The plan was to present Pope Pius X an appropriately styled new Chicago Electric after showing it at the 1914 Chicago Auto Show. The question is, what happened to the car? It's another unique True and Truly Amazing Story of Automotive History only from the Center for Automotive History!
Pope Pius X Circa 1905
From the Omaha Daily Bee 2/12/1914
Since the automobiles were built there have been special built custom automobiles, dream cars, and purpose built vehicles. One such custom car was a1914 Chicago electric built as gift for Pope Pius X and first shown at the 1914 Chicago Automobile Show. To make the story more interesting, there is a mystery surrounding the car. For, while its existence is well documented, there is no proof the car was ever in the Vatican. In fact, it’s not certain it ever left Chicago! Even with all the publicity surrounding the cars’ appearance at the show its ultimate fate remains unknown. The story of the car begins when a group of dedicate Chicago Catholics realized that even in 1914 the Pope was still being transported by sedan chair. This ancient mode of transportation; more associated with Cleopatra or some medieval lord, was used in the Vatican as late as 1929. But then, with the political situation that existed at that time between the King of Italy and the Vatican, there wasn’t much of anywhere for the Pope to go. Relations between the two entities were not friendly, a situation referred to as “the Roman Question”. A resolution defining the status of the Vatican and its territory was finally formalized in 1929 by the Treaty of Locarno, the terms of which are still in effect some 86 years later. Wanting to do something to help the Pope’s reliance on strong backs and muscular legs, the decision was made that nothing would be a better gift for the Pope than a new electric car, appropriately customized for a Pope. While there is no way of knowing it, one can’t help but speculate that the resulting publicity from giving the car to the Pope was also a motive in the plan. In any case, the Chicago Electric Company was selected to build the car, which was suitably finished and equipped in a worthy pontifical style. The interior featured deep, plush seats covered in velvet material. The exterior was painted in an appropriately subdued color, with the Pope’s coat of arms applied.
The car was prominently shown at the show where it no doubt gathered considerable notice. With the closing of the show the mystery of what became of the car begins, as one knows what happened to it once the show closed. No records exist in the Vatican to show the car was ever used by Pope Pius or anyone else, in fact there is no evidence the car was ever shipped to the Vatican. The plan for a group of prominent Chicago area faithful to accompany the car to Rome, where it was hoped the Pope himself would drive it, appears to have never materialized. And, seeing as how in 1922 the Vatican publicly called an Italian built Bianchi limousine its first motor car, and that no Pope visited America until Paul VI in 1965, it’s certain Pope Pius X never saw the car.
In the late 1980’s a Mr. Keith Marvin made a concerted effort to trace the history of the car after the show, enlisting the help of no less than a Cardinal. He hit a complete dead end, finding nothing to indicate what had happened to the car. There is no record of its shipment, no indication it was ever in the Vatican, nothing – there seems to be no more word of the car after the show ended. It seems unlikely the car could have been sold to another buyer without changes to the décor, although the deep plush seats may have been appreciated by a non-pontifical owner! And, while no doubt the Pope’s coat of arms might have been of value in obtaining a choice parking place, its use in that regard would have no doubt have been frowned upon by the church. So if the car was sold it must have been minus the Pope’s coat of arms.
But what buyer of such a car would not proudly make it know he was driving a car built for a Pope? A Chicago Electric similar to the car to be given to the Pope cost about $3,300 in 1914, or about $77,000 in today’s money, a customized car would have cost more. One cannot imagine such a luxurious and expensive car sitting on some dealer’s lot, cruising along Whacker Avenue, or parked in someone’s driveway without it drawing some attention. The question remains, what did happen to the car? Unfortunately, unless some new evidence is discovered, it will remain a mystery. The 1914 Pope Pius X electric car of 1914 is, and will be, another True and Truly Amazing Story of Automotive History™!
After a holiday break we return to more"true and truly amazing stories of automotive history - this time an odd two wheel "automobile" from Indianapolis, Indiana!
Moore car at the 1917 Washington DC Auto Show from the Washington Times 12-15-17
Once introduced, the automobile industry saw many attempts at “making a better mousetrap”. The combined genius and inspiration of the country, now the world’s leading manufacturing power, produced countless new automotive ideas, along with some true oddities and spectacular failures. One such better mousetrap idea was the Moore Car from Indianapolis, which in fact, was far more motorcycle than automobile.
The Moore Car was a two-wheeled contrivance with two small outrigger stabilizing wheels to keep the rider-like driver in an upright position. The stabilizing wheels could be raised and lowered with the touch of a button. Perhaps unkind but certainly honest commentators would describe the Moor Car as a motorcycle with training wheels! For in truth that’s what it looked like with its two main wire wheels and cycle fenders, although it was steered with a wheel like an automobile. Or at least sort of steered like an automobile. Without the opportunity to actually drive a Moore Car from all appearances its steering wheel would appear to function more like bicycle handlebars!
What may be the most amazing part of the Moore Car story is that was not the only one of its kind; there were other similar hybrids of motorcycle and automobile including the spectacular V8 powered Scripps Booth from Detroit. In fact the concept of a two wheeled car has been revived today. Some of the more creative and perhaps far-fetched ideas for automobiles never seem to completely disappear, be they flying car, amphibious car, or two wheeled car.
The man behind the Moore Car was one W.G. Moore, who was very intent on calling his creation an automobile, rejecting any reference to it being a motorcycle. The idea behind the vehicle was no doubt to provide a low cost, inexpensive to operate, easily driven way to get around town. All of these are worthy goals, and the Moore Car was well designed and built. But it doesn’t take too much imagination to envision what rain, mud, ice, snow, and pot holes, not to mention traffic would mean to the Moore Car driver – or should we say rider? Because clearly ride and not drive is what one would do on a Moore Car.
One of the few known images of the Moore Car is a photo with an interesting story of its own. The caption for the photo taken at the 1917 Washington DC Auto Show reads “Miss Hilda Vann from Crescent Films”. Just who Miss Vann was and what connection to automobiles or the Washington Auto Show, if any, that Crescent Films had remains unclear. Another picture of the Moore Car without the charming young Hilda Vann, was also taken at the 1917 Washington DC Auto Show. The Moore Car was at the show sponsored by the Warrington Motor Car Company, a local automobile dealer, and the Dorn-Hill Company of Indianapolis. Dorn-Hill were stockbrokers, and Frank. D. Hill a partner in that firm, was also President of the Moore Car Company.
But the introduction of the Moore Car at the Washington show did garner some publicity; the picture of the Moore Car and Ms. Vann in her long fur coat appearing in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post. It’s only speculation, but perhaps the fur coast was meant to show both how stylish and practical the Moore Car really was. Or, in a different day and age, maybe it was intended to show that the Moore Car was so easy to drive even a woman could do it!
Recent research by this author reveals that the Moore Car Corporation was in business longer that previously known. The Company moved to another location in Indianapolis and was still in business as late as 1919. How many Moore Cars were built is unknown, but it could not have been too many, as even in 1917 few people would view the Moore Car as a true automobile. On the other hand, over time the Moore Car has been listed as being a motorcycle, no doubt something Mr. Moore would definitely not agree with. Moore motorcycle than automobile the Moore Car is another “true and truly amazing story of automotive history”.
The Center for Automotive History has recently completed research on the Moore Car and acquired new information including photos and images. There is - as often the case with automotive history - more to the More Car story than we thought!
Firsbie Pie Company
Frisbie Red Devil circa 1901
1903 New York City Automobile Show
What started as a children's game matriculated to Yale and in time became the all-popular Frisbie. But few people today know the true story if its history and how the Frisbee of today has a family connection to an early American automobile. Another True and Truly Amazing Story of Automotive History ™” from the early days of the American automobile!
What’s in a name? In this story pies, a famous toy, and an early American automobile!
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.
Dixon Factory 1878
1912 Dixon Lubricants Ad
1913 Dixon Motor Graphite Ad
We resume our trip back through the history of unknown automobile companies by looking at a company going back to early 19th century New England. It’s a company that once dominated the production of an item each us have used countless times in our lives and no doubt have in our homes today.
The item is the pencil, once indispensable to schools, businesses, and just about everyone everywhere. Prior to the advent of the computer, the smart phone, and the tablet, the pencil was used to take notes and create documents. For those of us old enough to remember, our education from kindergarten letter practice to college blue book essay depended upon a sharp pencil, preferably with an amply sized eraser to remove all too frequent mistakes.
Our story begins in post-Revolutionary Massachusetts, where in 1799 one Joseph Dixon was born in the bustling and energetic new America only recently freed from English rule. Born in Marblehead, Dixon grew up on Darling Street, and his house is still there. From an early age Dixon showed an intense interest in all things mechanical, displaying a particular curiosity in trying to understand how the things worked. In time Dixon would design the forerunner of the camera viewfinder, patented a double-crank steam engine, devise a method for printing banknotes to prevent counterfeiting, and patented a new method for tunneling under water. He ranks as an inventor with Fulton, Morse, Bell, and the other great innovators of his era.
In 1827 Dixon became involved with a graphite mine, and realized that graphite had many practical uses. It was graphite that would make Dixon a rich man. Dixon developed an improved graphite crucible, a vessel used for melting metals. Graphite has excellent heat resistant properties, and the graphite crucible he invented was soon in wide use. Building on the success of his crucible, in 1847 Dixon built a mill in what is now an historic neighborhood in the downtown area of Jersey City, New Jersey. The demand for his graphite crucible grew as America and its need for iron and steel products grew, and Dixon became wealthy in the pattern of other 19th century industrialists.
The pencil had a long history prior to the arrival of Dixon, going back to the Romans. Graphite was in widespread use in writing instruments in England by 1564. But while graphite left a more visible and darker mark than lead it proved soft and brittle when used for writing. Something was needed to hold the graphite in place. At first a string wrapping was used; later the graphite was inserted into a hollow wooden stick. And with that improvement, the basic form of the modern pencil emerged. The mass production of pencils occurred in Germany, and the European pencil industry developed rapidly up through the 19th century.
A simple device, the pencil was none the less in its day a revolutionary technological breakthrough, a major step forward in writing instruments. In America, pencils were at first imported from Europe, especially high-quality pencils from Germany. American pencil making began in the early 1800s, David Hubbard, William Munroe, and even the writer Henry David Thoreau among the early American pencil manufacturers. The quality of these early American pencils left a lot to be desired. But with the tight English embargo during the War of 1812, the American pencil industry grew rapidly, Dixon making his first pencil in 1812. By 1866 he had invented a machine that could produce 132 pencils a minute.
The Dixon Company would become the largest pencil manufacturer in the world. The pencil got a big boost from its use in the classroom as generations of students learned their ABC’s, practiced division tables, and wrote essays on countless topics. Later, in the pre-multimedia days of radio and black and white TV, the pencil was needed to document thoughts, to do mathematical functions, and write down anything you didn’t want to commit to the more permanent but impossible to revise ink. There was no delete key handy in the days of pen and paper.
So what does all this talk of graphite, pencils, and Joseph Dixon have to do with automobiles? Among Dixon’s many interests and innovations he speculated on how to use the power of expanding steam to power what would be truly a horseless carriage. But Dixon did not stop with mere speculation; in 1830 he built and ran a steam carriage. Little is known today about the vehicle, or what it looked like, as it was built before the invention of the camera. But that he built it and it was a notable event in Lynn is a fact, and it ranks as one of the earliest attempts to build at steam powered vehicle in the United States.
Dixon would die in 1869, but the company he had founded would continue to grow and prosper. The Dixon-Ticonderoga Pencil would be the most widely used pencil in America for decades, millions being produced. Today the company still makes pencils, although the company no longer manufactures pencils domestically, instead operating facilities in Europe. The American pencil market has come from circle, from pencils imported from Europe to US made pencils back to imported pencils.
But there is another tie between the Dixon pencil and the automobile, one that shows just how widespread the economic and social impact of the automobile was. Along with its use in pencils, graphite has very good lubricating properties and was soon adapted for automotive use. The Dixon Crucible Company produced a whole line of automotive graphite based lubricants, and the advertisements for these products tell the whole story of the Dixon and the automobile for, as you can see, even a pencil manufacturer is right at home in the automobile industry!
1907 Johnson Mail Truck
1910 Johnson Empress Touring
So far in or tour of what certainly qualify as unique automobile manufacturers, we have seen birdcage, piano, and overall manufactures all go automotive. Next in our lineup is a company very much with us today, a well-known and respected company, with a long and successful history producing an item each of us, with few exceptions, have in our homes. This company is a multi-billion dollar, diversified, global corporation which had its beginnings with the solution a teacher came up with to put a stop to his aggravation.
What aggravated the teacher was the problem of keeping his classroom at an even temperature during cold weather. And in 1880’s Minnesota keeping warm without being too hot was a real trick given the technology available to heat a home, school, or business. And so it was that the need to monitor the steam heat from the furnace in the basement of the school by constantly adjusting the steam valves led to one of the modern world’s simplest yet most important inventions.
The real trouble was that the only way to adjust the classroom temperature was to first find and then tell the janitor to go down to the basement and tinker with the steam valves to change the amount of heat coming out of the furnace. Just as the students of today would not hesitate to complain of being too hot or too cold, the teacher’s students were not shy about stating their complaints about the room’s temperature. And no doubt, come test time or late in the day when students thoughts turned to leaving and going home, complain about the heat they did!
The teacher’s first solution was a system that would signal the janitor by ringing a bell to let the janitor know how he needed to adjust the steam valves. But the teacher did not stop with the just sending the janitor signals, as the janitor still had to be in the basement and adjust the steam valves to regulate the heat. All this took time, and the heat regulation took time once the valves had been adjusted under the best of circumstances. No doubt the electric annunciator system was a step forward but far from an ideal solution. So the teacher kept working on the problem and in 1885 patented a compressed air powered thermostat that could automatically adjust the steam valves of a furnace thereby eliminating the need of a janitor or anybody else to do the job manually. The need to control the heat in a classroom had led to the first room thermostat to be invented, leading to a whole new era of comfort not just for students and teachers, but for people everywhere in schools, homes offices, and buildings of all kind. No doubt it also must have made the janitor in the basement happy too, because up to that point he was wrong no matter what he did, as it was either to hot or too cold most of the time.
The teacher in this true life story reflecting the old adage that “necessity is the mother of all invention” was named Warren S. Johnson, a professor at the State Normal College in Whitewater, Minnesota. This author having been in Minnesota on a number of occasions, he can personally attest to the fact that the winters there can truly be cold. So it’s certain that Professor Johnson had his own and not just his student’s comfort in mind when he persistently worked to find a way to monitor the classroom’s temperature. After all, everyone in his classroom was subject to the same cycle of too hot and then too cold, the only difference being the tolerance of the individual to the fluctuations in temperature.
Johnson soon found a group of Milwaukee investors and incorporated a new venture to build and sell his newly invented thermostat products. His new company, Johnson Electric Service Company, manufactured, installed, and serviced systems to automatically regulate building temperature. The company was renamed Johnson Controls in 1974, a company today with over 170,000 employees and sales of over $42 billion dollars. Johnson Controls product line has grown over the years, in part by acquiring other companies, and today includes automobile interior designs, car seats, batteries, climate control, and facility management services for major corporations.
But Warren Johnson also liked automobiles, in fact he was a real horseless carriage enthusiast. The first Johnson vehicle was a steam truck the company built in 1901 for its own use. After an unfortunate incident in which the truck was loaded far beyond its capacity, a second truck was built. This was followed by two other trucks, two of which were built for other companies. Johnson soon went on to build a fleet of 8 steam powered vehicles for the Postmaster in Milwaukie, these being among the first specialty built mail vehicles in the United States. Another truck was built for the Pabst Brewing Company, Pabst being the beer that according to its advertising “that made Milwaukee famous”.
By 1905 Johnson expanded is vehicle line to automobiles by building steam limousines promoted as being for “touring in civilized countries by civilized tourists”. No mention was made of which countries in the world were considered to be civilized, but no doubt America made the list. Nor was it specified what criteria was used to distinguish a civilized tourist from and uncivilized tourist, but one would think having both the means and the inclination to buy one of the cars would go a long way to prove you belonged to the civilized group. In 1908 Johnson switched to gasoline powered cars, selling them under names like Empress and Elite. These were large, powerful, and defiantly upscale models, many built to custom orders. For example, a 1909 Johnson Landaulet (similar to a limousine but with a canvas top over the passenger area) listed for $3,500, the equivalent of something over $80,000 today.
Johnson continued to build a wide-range of commercial vehicles too, including a fire truck, a sightseeing bus, and ambulances. The car line was expanded to ten different models in 1911, with the five passenger 30 HP Special Touring car starting at $1,500. The entire line of Johnson automobiles were named the Silent Johnson in 1911. All the while the Johnson Company continued to build thermostats and related products, Johnson holding over fifty patents, most based on the harnessing and use of air, steam, or fluid power. In all truth, the Johnson automobile venture was far afield his thermostat business, but nonetheless successful, even if in something of a modest way. The total number of Johnson cars built is unknown, but the car was offered and sold on a national basis.
The Johnson automobile died with the death of Warren Johnson in December of 1911. Automobile trade magazines noted his passing, and in the naming of a successor to run the company. But it was quickly decided that the company should focus on its core business of automatic temperature control products. After all, Johnson had a competitor in a company that had started in Wabash, Indiana in 1906 that also produced temperature control systems. You may also have heard of that company – Honeywell, even though it never built automobiles.
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1911 Carhartt Touring Car
At first producing overalls seems about as far removed from manufacturing automobiles as you can get. You could argue that the machinery and skilled workmen required to make a pair of overalls could probably make seat covers, canvas tops, and other pieces of automobile upholstery, but that’s about it. It is true that in the first days of the automobile, many companies totally unrelated to vehicle production were called upon to provide automotive upholstery and bodies. Furniture, wagon, and cabinet makers built automotive bodies for the new wheeled creations, upholsterers and even funeral parlors, that had great skill in creating elegant draped and bolstered fabric displays, made automobile seat and top coverings for home-built and local automobile companies.
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.
Photo Courtesy Monroe County, NY Genelology
1918 French Piano Company Spanish Renaissance Baby Grand piano as seen on its sale in 2008
So far we have seen how a company that once made birdcages, Pierce, went on to build one of the greatest of all American classic automobiles, the Pierce-Arrow. But, one might ask, just how do pianos fit in with building automobiles? And that is what we will find out next, as we look at piano manufactures that also had a try and building automobiles.
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!
The Center for Automotive History wants to thank the Stant Corporation, the French Family Association, the City of New Castle, Indiana, the Historic Boston-Edison Association, and Monroe County, New York Genealogy along with many others for historic background and family information for the people and companies mentioned in this article.
The peak of 1930's pure elegance in automotive design and luxury, a 1934 Pierce-Arrow 840A Silver Arrow Coupe 2 one of only some 1,700 plus Pierce-Arrow's to be built that year. Pierce-Arrow a grand name in American automobile history had started building cars in 1901. The company's first car, the Pierce Motorette, revealed little of the classic Pierce-Arrows to follow, being powered by a 1 cylinder motor of very modest power - as little as 3 1/2 to be exact!
Photo courtesy of Mr. Jack Snell
But Pierce-Arrow would soon begin to aim its automobiles at the elite of the new driving class. Sales were greatly boosted by the showing the Pierce-Arrow Great Arrow model made starting with a win in the first Glidden Tour. Pierce built automobiles would win the next 4 Glidden Tours and establish itself as a leader in quality built automobiles. By 1909 both the car and the company would be named Pierce-Arrow. In 1913 the most famous Pierce-Arrow feature of all would arrive, the fender mounted headlights that made a Pierce-Arrow instantly recognizable.
So, you may ask, what does all of this have to do with birdcages? And there is where are story starts, for the majestic Pierce-Arrow were built in Buffalo, New York by a company that had its start in building birdcages. The old saying "truth is stranger that fiction" certainly applies here. Among its other earlier products were ice boxes and bicycles, seemingly having a predilection for producing items starting with the letter b that had no apparent other relationship to one another. Pierce would build some of those prestigious and expensive cars of its era, but after a rather short stint under Studebaker ownership would fall prey to the Great Depression.
We are now left with the other odd items in our original list - overalls, pianos, thermostats, and razor blades. Perhaps the Pierce-Arrow example gives you a clue, but be aware the companies that produce the other items are still well-known today and very much in business.
Check back soon as the "secret of the odd automobile manufactures " is revealed. A mystery worthy of Lieutenant Columbo, Perry Mason, Hercule Poirot, and perhaps even Sherlock himself!
In the weeks and months to come this blog will bring stories of important people, places, and events in Automotive History. But more than just facts and figures, it will bring strange and fascinating true life stories from the early days of the automobile. So let's get started right now!
Today we think of the major automobile manufactures both domestic and foreign for what they are, huge industrial powerhouses that turn out immense numbers of new cars every day. But that was far from the case a century or so ago, when the automobile moved from novelty to necessity. Every town across the country had its tinkerer or dreamer certain they held the key to the future of the automobile in their idea for a "better mousetrap" in this case one on wheels. Backyard mechanics, academic thinkers, and businessmen of all backgrounds gave the newly founded automobile business a try.
Many were sure their interpretation of the better automobile was a sure winner and would bring wealth and success of unknown proportions. And, of course, these often self-made "automotive experts" wanted to share their success with those who saw the wisdom in financing or buying stock in their fledging endeavors. Even the motive power of said better vehicles was as varied as the personalities of the would be automotive men, and as we will see, the women of the era. Gasoline, electric, and steam cars all had their share of proponents. There was no shortage of ideas, no lack of optimism, and no end to the complexity of the plans and schemes.
That lays the foundation for my next blog so I will leave you with a question for you to think about. What do overalls, pianos, thermostats, birdcages, and razor blades have to do with automobiles? The answer will no doubt surprise you!