodist Episcopal church that still stands on the corner of Fifth and Spring Streets. Yes, there was a small wedding reception at the Brunswick Hotel afterwards, and there was an early morning press conference in Los Angeles early the following morning. So, is the story of the honeymoon suite fact or fiction? If it is myth, what are the origins?