Business | People

Detroit's early auto giants: Daredevils and mad mechanics

 By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

 “A number of people have been rather startled for a day or two by seeing a wagon come tearing along the street at a lively rate, dodging people and teams. … Detroit has now come to the front with a motor carriage. … It is the invention of Charles B. King of this city.”

– Detroit Free Press, August 16, 1896

Charles B. King may have been the first on Detroit streets with a gasoline powered motor carriage, but as early as the 1880s Detroit’s mechanics, machinists, engineers and amateur tinkers were all feverishly working on some version of a steam, electric or gasoline powered contraption.

By 1904, the first year auto manufacturing was recognized as an industry, the Detroit city census recorded close to 2,000 people making a living working on some version of the automobile. By 1917, 23 companies were registered as making cars and 132 supplying parts in Detroit. They employed close to 137,000 people and produced 1.1 million cars that year.

By 1922, according to Detroit historian Clarence Burton, the auto industry employed more people than all other Detroit industries combined.

While car companies like K-R-I-T, Northern (founded by Charles B. King) and Abbott are no longer with us, here is a look at the early auto pioneers who created the more recognizable brands from Detroit and Michigan.

 Ransom Eli Olds

Ransom E. Olds is considered by many to be the founder of the American automobile industry, as the first automaker to manufacture and sell cars in quantity. While competitors were selling fewer than 10 units a year, in 1900 Olds was cranking out 1,400 cars and by 1904 was up to 4,000.

Olds, whom friends called “R.E.,” was born on June 3, 1864, in Geneva, Ohio. In 1886 he began experimenting with steam-powered engines and in 1897 he received his patent for a gasoline-powered car and founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company.

He began his first plant in Lansing with local financing of $50,000. In 1899 he sold the company to Samuel L. Smith, a lumber baron, who became president while Olds became vice president. They relocated from Lansing to Detroit, renaming his company the Olds Motor Works. Olds envisioned a small, affordable automobile, good for city driving as well as the farm, which led him to develop and manufacture the legendary “Curved Dash” Oldsmobile, the first commercially successful car mass-produced on an assembly line in the U.S. It sold for $650.

1905 Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout

A 1905 Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout. (Ken Chick / Special to The Detroit News/)

In 1904 because of friction with the owner, Olds walked away from the company he founded, which was then later sold to William Durant on Nov. 12, 1908 as part of the new General Motors Company.

After leaving Olds Motor Works, Olds went on to form the REO Motor Company in Lansing. David Pfaff, auto historian at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, said, “He was the first to offer pneumatic tires, electric lights, and an electric starter.”

Olds loved Florida and as early as 1903 raced cars on the beach at Daytona. He later got interested in land development and purchased nearly 38,000 acres near the northern part of Tampa Bay in Florida and developed the area into what is now the city of Oldsmar, Fla.

Olds died on August 26, 1950, in Lansing, Michigan, at the age of 86.

One of his descendants is his great-granddaughter Debbie Stevens, who was born and raised in East Lansing and now lives with her husband Peter in Ohio. She is on the board of the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum and a passionate supporter of the Olds legend and early automotive history in general.

“We have to preserve this important early automotive history,” she says. “A lot of young people know little about it. It’s disappearing.”

Stevens is the owner of several early Olds autos, including a 1903 Curved Dash. “At antique car shows the Curved Dash always draws attention,” she says.

 Cadillac and Henry M. Leland

Henry Martyn Leland began his career as an engineer and precision machinist in the armaments and firearms industry. It was said that Leland’s apprenticehip during the Civil War imprinted on him the necessity for precision parts. Leland’s beliefs became the Cadillac motto: “Craftsmanship a creed, accuracy a law.”

Leland arrived in Detroit in 1870 and set up the machine shop Leland & Faulconer. His reputation for machining excellence was famous among Detroit automakers of the day; he supplied engines to R.E. Olds.

Originally, prominent Detroit investors had selected Henry Ford to head their new automotive venture in 1902, but Ford walked out. The investors turned to their engine supplier, Henry Leland, who convinced them to continue. One investor, a lumber baron, had selected the name “Cadillac” after the founder of Detroit, and Leland became president of the new Cadillac Motor Car Company. The first prototype, the Model A, was completed in 1902 and shown at the New York Automobile Show.

1905 Cadillac Model E

A 1905 Cadillac Model E. (Larry Edsall / Special to The Detroit News)

Leland’s reverance for precision parts was recognized in the summer of 1908 when Cadillac became the first American car company to win the prestigious Dewar Trophy in England. The test was described in the Detroit Free Press in February, 1909:

“The conditions surrounding this test were not only unusual but most drastic and severe. Three Cadillac cars [selected from eight] were driven from the London sales office of the Cadillac company … The three cars were then dismantled piece by piece and part by part. Thrown into a heap. … With the committee maintaining a watchful scrutiny the work of rebuilding the three cars was begun. Not a file or piece of sandpaper was allowed to be used in assembly.”

The three reassembled cars were then given a 500 mile track test, and one also was picked for a 2,000 mile reliability test. All ran perfectly. The Royal Automotive Club was astounded.

In 1909 Cadillac became a division of General Motors. In 1913 Leland won a second Dewar Trophy along with Charles Kettering for the electric starter.

Leland retired in 1917 but soon began a new auto company, Lincoln Motors, which Ford purchased in 1922.

If that were not enough glory for one man, the ultimate entrprenuerial engineer invented the electric barber’s clippers.

 The Dodge Brothers

The Dodge brand was the work of two brothers, Horace and John Dodge. Horace was the gifted mechanic while John handled sales and managerial duties. They were born in Niles, Mich. in the 1860s and were virtually inseparable for their entire lives. Like so many others, their father owned a machine shop where they learned the trade.

In 1886 they came to Detroit to work in a variety of small shops until 1901, when they opened a machine shop and began making auto parts. Soon they won a contract to build transmissions for R.E. Olds. In 1903 they left Olds, retooled and began building engines, transmissions and steering gears for Henry Ford; the Dodges were credited with significant engine design improvements in early Ford models.

In 1909 The Detroit News reported that Horace and John Dodge were to build a new plant on 24 acres in Hamtramck. For 10 years they had supplied engines and parts, but in 1914 they broke with Ford to build their own Dodge Brothers automobile.

Dodge Brothers vehicles won acclaim for durability while in service with the U.S. Army’s Pancho Villa Expedition into Mexico. One notable instance was in May of 1916 when a young Lieutenant George S. Patton led soldiers in three Dodge Model 30 touring cars to conduct a raid in Sonora. During the ensuing firefight the party killed three men. Patton’s men tied the bodies to the hoods of the Dodges, returning to an excited reception from U.S. newspapermen.

1915 Dodge Brothers Touring

This 1915 Dodge Brothers Touring car with a 35-horsepower, 212.3-inch engine was produced in the first year of the company. (Jenny King / Special to The Detroit News/)

Despite their immense wealth, enormous Grosse Pointe homes, and growing influence in the business community, the Dodge brothers’ conduct made them socially at odds with most of Detroit’s wealthy elite. John had a violent temper and when drinking in Detroit saloons got into brawls and threatened people with guns. The Detroit Free Press reported one brawl in 1911 at Schneider’s Saloon in which John Dodge and a friend severely beat a lawyer. The lawyer was quoted: “…He choked me and knocked me toward Dodge who struck me several times. I went to the floor and felt someone kicking me….” He was hospitalized, which was bad enough, but later it was reported the victim had two wooden legs.

Horace was considered more mild mannered but he too had his moments and would get into fist fights with strangers.

Despite the character shortcomings, the Dodges were generous supporters of Detroit; Horace was a leading contributor to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra Hall on Woodward Avenue.

Both men tragically died in 1920, John of pneumonia and Horace of complications from cirrhosis of the liver; reportedly Horace’s grief at the loss of his brother hastened his end.

Dodge Brothers, Inc. was eventually purchased by Chrysler Corporation in 1928.

  Packard Motor Works

Like others in the early days of auto building, James Ward Packard of Warren, Ohio, was brilliant when immersed in mechanical and electrical challenges. In his lifetime he filed more than 40 patents. In 1899 he and his brother William Doud Packard built the first Packard automobile, the “Ohio Model A.” The Ohio Automobile Company began manufacturing cars in 1900.

In 1902, on a trip to New York City, Henry Bourne Joy, a son of one of the wealthiest families in Detroit (for whom Joy Road is so named), happened to see two Packard autos chase down a horse-drawn fire wagon. Intrigued, Joy bought the only Packard available in the city. In October of that same year, Henry Joy drove a Packard in a New York-to-Boston reliability contest with 75 other contestants and received a gold medal.

He was so impressed with his Packard that he convinced the brothers to move operations from Warren, Ohio to Detroit, which offered significant financial and production advantages for large-scale car manufacturing. The Packard Motor Works Company was born.

Joy immediately made plans for a new manufacturing plant off Grand Boulevard:

“Architects Albert and Julius Kahn have been awarded the general contract for the construction of the Packard Motor Car Plant,” the Detroit Free Press reported on June 28, 1903.

The plant was regularly expanded. By 1908 it was six times as big, and eventually with truck production and a service center added, it covered an entire block at 3.5 million square feet.

Cars were assembled individually in the first Packard Detroit plant in the early 1900s. (Detroit News archives)

Cars were assembled individually in the first Packard Detroit plant in the early 1900s. (Detroit News archives)

Packard was a luxury brand, one of the “Three P’s”—Packard, Peerless (Cleveland) and Pierce Arrow (Buffalo). The company developed notable innovations such as the modern steering wheel and a 12-cylinder engine, and it was the first passenger car to offer air conditioning.

After the move to Detroit, James and William Packard focused attention on the electrical system of the vehicles, which resulted in the spinoff supplier Delphi Systems, which was bought by GM in 1932. William died in 1923 and his brother James died in 1928.

Packard Motors later merged with the Studebaker Corporation but it proved to be a mistake and Packard gave up the ghost in 1958. The company’s abandoned Detroit plant, however, would gain notoriety a half-century later as Exhibit A of Detroit ruin, covering about seven acres.

David Dunbar Buick

“If I’d only got into the automobile business on the ground floor, what a millionaire I’d be today! If I’d started in like Ford and Dodge, I’d be sailing a yacht around the world right now. Well, they were lucky birds, those guys. They got a break.”

– David Dunbar Buick, interviewed for Time Magazine, March 18, 1929

David Dunbar Buick

David Dunbar Buick

David Buick was a superb engineer but could be prickly and temperamental. He came to Detroit at age 2 with his family from Scotland and left school to work in 1869. He joined a plumbing supply company, showing his innovative mechanical skills; he discovered a method to coat cast iron with porcelain, a closely guarded process that only a German cartel knew about at the time. Buick’s solution is still used to this day. Buick could have become wealthy but he grew bored with plumbing fixtures and began an intense fascination with internal combustion engines.

He turned to building gasoline engines with a small group of mechanics. By 1900 his first motor firm, Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company, was producing engines for automotive, agricultural and marine uses. The first experimental Buick automobile was built in Detroit circa 1900 but Buick argued with his partner, and after burning through investment funds had only a single prototype to show for it. Buick was out of money.

On May 19, 1903, David Buick incorporated the Buick Motor Company. That September, unable to find investors in Detroit, the company was sold, eventually landing at the Flint Wagon Works in Flint. By summer of 1904 Buick produced the first production-built car, the Model B.

With additional investment and outside help the car was a huge hit with the public and Buicks became the foundation for General Motors; however, Buick himself was marginalized and in 1906 accepted a severance package and left the company that he had founded.

After unsuccessful investments in California oil and Florida land, and an attempt (with his son Tom) to manufacture carburetors, Buick made a brief return to the automotive business in 1921, as president of the short-lived Lorraine Motors, and in 1923 with the design of the Dunbar, an automobile prototype; none of which caught fire.

Buick died penniless from colon cancer in 1929 at age 74. Had he held onto his shares of General Motors stock paid to him when William Durant bought him out, his worth at the time of his death would have been more than $10 million.

General Motors and  William “Billy” Durant

In his day, William Crapo “Billy” Durant was one of America’s wealthiest men, worth more than $120 million before 1930. He was the founder of General Motors; he started Chevrolet; he developed his own car company, but in the stock market crash of 1929, Durant lost his empire. In a 1936 bankruptcy proceeding, he claimed to the judge he had only $250 to his name and the clothes on his back. By 1940, nearly 80 years old, Durant ended up managing a bowling alley in a suburb of Flint.

He was born in 1862 to a well-to-do family and was part of a generation of new industrial engineers and businessmen. He became the quintessential turn of the century upbeat American deal maker – a handsome, smiling, self-made man.

William C. Durant

William C. Durant, founder of General Motors

“I cannot find words to express the charm of the man,” Walter Chrysler wrote. “He has the most winning personality of any man I have ever known. He could coax a bird right down out of a tree.”

At age 24 in Flint, Mich., Durant bought a carriage company for $2,000 and with business partner Dallas Dort, grew the company to become the largest carriage maker in the United States. He was a millionaire before age 40. His early views of “horseless carriages” were not favorable; Durant thought them dangerous, smelly and noisy and refused to let his daughters get in one.

Other investors brought David Dunbar Buick and the Buick Motor Company to Flint but it was not going well; Buick produced only 37 cars. Creditors were screaming. Durant, in New York City at the time, was asked to come back and save the Flint investors. He agreed and shipped two Buicks to the New York Auto Show to see what would happen. He sold 1,108 cars. From then on he was in. By 1908 he had made Buick the largest-selling car in the country.

Durant had brilliant instincts about consolidating businesses, something he proposed in 1900 during his carriage industry. On Sept. 16, 1908 Durant used Buick stock to establish the General Motors Holding Company. He formed General Motors by consolidating 13 car companies and 10 parts-and-accessories manufacturers, including R.E. Olds, Henry Leland’s Cadillac Motors, Oakland Motors (soon to be re-dubbed Pontiac) and more.

In 1910 Durant had become financially overextended and banking interests assumed control, forcing him from management of GM Holding.

Durant never missed a beat. He always felt GM lacked a low priced brand to compete against Ford’s Model T, which dominated the market. In 1911 he partnered with famed car racer Louis Chevrolet to design a new line of cars. Durant was not happy with the designs but produced his own moderately priced “Chevrolet.” The venture was so successful in a year he reached $94 million in assets and began buying GM stock. He was able to buy enough shares in GM to regain control, becoming its president a second time in 1916.

However, Durant ran GM as if it was his personal property. He made decisions on products, real-estate, finances, location and designs of new plants, company acquisitions, and more. In 1920, he finally lost control of GM. His love of risk drew him deeper and deeper into the stock market and away from daily business of the auto industry until the stock market crashed and he lost his fortune. Later he tried new auto company start ups, even his own car Durant Motors, but all ended in failure.

His personal style of corporate management would be replaced by men like Alfred P. Sloan who advocated professionalism and strict systematic controls and developed General Motors into an international giant.

 Louis Chevrolet

On Christmas day in 1878 Louis Chevrolet was born in northwestern Switzerland, the center of Swiss watchmaking. After moving with his family to southern France, Chevrolet developed his mechanical skills. He was a born racer and in 1905, driving a Fiat, broke the great Barney Oldfield’s one-mile closed-course world speed record, driving the mile in 52.5 seconds. A week later he went head-to-head for the first time against Oldfield in a race in Yonkers, N.Y. and won. His fearless driving made him a national legend.

In 1907 he left Fiat and with his brother Arthur drove for Buick and befriended William C. “Billy” Durant, the high-flying founder of General Motors.

Louis Chevrolet

Louis Chevrolet

Durant had acquired Olds, Buick, Cadillac, Oakland (later Pontiac) and others for the new General Motors Company but lacked a low-end brand that could compete with Henry Ford’s Model T. He wanted Chevrolet to design just such a car.

Durant set up Chevrolet in a second-floor shop in Detroit to design and build the first Chevy. On Nov. 3, 1911 Louis Chevrolet co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company with Durant.

The origin of the classic Chevy “bow tie” trademark is disputed. Chevrolet claimed he based it on the Swiss cross to honor his homeland. Another story claims Chevrolet based it on a design he saw on wallpaper in a hotel room while staying in Paris. However, Durant claimed that on a trip he noticed the logo in a newspaper advertisement used by a coal company in Hot Springs, Va. Historians claim Durant’s version is the true one.

By 1913 Durant found Louis’s designs too heavy, too lush, too high-powered and too high-priced. Durant moved the Chevrolet Company to Flint and had others take over the development. About the only thing Durant liked about the Chevrolet was the name, and for Durant that was really all he needed.

He quarreled with the quick-tempered Chevrolet and constantly criticized his manners and appearance. A dispute over Chevrolet’s cigarette smoking habit broke the relationship. According to biographer Lawrence R. Gustin, Chevrolet chain-smoked cigarettes, which he dangled from his lips in true French style, driving Durant crazy.

Durant told Chevrolet that if he wanted to make real money he needed to smoke cigars, like a real gentleman. Every time they met, Durant would mention this. Finally, Louis could stand it no longer and blew up: “I sold you my car, I sold you my name, but I’m not going to sell myself to you. I’m going to smoke my cigarettes as much as I want. And I’m getting out!” And so he did – but had he stayed he’d have been a multi-millionaire.

Money and wealth eluded Chevrolet throughout his life. Even as he reached fantastic achievements in racing and in high-performance aircraft, he died poor in 1941. In his later years he claimed his racing victories at Indy meant more to him than having his name on a car.

 Walter Chrysler

Walter Percy Chrysler was born in the farming town of Wamego, Kansas in 1875. Chrysler developed a fascination with machines early on, landing his first job with a locomotive company as a teen making 5 cents an hour to sweep out a roundhouse. He soon became a machinist apprentice and his reputation for quick, quality work rapidly moved him to master mechanic. He married his childhood sweetheart and started his railroading career.

That changed utterly when Chrysler saw his first automobile. He bought his first car – an ivory painted “Locomobile” and had it shipped to his home (he didn’t know how to drive), and was said to have become obsessed with it. He spent months tearing it apart and rebuilding it over and over before actually ever driving it.

After rising to plant manager for the American Locomotive Company in 1911 he was summoned to New York City by a director of the company who also happened to be the interim president of General Motors, James J. Storrow. Storrow wanted Chrysler to help run Buick, which was the most important of the General Motors companies at the time.

Chrysler went to Flint and described what he saw in his autobiography “Life of an American Workman”:

“Of course, I was a machinist, and I was looking at workmen trained to handle wood. The bodies were being built of wood. In a big carpenter shop, long poplar boards were being bent and shaped in steam kilns. With wood they were admirably skillful, but wherever they were handling metal… I saw hundred such opportunities, so that I became excitedly eager, saying to myself, ‘What a job I could do here, if I were boss.’”

He met with the president of Buick, Charles Nash, who hired Chrysler as “works manager.” Later Chrysler would run Buick. He was imaginative and ambitious; according to GM Chairman and CEO Alfred P. Sloan, “his genius was the organization of automobile production.”

Chrysler ran Buick successfully and after eight years he resigned from his job as president in 1919. He fought with Billy Durant, the founder of General Motors. Durant paid Chrysler $10 million for his GM stock. Chrysler started working at Buick in 1911 for $6,000 a year and left one of the wealthiest men in America.

After leaving GM, Chrysler eventually acquired controlling interest of a troubled company – Maxwell Motor Company. In 1925 he absorbed Maxwell into his new company, Chrysler Corporation. He then bought Dodge Brothers and in 1928 moved the headquarters from Detroit to New York City. One month before the 1929 stock market crash he built the magnificent 68-story Art Deco Chrysler Building as home for the company and was named Man of the Year by Time Magazine.

Chrysler had his flamboyant ways; he drank hard, ate big time, and was known as a womanizer. At parties he loved to play tuba or piano. One biographer claims he was a functioning alcoholic in the true style in the Roaring Twenties.

He also nearly wrecked his marriage and humiliated his family thanks to a notoriously public affair with a gold-digging socialite, Peggy Hopkins Joyce. In the early 1930s he bought her more than $2 million in jewels, including a 134 karat diamond called “Peggy’s Skating Rink” in gossip columns. The affair finally ended and Chrysler returned to his family, more or less.

At age 61 Chrysler retired and in August of 1940 died at his Forker House mansion in New York.


 Henry Ford

“Early in 1904 I was convinced that the future of the automobile as a staple and permanent industry was dependent upon the production of a car for the ordinary man,” Henry Ford was quoted in the Detroit Free Press on Feb. 16, 1905. “I considered that I was an ordinary man, and I wanted what ordinary people wanted, and I put my efforts into developing a car that would meet what I conceived to be the ordinary man’s car.”

Henry Ford

Henry Ford (From the collections of The Henry Ford/Greenfield Village and Ford Motor Company)

Henry Ford failed twice before finding his stride. His first backing came in 1898 when he formed the Detroit Automobile Company. Unhappy, Ford left that effort and began the Henry Ford Automobile Company in 1901, which was no more successful than the first but Ford continued improving and focusing his vision. At the same time he generated publicity and technical credibility as a car maker by racing.

He hired Barney Oldfield, who set a racing record for him on a track in Grosse Pointe at 60 miles per hour. He himself raced on the ice of Lake St. Clair in 1904 and set a new world speed record of 93 miles per hour.

Capitalizing on this burst of publicity he gathered financial backing and on Sept. 16, 1903 founded the Ford Motor Company. He set up a 75-by-150 foot factory on Mack Avenue. John and Horace Dodge contracted to make engines for him. A bookkeeper at the time who would later become his business manager and a Detroit mayor, James Couzens, invested $2,500.

To show how fast Ford Motor Company grew, in 1919 Henry Ford bought out James Couzens for $29,308,857. (Couzens’s sister bought one dollar worth of Ford stock and in 1919 received more than $28,000 for her investment.)

In spring of 1904 Ford moved to a much larger facility, the Piquette plant at Beaubien in Detroit. Ford constantly experimented with new models: from 1904-1910 the company assembled Ford Models B, C, F, N, R, S, and T. The Model N was the progenitor of the Model T. Despite intense debate that bigger, more luxurious cars would bring in more profit, Ford’s vision of a no-frills, low-priced car clicked with Americans; he sold 1,708 cars in the first year.

It was at the Piquette plant in 1907 that Ford’s team began the design and production of the famous Model T. It had several innovations such as left-hand drive, single cast engine block and removable head gasket. A key to its success was price, which was introduced in 1908 at $850 and went down every year until by 1916 it sold for $350. (In today’s dollars that is just over $7,000).

Once again Ford could not meet demand so Albert Kahn was hired to design the then futuristic Highland Park Plant on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park. It began operating in 1910. In that year 21,000 Model Ts rolled off the assembly line. Only two years later nearly 200,000 cars were produced and they still could not fill all the orders. By 1918 half of all cars sold in the U.S. were Model Ts.

Although several people close to Henry, including his son Edsel, pushed for design changes as competition rose in the 1920s, Henry adamantly promoted and defended the Model T as it was, and production continued unchanged as late as 1927; the final total production was 15,007,034. This record stood for the next 45 years.

Production innovations were continual with Ford, including the famous moving assembly line, vertical integration in production such as rubber tree plantations for tires or clutivating soybeans which they used for knobs and panels in Ford cars, and the revolutionary $5 daily minimum wage begun on Jan. 5, 1914.

Henry Ford was born July 30, 1863, on a farm in Greenfield Township (now part of Detroit) and in some ways Ford retained a farmer’s values. He was described as a simple man, usually friendly, who spent endless hours in the shop. He arrived at work before eight, went home to eat dinner, and then returned to work, often laboring late into the night on mechanical problems.

The spectacular success of Henry Ford’s Model T was an achievement that did nothing less than change the world.