Category Archives: Auto Pioneers

The innovator of rolling sculpture

With all of the excitement that surrounds the annual Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival, my thoughts immediately go to the designs of Gordon M. Buehrig, called the innovator of rolling sculpture. His automotive designs spanned many decades and are still recognized by auto aficionados.

Gordon M. Buehrig
Gordon M. Buehrig
Copyright © Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum

Buehrig’s interest with automobiles started like many of the rest of us. He doodled. In fact, an instructor expelled him from class on one occasion because the student’s notebook was full of automobile drawings. This early interest in auto design shaped the rest of his life.

Many regard Buehrig as one of the most important automotive designers. His career spanned nearly four decades while working at Dietrich Inc., Packard, General Motors, Stutz, Duesenberg, Auburn Automobile Company, the Budd Company, Raymond Loewy’s Studebaker studio, and Ford Motor Company. His famous designs include the 1932 Duesenberg Model J Beverly, the 1934 Auburn 851 Boattail Speedster, and the 1936 Cord Model 810.

E. L. Cords 1937 Cord Beverley Sedan
E. L. Cords 1937 Cord Beverley Sedan

The Cord Model 810 is probably one of his best known designs. In late 1933, during his second stint with General Motors Art and Color Section, Buehrig designed an aerodynamic car with air intakes on each side of a wrap-around hood. Back in E.L. Cord’s employment, this design study became the genesis for a “baby Duesenberg” in 1933. By December 1934, the design of the new front-wheel-drive Cord Model 810 model was essentially complete and then shelved.

When the project was revived in July 1935, there was less than four months in which to build and test a prototype, tool up, and get the cars into production for the New York Auto Show on November 2, 1935. The company made the deadline, but without the transmissions in place. Plus, the phaetons were without any tops. The missing parts didn’t matter. The Cord 810 stopped the show. People had to stand on surrounding cars just to get a glimpse of Cord’s exciting new design. Cord received over 7,600 requests for more information on the 810. Unfortunately, due to unanticipated production start-up problems, almost six months would pass before any deliveries were made.

The Cord Model 810 was available in four models: the five-passenger Westchester Sedan, four-passenger Beverly Sedan, five-passenger Convertible Phaeton Sedan, and the Convertible Coupe with rumble seat. In 1951, the New York Museum of Modern Art special exhibit titled “Hollow Rolling Sculpture,” recognized the Cord 810 as “the outstanding American contribution to automobile design.”

While you are walking among the gems at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival, think back to Gordon M. Buehrig, the innovator of rolling sculpture.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.

Carl G. Fisher’s thoughts on electric automobiles

Recently, while perusing my automobilia collection, I found a letter reflecting Carl G. Fisher’s thoughts on electric automobiles. This letter, dated June 18, 1909, on Fisher Automobile Company letterhead, presents his thoroughness in recommending new cars.

Fisher Letterhead
Fisher Automobile Company Letterhead
Copyright ©1909 Carl G. Fisher

In the first paragraph Fisher states: “Heretofore, I have refrained from handling the Electric Automobile for the reason that I considered the manufacture of this type of car had not made sufficient advance in construction.” He goes on to state the reasons that he finds that the Baker Motor Vehicle Co. has adopted the best obtainable material regardless of cost. He further states: “Their ten years of experience in the manufacture of these electric carriages, together with constant development has produced a more perfect harmony of construction than can be found elsewhere.”

Fisher’s highlights in recommending the Baker electric included:

  • The Baker motor used bearings that eliminate friction giving results over other makes.
  • Baker construction and adjustment saved power thus yielding more mileage between recharge and a greater speed.
  • The battery plates lasted longer, therefore lowering maintenance costs.

In concluding his evaluation he states: “I have proven beyond a question of doubt the superiority of the Baker Electric and do not hesitate to recommend it.”

Fisher’s enticement to electric car prospects reads: “To a purchaser of the Baker Electric the Fisher Automobile Co. will garage the car for $25 per month; this includes a thorough inspection, charging, washing, cleaning, polishing, calling for and delivering once per day. To those who prefer keeping their car at home, we will for one year give you two thorough inspections per month free.”

I originally purchased this letter to have Carl G. Fisher’s autograph. Today, I enjoy it for the interesting look into Indiana automotive history. This letter provides an example of retailing by one of America’s early auto dealers. Fisher prided himself in representing leading American automobiles. Over the years, in addition to Baker Electric, Fisher represented National, Overland, Packard, REO, and Stoddard-Dayton.

In addition to sales, his 400 North Capital Avenue location on the edge of Indianapolis’ business district provided service and storage of customer’s autos. The location became the keystone of Indianapolis Automobile Row in following decades. Today, automotive retail has moved to the suburbs.

So, there you have some early thoughts on electric automobiles.

For more information on Indiana’s auto pioneers follow this link.

Thanks to E. L. Cord

Recently, while reminiscing about my automotive obsession, I decided to offer a thank you to E.L. Cord. Indiana automotive pioneer Errett Lobban Cord is one of the individuals most responsible for the Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg automobiles of the classic era. Without his influence, insight, and entrepreneurship, these fine auto products of the Cord Corporation would never have existed.

Before graduating from high school, E.L. Cord demonstrated the spirit that led to his entrepreneurial success. He purchased a Model T Ford, modified its engine, hand-built a speedster body, and then sold it at a substantial profit. Later, he barnstormed for a time as a racing driver and mechanic, while continuing to sell modified Ford speedsters at an average of $500 profit per vehicle. In the early 1920’s, Cord became a successful salesman at the Moon Dealer in Chicago, Illinois.

1935 Auburn 852 Speedster
1935 Auburn 852 Speedster
Copyright © 2008 Dennis E. Horvath

In 1924, a group of investors enlisted Cord to salvage the faltering Auburn Automobile Company. He took over the general manager position at no salary with the provision to acquire a controlling interest in the company if his efforts were successful. Cord had the large stock of unsold cars repainted in bright, attractive colors. He also instituted new designs and models and offered them at attractive prices. Sales moved forward, and by 1926, E.L. Cord was president of the company. About the same time, he purchased Duesenberg Motors and instructed Fred Duesenberg to design the world’s finest motorcar.

1933 Duesenberg La Grande
1933 Duesenberg La Grande
Copyright © 2008 Dennis E. Horvath

In 1929, he assembled a holding company called the Cord Corporation. The holdings included Auburn, Duesenberg, Central Manufacturing, Lycoming Engine, Limousine Body, and Columbia Axle. In the 1930’s, he added Stinson Aircraft Co., Century Airlines, and New York Shipbuilding Corp.

1936 Cord sedan
1936 Cord sedan
Copyright © 2008 Dennis E. Horvath

Cord lured top designers, engineers and marketers to his companies and encouraged excellence. For example, Auburn became one of the first automakers to offer straight-eight power in a medium-priced car. He also introduced the Cord L-29 America’s first front-drive automobile and the magnificent Duesenberg Model J, the most luxurious and best-engineered motorcar of the day.

Production at the automotive operations ceased in 1937. Later, Cord developed a career in broadcast ownership, real estate, ranching, and politics.

Today, E.L. Cord’s automotive legacy is celebrated at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival over Labor Day weekend, and on numerous other occasions around the world. So, the next time you see one of these works of automotive art, be sure to offer a thank you to E.L. Cord.

This story was excerpted from Indiana Cars: A History of the Automobile in Indiana.

Ralph R. Teetor

Ralph R. Teetor is most well known as the inventor of cruise control and president of Perfect Circle Corporation in Hagerstown. Throughout his career, he displayed an astonishing competence with machinery and confidence with people and places even though he had been blind from the age of five. Teetor developed unusual coping mechanisms and lived his life as if he could see. Many who came into contact with him never realized he was blind.

Ralph Teetor
Ralph Teetor
Copyright © 1995 Marjorie Teetor Meyer

His interest in automobiles developed early on. When he was 12 years old, Teetor and his second cousin built an automobile during the summer of 1902. Mechanical engineering became his career choice, and he graduated in the top third of his class from University of Pennsylvania in 1912 with a degree in this field.

In 1918, while working on a contract for the Navy at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden, New Jersey, Teetor developed a process to dynamically balance steam turbine rotors. He succeeded where many other engineers had failed. The new process was used through World War II.

In May of 1924 Teetor invented and patented a fluid-actuated automatic gear shift. The Bendix Company bought the patent and produced an automatic gearshift for Hudson. After World War II, popularity of the automatic transmission grew dramatically. For the next 40 years, most of the automatic transmissions on automobiles were based on the principles of his invention.

In 1936, Teetor was inspired to invent cruise control while riding with his patent lawyer one day. The lawyer would slow down while talking and speed up while listening. The rocking motion so annoyed Teetor that he was determined to invent a speed control device. He filed for the first patent on his device in the spring of 1945. Obstacles developed in production and delayed the debut of cruise control until 1958 on the Chrysler Imperial, New Yorker and Windsor models. Teetor’s persistence paid off again in the commercialization of a device that is now standard equipment on many automobiles.

In 1946, Teetor became president of Perfect Circle Corporation, where he had worked in various engineering capacities for the previous 32 years.

Teetor was posthumously inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1988 for his numerous contributions to the industry.

I recommend the following book on Ralph Teetor: One Man’s Vision: The Life of Automotive Pioneer Ralph R. Teetor, by Marjorie Teetor Meyer, ISBN 1878208675 for more information.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link

Stutz Motor Car Anniversary

This summer marks the 104th anniversary of the first Stutz Motor Car. Yet, at least equally significant is Harry C. Stutz’s involvement in developing many other vehicles that crossed the American landscape.

He designed a transaxle that combined the transmission and the rear differential in one unit. This transaxle became standard equipment on many other automobiles besides Stutz cars.

1912 Stutz Model A
1912 Stutz Model A
Copyright © 1912 Stutz Motor Car Co.
Photo courtesy of the Stutz Club

His own manufacturing commenced in early 1911. Stutz formulated his dream of a quality sports car built from assembled, high-quality components manufactured by outside suppliers at a price below $2,000. The first Stutz was built in just five weeks and was immediately taken to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the inaugural running of the 500 Mile Race. Gil Anderson drove the car to an eleventh place finish.

Later that summer, the Ideal Motor Car Company was organized for manufacture of the Stutz Model A, a duplicate of the Indy race car. New Stutz models were offered as a two-passenger roadster, four-passenger toy tonneau, and a five-passenger touring car. Each was priced at $2,000. Lighting was provided by a Prest-O-Lite system. Stutz emphasized its 1911 record of competing without any adjustments in two additional “great races” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Santa Monica, California. A Stutz Model A torpedo roadster served as the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1912.

The famous Stutz Bearcat sports car appeared in 1912 for a run of 10 years. It followed the usual Stutz recipe of a low-slung chassis, a large engine, and other bare necessities–hood, fenders, a right-hand raked steering column, two bucket seats, a fuel tank behind the seats, and wooden spoke wheels. The Stutz Bearcat was a popular car in the $2,000 price range. Its ap¬peal was boosted by Stutz’s success at the race track. Bearcats finished fourth and sixth at the Indianapolis 500 in 1912 and won numerous other races that same year. The next year a Bearcat finished third at the Indianapolis 500, and by late fall Stutz driver Earl Cooper was crowned the National Champion after winning six consecutive races.

In June 1913, the Ideal Motor Car Company was reorganized as the Stutz Motor Car Company, with Harry Stutz as president. The Stutz White Squadron racing team did extraordinarily well in 1915 (its last under factory sponsorship), with victories at several tracks. Also in 1915, Cannonball Baker drove a stock Bearcat cross country from San Diego, California, to New York City, New York, in a record-breaking time of 11 days, 7 hours, and 15 minutes.

In the years preceding World War I, Stutz’s sales increased nearly ten-fold—from 266 cars in 1912 to 1,873 five years later.

Harry sold his interest in the company that bore his name in June 1919, and founded two new automotive ventures—the Stutz Fire Engine Company and the H.C.S. Motor Car Company. The Stutz Motor Company went on to manufacturer many cars of distinction like the Safety Stutz, the Stutz Blackhawk, the Stutz DV-32 and the Stutz SV-16 through 1934.

So take a few moments to celebrate the contributions of Harry Stutz 104 years ago.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.