In past articles we have seen surprising connections between companies well known for their pianos, overalls, thermostats, pencils, but not automobiles. Now it’s time to look at a company and a family with a name famous around the world for a toy it didn’t invent or produce and an automobile that definitely qualifies as a “True and Truly Amazing Story of Automotive History ™”!
Our story begins with pies. As the famous 1970’s marketing slogan went "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet", but in this case the car is not a Chevrolet. But no matter how American pies may be, pies have
no real connection whatsoever with automobiles. And in this story between the pies and the automobile is one of being “all in the family”, a phrase made legendary in the sitcom of the same name. To name the pie company will instantly reveal the toy, a toy as popular as any in the past 100 years, perhaps more popular with adults than with children.
The pie company in question is the Frisbie Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the toy, most obviously, is the Frisbee. The difference in the spelling of the two names will be explained in due time. The
Frisbie Pie Company was founded in 1871 and at one point baked 80,000 pies a day. There was another branch of the Frisbie family in Cromwell, Connecticut. This Frisbie family would be in the toy business for over 75 years, but had nothing to do with the “flying saucer” we know as the Frisbie. Joseph Russell Frisbie was the automotive man in the Cromwell Frisbie’s. In 1899 he began the production of gasoline engines for racing boats, and after much experimentation, in 1901 started building automobiles. His Frisbie Motor
Company produced both automotive and marine engines, many of which went into the yachts of wealthy New Englanders.
The first Frisbie automobile was a two passenger runabout he named the Frisbie Red Devil. The car was equipped with a rear mounted water cooled two-cylinder opposed L-head engine; it’s believed that five Red Devils were built, one of which still exists in a Frankfort, Indiana automobile museum. At the 1903 New York Auto Show Frisbie exhibited a new car, but it is unknown how many of these were actually built. Frisbie ran into the problem posed by the Selden automobile patent requiring American automobile
anufacturers to be licensed and pay royalties to build and sell automobiles, a situation finally ended when Henry Ford successfully overturned the patent monopoly in 1911. It seems that after 1904 Frisbie decided to stay clear of the Selden patent issue all together and built marine and motorcycle engines, but no more automobiles. Frisbie would continue in the engine business until retiring in 1920. Later he would be involved in the family toy business, designing toy banks that later became collector items.
And now for the “rest of the story”! Not far from the Frisbie pie plant schoolchildren playing tossed pie plates around and yelled "Frisbie" to warn others not to get hit by the spinning tin. Soon the game made
its way to the nearby Yale campus where Frisbie pies were a student favorite. At Yale flinging around the Frisbie pie pans became as popular with the students as it had been with the school children. Although no doubt any brand of pie tin could be used, the name Frisbie “stuck” and became the game’s name too. So as you can see, today’s Frisbee has quite a pedigree; not too many toys can boast they went to college, much less went to Yale, and had automobile of the same name!
Over the years kids tossed around their Mother’s pie pans, this author being among them. In 1955 the Wham – O Company, best known for the Hula Hoop, bought the rights to a flying disc that had been developed by Fred Morrison and promoted the slightly renamed Frisbee on television. Apparently the good people at Wham-O thought the new spelling was better for their product; perhaps it was the “bee” in the revised name they liked. Soon Frisbees could be seen flying across the sand at the beach and the grass at the park everywhere. More recently man’s best friend got in the act, and the spectacular ability of dogs
to jump and catch the Frisbee developed into an organized sport. Today there is even professional Frisbee action, including Professional Ultimate Frisbee.
The Frisbee is a story that could happen only in America; from pie pans in the kitchen to schoolyard game, to collegiate fad, television promoted toy, and finally professional sport. And with that, we have the story of pies, a toy, and an automobile.