Perhaps the most surprising part of the "pianos and automobiles" story isn't that there was a company that built both, but that that there were several, and others that had a role in the automotive industry. And at that, one such company was the most renowned name in Americana built pianos. In one sense the segue way from pianos to automobiles makes sense, or at least did in the early days of the automobile. Any company with the woodworking skills to make a piano case could build automobiles bodies which were at the time almost exclusively built of wood. Aluminum was also used but was very expensive, and steel was heavy and required expensive tooling and machinery, as well as a whole different set of skills. Building a piano required the fabrication of a very intricate frame with precise mechanical actions that required some of the same skills required to build an automobile.
Along with carriage makers, furniture and even casket manufactures supplied bodies for automobiles, especially with the wave of "home built" one of a kind creations that sprang up out of garages, barns, and backyards all across the county. The local blacksmith, carpenter, and cabinet maker were often called upon to provide the budding young automobile enthusiast with parts to complete his new machine. So it was that many other related and not so related businesses saw new opportunity in the automobile, and this included some piano manufactures.
It may be that we should not be too surprised that several gentlemen in the business of building pianos took Henry Ford's advice to his brother-in-law that "... there is a barrel of money to be made in this business" ... that business being the business of building automobiles. One of the first was Theodore Steinway of Steinway piano fame, the greatest name in American pianos, who entered into an agreement with Mercedes to manufacture parts for the American Mercedes Automobile as well as building both automobile and marine engines circa 1891 (some sources state as early as 1888), an arrangement that lasted at least until 1906. Hard to believe, but a good example of a Real and Truly Amazing Story of Unknown Auto History (TM) that you will only find at The Center for Automotive History.
Another piano builder with a love for automobiles was Gustav Otto Heine of San Francisco, California. The owner of the very successful Heine Piano Company, in 1903 he became of the first Ford dealers on the West Coast. By 1905 he had formed the Heine Motor Car Company and began building his own cars, an endeavor that came to an abrupt end, along with his piano factory, when they were destroyed by the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. For a time Heine had to see to the reestablishment of his well-known and very profitable piano company, but he did not forget his dream of being an automobile manufacturer.
By 1921 he was ready to try again with his own automobile, and no one can say that he didn't dream big because his new car was truly of magnificent proportions. His new automobile, the Heine-Velox would be one of the largest, most luxuries, and expensive automobiles ever built. It would in fact be the most expensive automobile in America when it was offered at prices ranging from $17,000 to $25,000 (some $204,000 to $300,000 today). The car had a long 148 inch wheelbase and was powered by a Weidely V-12 engine built in Indianapolis to Heine's specifications. These were massive, heavy, powerful cars aimed at the very most wealthy buyers. A total of only five were ever built, and none were sold to customers. Today one of the cars is in the Imperial Collection in Las Vegas, one car formerly in the Harrah's collection is in a private collection, and it is thought three other cars may also still exist. There will be more about the Heine-Velox story in an upcoming edition of the Automotive Heritage Newsletter (TM) from The Center for Automotive History.
Foster & Company of Rochester, New York is another established piano builder to try building automobiles. In 1899 George G. Foster built an experimental steam car, the next year he organized the Foster Automobile Company to build both steam and electric automobiles. Automobile Topics magazine reported in its January 12, 1902 edition that the "... Foster Company was producing 5 steam vehicles per week and employed 50 men and some boy apprentices". But something went wrong pretty quickly, as the company was sold not long after its founding to a Mr. Park Densmore, all of the original company investors leaving except for George Foster. The company continued to build both stream and electric cars and delivery wagons, but by 1903 the company was bankrupt. It would seem that Mr. Densmore embezzled company funds, rumor having it that he cashed several promissory notes totaling $30,000 and could not be found. In any event a warrant for his arrest was issued for forgery and grand larceny. The July 22, 1903 edition of Horseless Age said "there are ugly rumors afoot to the effect that Densmore is not the only culprit". It was George Foster that was at the center of those "ugly rumors".
Foster, who seems to have been well-known and respected in the Rochester business community at the time, was also said to have disappeared, which was rather more easy to do in 1903 than today. In any case, the historical record does not appear to shed any light on his subsequent whereabouts or career, nor any word on what happened to his piano business. Perhaps someone reading this blog will know and give us all the "rest of the story"! Another company, the Artzberger Automobile Company of Allegheny, Pennsylvania did make an attempt to continue production of the Foster steamer but is was quickly over after a few more cars had been built.
The Jesse French Piano Company of New Castle, Indiana also has a definite automotive connection, although in this case it's "all in the family". The French Company was once a major player in the piano industry going back to the 19th century. The company began in Nashville in 1875, and by 1898 was the Krell-French Piano Company. In 1903, following a devastating fire at their factory in Tennessee, the company relocated to New Castle, Indiana with the help of civic leaders and local investors who pledged to buy the required amount of stock to build a new factory at a meeting in Indianapolis. Jesse French would continue to build numbers of pianos until his death in 1927.
So what's the connection between the French piano and automobiles? Jesse French had three sons, one of which John L. French, was a true pioneer of the automobile industry. French formed the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company in 1899 with George P. Dorris, who would later build the Dorris automobile from 1906 to 1925. The Saint Louis Company built what was described at the time (1899) as "one of the few buildings in the United States erected specifically for the manufacture of gasoline vehicles." The company is also said to have been the first successful automobile business west of the Mississippi. In another first for the company, John French drove a new St. Louis on the first ever automobile trip between St. Louis and Chicago. He also was only one of three drivers to finish a 1901 New Yrok City to Buffalo race. But financial problems arose after the company moved to Peoria, Illinois, and in 1907 the company was in the hands of receivers. In a sad bit of irony, John French would later meet his end in an automobile accident.
It only seems right that any story about automobiles should include something about Detroit, which is the home of our next automobile building piano company, the Grinnell Brothers Piano Company. The Grinnell Company had a long and storied history in Detroit, and was a well-known name in pianos for most of the 1900's. Grinnell began business in 1879, moved to Detroit in 1882, and built their first piano in 1902. Grinnell built a factory in Holly in Oakland County, Michigan said to be the world’s largest piano factory, and by the 1950's Grinnell Company was the largest piano distributor in the world. The company was severely impacted by the Detroit riots of 1967 and finally closed its doors in 1981. Several historic Grinnell buildings still grace Detroit, the large piano factory now home to renovated lofts in a great example of reuse of an historic building.
But Grinnell also produced an electric car, from 1912-1915. The Grinnell brothers had entered the automobile business with a partner, Joel Phipps, a young electric car designer in 1911. The car was named the Phipps-Grinnell, but the next year the two brothers bought out Mr. Phipps, who continued to build electric cars under his own name for another year. The Grinnell was produced through 1915, and then the business was simply closed in January of 1916. The car had been a mild success, but by 1915 the electric car's heyday was past, and the brothers focused on their booming piano and music store business.
Our last piano related company with an automotive connection that does not, in all truthfulness, fit our theme of piano builders turned automobile manufactures. I included it for two reasons; one is that is a well-known company very much in business today, and two, it is an Indiana company that is part of an important historical development that will soon be a covered in a future article in this blog. The company in question is Stant Manufacturing Company, which had its beginnings in a bicycle repair shop opened by George Stant behind his home in Connersville, Indiana in 1899. As his business grew he opened a blacksmith shop and then a foundry, the company finding success in producing piano tuning pins, growing to be the largest producer of piano tuning pins in the United States. And it is piano tuning keys that are the link between pianos and automobiles for Stant.
It was World War 1 that would move Stant from piano tuning pins to the automotive industry. During the war, about 1917, Stant began working on submarine engine parts for the Navy, and the technical expertise the company acquired in metal plating proved to be ideal for making automobile parts when the war ended. Stant found great success in the 1920's producing a variety of automotive items. No less than Henry Ford himself asked Stant to design and produce the radiator ornament for the new Ford Model A introduced in 1928. Stant also built radiator ornaments for Lincoln, Pierce-Arrow, Packard, Cadillac, and other popular automobiles.
As the business expanded it moved into a larger factory to keep up with the expanding demand for its products. Locking gas caps, headlight rims, door handles, and fender ornaments were among the many items that Stant produced, both as original equipment on new automobiles and after-market replacement parts. In World War 2 Stant once again joined the war effort, making gas caps and caps for water containers, and .50 caliber machine gun shell casings.
After the war the increasing prosperity and growth of two car families led to ever greater sales of Stant automotive products. It was Stant that invented the safety release radiator cap, many of which this author has purchased over the years. Stant was sold by Kyle and Ivan Stant to Purolater Incorporated in 1965, and greatly expanded in the 1970's. In 1987 the company was purchased from Purolater in a management led buyout and today is a vibrant company with its products both manufactured and sold all over the world. But as the Stant Company says "It was a piano that secured the place of Stant Manufacturing, Inc. in automotive history ..."
With that we reach the end of our piano and automobiles story, at least for now. I sincerely hope there are those that will read this blog, make comments, or relate stories they know, for I feel certain there are other piano companies that saw a great future in building automobiles. And, The Center for Automotive History will soon offer a much more detailed presentation complete with photos and exclusive information that will related the story of automobiles and pianos like never before. Exclusive automotive history you will find no where else but at The Center for Automotive History!