Monthly Archives: April 2016

Electric starting and lighting debuted 104 years ago on the 1912 Cadillac.

With all of the electronic automotive conveniences we have today, it’s hard to believe that electric starting and lighting debuted 104 years ago on the 1912 Cadillac. In those days, the ritual of starting an automobile required patience, finesse, strength, and agility.

1912 Cadillac 4-door Touring
1912 Cadillac 4-door Touring
Copyright ©1912 Cadillac Division

Let me describe the process. First, check that the transmission is in neutral. Second, make sure the ignition is off. Third, retard the spark lever on the right-hand side of the steering wheel and advance the throttle lever on the left-hand side of the steering wheel to an extent known only after experience. Fourth, move to the front of the auto and prime the engine by cranking two half-turns from the 6 to 12 o’clock positions. Fifth, go back and turn the ignition on. Sixth, properly grasp the crank with the thumb overlapping the first fingers to prevent an injury from back-firing and crank the engine one or two turns. If your luck is good, the engine starts. Lastly, quickly spring to the controls, advance the spark and retard the throttle before the engine dies. Whew, I’m tired already.

Even though this routine might be carefully followed, the hazard remains of the engine back-firing with the consequent backward kick of the crank causing injury.

Here’s an example. On a December day in 1910, a lone woman drove through Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan. She took an incline too slowly and stalled the engine. Byron T. Carter of the Carter Car Co. stopped to help by cranking the motor for her. Not realizing that the spark had not been retarded, he turned the crank and the engine back-fired. Lashing back, the crank broke his arm and smashed his face and jaw. Although Mr. Carter’s broken jaw and arm did not seem to be serious, he died within a few weeks from complications caused by pneumonia.

Upon hearing of this incident, Henry M. Leland, general manager of the Cadillac Division of General Motors Corporation, felt that no other automotive improvement was more urgent than a mechanical starter. He proclaimed to his engineering staff. “The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can help it. Lay all the other projects aside. We are going to develop a fool-proof device for starting Cadillac motors.”

Cadillac engineers worked with fury to design a suitable system for their car, but were unable to devise a starter motor small enough to fit under the hood of their car. Then, Earl C. Howard, Cadillac assistant sales-manager, recalled Charles F. Kettering of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, later known as Delco. Kettering had previously designed a high-torque motor with an over-running clutch for cash registers.

Kettering was summoned to Detroit to review Cadillac engineering developments. He then returned to Dayton, Ohio, to develop a suitable starter motor and clutch. Cadillac engineers and Kettering assembled back in Detroit on February 27, 1911, when their systems were installed. The ignition switch was thrown, and the engine throbbed instantly to life.

Perfecting the system took more experimentation and testing. Formal announcement of the 1912 Cadillac with the new electric starting and lighting system was August 20, 1911. Contractually Cadillac had exclusive right to the system for one year. In 1913, Cole, Hudson, Jackson, Oakland, Oldsmobile, and Packard all used the system. Other manufacturers quickly followed.

So, the next time you instantly start your car with automatic lighting systems, your might think back to the days before the innovation of electric starting and lighting on the 1912 Cadillac. Happy motoring.

Thank you Carl Fisher and James Allison

With the 2016 celebrating its 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, I believe Indianapolis residents owe a thank you to Speedway founders Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison.

Before the inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911, Indianapolis was a bucolic city with very little to distinguish it. When the founders built the track on a 320 acre parcel outside of the city limits, the Speedway was about five miles northwest of the city’s center. The Speedway would eventually fulfill Carl Fisher’s stated goal of a proving ground “to establish American automobile supremacy.” The result also helped grow the city’s manufacturing base.

Prest-O-Lite 2

Fisher’s vision for grand ventures was first demonstrated when he and Allison obtained the rights to manufacture and market compressed acetylene headlight systems for automobiles in 1904. This firm, known as Prest-O-Lite, would become the cornerstone for their many automotive ventures. Today, an outgrowth of Prest-O-Lite is Praxair Surface Technologies, which employs more than 450 people at the Speedway Main Street site.

By 1911, Indianapolis claimed 11 operating automakers, with names like American Underslung, Cole, Empire, Ideal, Marion, Marmon, New Parry, National, Overland, Premier, and Waverley. This concentration of manufacturers attracted the supporting ancillary machine shops and businesses. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler went on to build operations in Indianapolis.

Allison Engineering
Allison Engineering Plant 1
Copyright ©2012 Dennis E. Horvath

James Allison built a new shop for the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company on Main Street in Speedway to prepare a fleet of race cars in late 1916. This venture provided the genesis for the Allison Engineering Company. When World War I erupted, Allison committed his shop resources to war production for crawler-type tractors, superchargers, and master models for the Liberty aircraft engines. In 1929, a year after Allison died, General Motors Corporation purchased the company. Under General Motors, the operation produced aircraft engines, transmissions, precision bearings, and superchargers. Its descendant companies, Allison Engine Company and Allison Transmission are headquartered in Indianapolis. Combined employment at these plants totaled over 11,000 people in the late 1980’s, making them one of the city’s largest employers.

These companies spawned a number of local machine shops to supply additional services to supplement Allison operations. Skilled machinists and tool makers moved to Indianapolis to work in these shops. I know my father moved to Indianapolis in the mid-1930’s to work in various machine shops and retired with over 25 years at Allison.

Thank you to Carl Fisher and James Allison for your grand vision with these manufacturing endeavors and the creating the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which drew people to our great city for employment and enjoyment.

For more information on our automotive heritage follow this link.

What Everybody Ought to Know About Early Auto Advertising.

1905 Pope-Waverley ad
1905 Pope-Waverley ad

When looking at the advertising of automobiles in the first part of the twentieth century, one realizes that the medium quickly evolved to featuring gift buying. One early example from my collection is the wedding gift theme of a 1905 Pope-Waverley ad in Life Magazine. It suggested, “It’s quite the thing nowadays to present the bride with a Pope-Waverley Electric. No gift imaginable can make as lasting an impression or give the recipient more genuine pleasure and convenience. These superb carriages are ‘always ready,’ clean, noiseless, and simple to operate.” How about an electric car for a wedding present?

1929 Studebaker ad
1929 Studebaker ad

Studebaker’s December 7, 1929, Literary Digest ad is probably one of the highmarks for the decade. Three color illustrations told the story, “Give her the keys to happiness.” The main illustration is of a father and daughter looking fondly at their gift of keys to a Studebaker Eight to the mother. “Each year this gracious Christmas custom grows in favor…the presentation of the Keys to Happiness to one well beloved. An attractive gift case holds the shining keys for one of Studebaker’s smart new motor cars — an Eight by the Builder of Champions! One should remember that this ad was conceived before the October 1929 stock market crash which had cataclysmic effects for advertising. You can’t put a car under the Christmas tree, what about gift wrapping the keys?

1932 Studebaker ad
1932 Studebaker ad

In the mid 1930’s, Studebaker produced The Wheel magazines for the auto show seasons. On the cover of the 1932 edition, we see a chic woman wearing furs showing a President convertible roadster to an older woman seated in a Studebaker electric. Inside the magazine there are eight pages of color illustrations interspersed with 12 pages of copy and black and white photographs of the “Triumphant New Studebakers.” Auto shows are about future auto dreams, aren’t they?

These types of materials are part of the sales process in creating attention, interest, and desire in the prospective customer’s mind. Auto advertising over the years was a good barometer of the health of the economy and marketplace.

I love sharing these vignettes about early auto advertising from my collection. They demonstrate that the only thing new in advertising is the delivery medium. The message from earlier times holds true today.

For more information on Indiana cars & companies follow this link.