“The best commentary on the road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque is that it took us less than three hours to make the sixty-six miles, whereas the seventy-three miles from Las Vegas to Santa Fe took us nearly six.” Emily Post, By Motor to The Golden Gate, 1916. The first coast to coast trip by automobile occurred in 1903. In 1909 factories in America manufactured more than 825,000 horse drawn vehicles compared to 125,000 automobiles. And yet in 1915, the year that Emily Post and Edsel Ford followed the National Old Trails Road to see the scenic wonders of the southwest on their journey to the west coast, more than 20,000 people from outside the state of California arrived at the Panama Pacific Exposition by automobile. Needless to say, it was an era of rapid transition.
In this photo from the Don Gray collection you can see both the Sparton sign and the NOTR sign west of Williams, Arizona.
For a number of years I have been gathering information on the infancy of the American auto industry, the rise of the Good Roads movement and the named highways with the intention being the writing of a book about this period of dramatic societal evolution. That was the subject of a presentation made last October at the site of what I had been led to believe would become the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson, Michigan. And as Jackson and the surrounding area was at the heart of an industrial boom that included more than 25 automobile manufacturers during the first decades of the 20th century, the trip was also about research.
One of the contacts made during this trip was Russell Rein who has been documenting the history of the named highways for many, many years. He is also a passionate student of the history of a leading manufacturer in Jackson, Sparks-Wirthington. This company was the largest manufacturer of automobile horns in the world during the teens, and later became a leading producer of radios and pioneer in television development as well as manufacturing. In 1915, Clifford and Harry Sparks, sons of one of the company founders, set out from Chicago to San Francisco in a new Ford truck putting up road signs that were a public service as well as an advertising campaign. The signs read, “Safety First – Sound Sparton.”
Fast forward to this past Friday. For several years I have been in discussion with Don Gray, a fellow with an interesting family history. The chapter of that history that spans the period 1910 to 1930 is chronicled in an extensive collection of family photos. Yesterday we finally had the opportunity to meet and to peruse his collection during a visit with Andy Sansom, the archivist at the Mohave Museum of History & Arts in Kingman, Arizona.
All of the materials in his collection were fascinating. As an example, one photo was of his grandfather, on a Michaelson motorcycle at the Padre Canyon Bridge that was under construction at the time. That would be 1914. And then we came to a photo taken on the National Old Trails Road between Ash Fork and Williams, Arizona. One lady in the photograph was standing next to a Sparton sign!
Needless to say the new presentation about the National Trails Road developed for spring and summer 2020 will be revised before its debut in Needles, California on February 7. And it looks like a new chapter in the 5 Minutes With Jimaudio podcast series about the National Old Trails Road has been added.
Meanwhile the search continues. I will be meeting with Don Gray again son. And I will be returning to Jackson this year for more research and a series of presentations that is in development.
Before I40, before Route 66, people got their kicks on the National Old Trails Road in the southwest. That is a story that needs to be told. It has adventure. It has adventurers like Edsel Ford, Emily Post and Ezra Meeker. It has famous and colorful people like Buffalo Bill Cody, Harry Truman and Louis Chevrolet. It has auto racing, serial killers and pioneering automobile manufacturers giving their vehicles a bit of real world testing.
The National Old Trails Road at the Colorado River. Photo Mohave Museum of History & Arts.
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.
A child’s wagon manufactured by Pierce-Arrow. Photo Pierce Arrow Museum
Before launching a company that produced some of the most prestigious and luxurious automobiles in the United States, George N. Pierce Company was the successful manufacturer of an array of household goods including ice boxes, birdcages, and children’s wagons. Herbert and Eugene Adams of Dubuque, Iowa were the successful manufacturer of grave markers and concrete benches before they launched the Adams-Farwell company to produce automobiles. David Buick was a partner in a very successful plumbing supply business, and the man who patented the application of porcelain to cast Iron before launching the automobile company that bore his name.
The dawning of the American auto industry, and the 20th century, are an endless source of fascination for me. It was a period of amazing transition. On September 4, 1886, Geronimo, the fearless Apache warrior surrendered to General Miles. This was the same year that Ransom E. Olds of Oldsmobile fame received his first patent for a gasoline-powered car. Ten years later the Duryea brothers were manufacturing automobiles for sale, and two years after that the first automobile race in America took place in Chicago. In the 1870’s, Studebaker was the largest manufacturer of wheeled vehicles in the world. In 1899 the company took its first steps toward becoming an automobile manufacturer with an electric car designed by Thomas Edison. In the Territory of Arizona, in the remote community of Kingman, a Ford dealerships was established in about 1911. And yet, horse or mule drawn stagecoaches connected Kingman with mining camps until 1916.
In 1890 there were a handful of bicycle manufacturers in the United States. By 1896 there were hundred and hundreds of manufacturers as well as countless shops and stores selling accessories. The Wright brothers of aeronautical fame produced and repaired bicycles. In 1900 there were a scant handful of automobile manufacturers. Within two decades automobiles and automobile related industries accounted for almost eighty percent of all employment in the United States directly or indirectly. In the mid 1890’s the automobile was literally a circus side show curiosity. By 1910 it was a multi million dollar industry.
Ezra Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail with an ox cart in the 1850’s. He traveled America in a National automobile in 1914. Wyatt Earp of OK Corral fame was working as film consultant in Los Angeles during the 1920’s. And then there was the Swiss immigrant named Louis Chevrolet that gave rise to an American legend.
In an exciting new presentation I take the audience on a bit of time travel to the dawning of the American auto industry, and introduce them to what, in my humble opinion, was one of the most fascinating times in history. I will be kicking off the presentation at an event in Jackson, Michigan at the Hackett Auto Museum. This is a rather appropriate place to kick off the fall tour for this Jim Hinckley’s Americapresentation. After all Jackson came very close to becoming America’s motor city. More than twenty companies were manufacturing vehicles in this city. The largest manufacturer of automobile horns, Spartan, was headquartered in Jackson. Kelsey Hays had a major manufacturing facility in the city.
Stay tuned for more information. And stay tuned for some special live programs with auto enthusiasts and from fascinating auto museums.
Route 66 in western Arizona, from Topock to Kingman, is no mere highway. It is a bridge between the past, the present, and even the future. It is a scenic drive without equal. It is a destination for legions of international Route 66 enthusiasts, and a tangible link to centuries of history. There is even a Hollywood connection.
Cross into Arizona from California on I-40 and you are traveling on the last bridge to carry Route 66 across the Colorado River. It is also the bridge that Peter Fonda is driving on in the opening scenes of Easy Rider. Immediately to the south is the graceful arch of the 1916 National Old Trails Road bridge, now a support structure for pipelines. In the cinematic classic from 1940, The Grapes of Wrath, this is the bridge used by the Joad family as they crossed into California. As a bit of trivia, in that movie Henry Fonda, Peter Fonda’s father, is at the wheel.
Just north of the resort at Topock, Route 66 skirts the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last native riparian areas on the Colorado River. It is also a major birding area.
Oatman is known worldwide for its “wild burros” and gunfights in the streets. Dating to 1902, Oatman was never the wild and wooly frontier town portrayed to tourists today. It was, however, a prosperous and modern boom town with a purported peak population numbered in the thousands. Oatman, and Goldroad, the forgotten mining camp along Route 66 to the north, are also at the heart of the last major goldrush in Arizona.
In 1914, Louis Chevrolet, Barney Oldfield, and other drivers roared through Oatman during the last of the epic Desert Classic races. The course for the last race in the series that had been dubbed the Cactus Derby was along the National Old Trails Road from Los Angeles to Ash Fork, Arizona, and then south to Phoenix. It was an epic event worthy of headlines throughout the world.
Legend has it that Carol Lombard and Carol Lombard spent their first night as husband and wife at the Oatman Hotel. In March 1939, they did marry in Kingman. There was also a small reception that afternoon at the Brunswick Hotel, and the following morning they were in Los Angeles for a press conference.
Goldroad is no more. The faint vestiges from the once bustling town are fading fast or are being buried by tailings from the gold mine that operates there. Did you know that there is a connection between this forgotten mining camp and Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner in Kingman, an icon of the modern era on Route 66.
By the late 1930’s, N.R Dunton was a leading businessman in Goldroad. In addition to a busy and prosperous garage and gas station on Route 66, he provided a towing service, crucial for many travelers whose cars were unable to pull the grades of Sitgreaves Pass. In the now classic book, A Guide Book to Highway 66, written by Jack Rittenhouse in 1946 this towing service is noted. Roy Dunton, Dunton’s nephew, worked at that garage, and on occasion drove the tow truck.
In 1946, N.R. Dunton, with a business partner, purchased the Taylor-Owens Ford dealership in Kingman. Roy Dunton would later become the owner of this company and successfully steer it through several transitions; in late 1957 it became an Edsel dealership, next came a full line GM facility, and then transformation into Dream Machines, the classic car facility that it is today. Roy’s son, Scott, manages the dealership today and is also the president of the Route 66 Association of Kingman.
The Kimo (Ki for Kingman, Mo for Mohave County) Café and Shell station with a garage opened in 1939. The Dunton family acquired the café in the early 1990’s, refurbished it, and renamed it Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner. The “D” is for Roy Dunton.
On the east side of Sitgreaves Pass is the faded vestiges of Ed’s Camp. Known as Little Meadows in the late 19th century and in the era of National Old Trails Road, the springs located here were a welcome sight for weary travelers. The first European to camp at the desert oasis was Father Garces during his exploration across northern Arizona in 1776. Edsel Ford stopped here for water during his cross country trip on the National Old Trails Road in the summer of 1915.
I have a personal connection to the site, as well as to Route 66 in the Black Mountains. My first paying job was tending the gardens for Ed Edgerton, founder of Ed’s Camp. This section of Route 66 is also where I learned to ride a bicycle, to drive, and to drive trucks.
Cool Springs on the eastern flank of the Black Mountains is another landmark in the era of renaissance on Route 66. And it too has a Dunton connection. N.R. Dunton built the initial complex that consisted of a gas station and garage at the site in 1926.
Route 66 from the Colorado River to Kingman, through the scenic Black Mountains and across the wide Sacramento Valley is no mere highway. It is a magical journey through time. It is an adventure reminiscent the great American Road trip. It is Memory Lane.