But the gulf between making overalls and building automobiles is far too great to explain how a company could move from making work clothes to building automobiles. The answer once again lies not in the connection between the two products, but in the impact of the automobile on American industry and economic development. As we have seen with birdcage and pianos, within a few short years of its introduction the automobile industry led to the creation of automotive related businesses all across the country. And this was not just automobile manufactures; companies sprang up everywhere to provide automotive parts, assemblies, gasoline and lubricants, garages, body repair, gears, axles, lighting equipment, and specialized tools, in what was a near nonstop wave of innovations and improvements.
To many at the time the automobile was viewed as the "next big thing", a sure-fire money maker that could not be passed up. As if out of the ancient Greek myth, the automobile business was truly the early twentieth century’s siren of industry, attracting business all the way from budding young entrepreneurs and would be inventors to prominent business leaders with well-established and respected companies. As we have already seen, there were no limits as to who caught the automobile fever; companies were as diverse in their previous product line as they were in their geographic locations. Even what were then the not yet states but still territories of Arizona and Oklahoma got into the act, automobiles being built there even before their stars were added to the flag. Stay tuned, for the story of automobiles and the last of the great American western frontier will be a subject covered in an upcoming article in this blog.
So it would seem that one Hamilton Carhartt, the man behind the well established and respected Carhartt work wear company must have caught the auto bug too. From what is known in the available historical record, there seems to be no apparent financial or compelling business reason to prompt his automobile venture, as his existing company was quite successful. But for two years, 1911 and 1912, Carhartt built automobiles as well as making overalls. In fact, to show that “pushing the facts” is not a new trend in advertising, in speaking of the new car Carhartt proudly proclaimed “28 years progressive manufacturing success culminates in Carhartt Cars”. What the ad failed to mention was that those "28 years progressive manufacturing success" were spent making overalls, not automobiles!
It would also seem that the Carhartt automobile was as well-built as its previous products. Initially Carhartt offered a rather wide range of models utilizing three different engines of 25, 30, and 40 HP. Later a more powerful 50 HP option was added to the lineup. The Carhartt Automobile Corporation was formed in 1910; its intial offering was two 1911 models both built on a 118 inch wheelbase with a 25 hp engine on the lower priced car and a 35 hp engine on the more expensive line. Some models of the car featured rather racy sporty bodies, especially the Gunboat Special and the Torpedo Traveler. But the reality was that even if well-built and nicely furnished, the cars offered little than their established competitors already did, and their small factory could not produce a volume of cars large enough to make the company profitable even if they could have found enough buyers. And one thing the Carhartt automobile had was competitors; there were 272 automobile manufacturers in the United States in 1909. Hamilton Carhartt was far from alone in catching the auto bug!
It didn’t take Hamilton Cathartt long to find out that there was a lot more to making money building automobiles than he first thought. And if nothing else Hamilton Carhartt was a businessman and knew how to make money; once he saw he wasn’t with his automobile venture he didn’t waste time winding the business down. The Carhartt automobile was no more by March of 1912. It’s not known for certain how many Carhartt’ s were built in the company’s short life, but Hamilton Carhartt stated that first year production was set for 300 cars, a reasonable number for a new automobile manufacturer circa 1910. If that many cars actually left the Carhartt factory on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit in 1911 is not known, nor is the total number of Carhartt automobiles built. But urely it must have been relatively few, perhaps in the 200-400 range, possibly even less. There is no evidence that any of the cars are extinct today.
The effort had been a legitimate attempt to become a factor in the automobile market, with a showroom in New York City, magazine ads, and good intentions and experienced business management. The Carhartt Automobile Company had been initially capitalized at $500, 000 with a reported $300,000 paid in by the sale of two classes of common stock, which makes its financial condition and the end somewhat puzzling. Not that it wasn’t all that difficult to go broke trying to build automobiles in the years leading up to World War 1; that happened quite regularly. But to start with $300,000 in 1910 and end up with $4,000 cash on hand in March of 1912 shows quite an imbalance between income and expenses. And that’s exactly the figures used when Hamilton’s automobile business entered bankruptcy and was no more. It a good example of the fact that simply having a good product was not nearly enough to successfully build automobiles, and that a lot of money was needed to make any significant impact on the market. And then there was a man in the business of building automobiles named Ford.
And so Hamilton Carhartt focused on his work wear business, where the Carhartt overall would become something of an iconic fashion statement and today are popular both for both work and leisure. Few people today striving for a trendy look in colorful denim or wearing Carhartt overalls to their jobs have any idea that their favorite overalls are made by a company that once made automobiles. Just one more real and truly amazing story of unknown auto history you will only find at The Center for Automotive History.