Category Archives: Car Culture

Auto travel in the early twentieth century

1906 Maxwell on an early highway
1906 Maxwell on an early highway

By the turn of the twentieth century, representatives of the fledgling automotive industry began to realize that the only way to prove their products’ worth and marketability as a serious means of transportation was to have a competitive contest. Gradually, the idea emerged for a tour through different parts of the country where a variety of road conditions would be encountered.

In 1904, the American Automobile Association developed and sponsored the first run from New York City to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Mo. Seventy-seven cars officially participated, but many hundreds more took part along the way. Thirty-six different makes were represented.

The 1,350-mile run from New York to St. Louis took 18 days and culminated on August 12 with a grand parade featuring the 66 finishers and 200 local cars. Historically, the car tour was probably the most highly publicized and significant tour the world would ever see.

One of the many obstacles the tourist had to deal with along the way was the absence of highway signs and markings to guide them. To compensate for this, local AAA clubs would send out a pilot car to mark the route with confetti. One time this practice caused near pandemonium when the driver of a pilot ran out of confetti midway between South Bend and Chicago. For a substitute, he brought a supply of corn and beans from a nearby farm. But the resulting road markings drew hundreds of chickens into the path of surprised tourists. The tour’s chairman remarked: “I followed the clearest trail that I have found since leaving home, and it wasn’t corn and beans either. It was chicken feathers: white, russet, speckled and black.”

After 1913, it was felt that the purposes which gave rise to this type of tour had been fulfilled and the activity ended.

Occasionally, I think of these tours while I am traveling on two-lane highways, and back roads.

Two Duesenberg Short-Wheelbase Roadsters

Clark Gable and Gary Cooper each owned a Duesenberg Model SSJ Roadster during the mid-1930’s.

Clark Gable's Duesenberg
Clark Gable’s Duesenberg

Both Gable and Cooper were passionate about their motor cars and had the ambition to custom order a Duesenberg Short-Wheelbase Roadster. These custom-built Hoosier-made Duesenbergs were the nation’s most expensive in the range of $15,000 to $18,000. At the time, Duesenberg was the nation’s best engineered and fastest prestige automobile.

Only two of these exotic 1935 Duesenberg Model SSJ Roadsters were built by Duesenberg, Incorporated in Indianapolis. Each automobile was built on a 125-inch wheelbase chassis and equipped with a special, dual-carburetor, dual overhead camshaft, supercharged engine, producing 320 horsepower. Top speed was a claimed 130 in high gear and 104 in second.

Gary Cooper's Duesenberg
Gary Cooper’s Duesenberg

Gable’s car was red and silver, while Cooper’s car was a more restrained medium gray and pale gray. The lightweight open-roadster custom bodies were designed by the legendary Duesenberg stylist J. Herbert Newport and built by LaGrande at Central Manufacturing Company in Connersville, Indiana.

Both these Duesenberg roadsters were on view at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in 1998. This was the only time both had appeared together.

These Duesenberg Model SSJ Roadsters are celebrated in the collector car hobby.

Indianapolis-built Waverley Electrics

1911 Waverley Electric
1911 Waverley Electric

Electric automobiles are not new inventions. For instance, Indianapolis-built Waverley Electrics were built from 1898 to 1916. Here are some comments from their 1911 catalog.

Among the inventions of recent years, the place of the electric automobile is unquestionably in the vein of progress. Whatever convenience or popularity attaches temporarily to the expansive force of steam of the explosive energy of gasoline, every thinking person is convinced that the motive power of the future is the silent, subtle, irresistible turning power of the electric motor. The force is everywhere and in everything, requiring only to be harnessed, set in motion and properly directed to do the work of the world.

It is equally certain that the place of the electric automobile is in the first rank of society. In the twentieth century America, the phrase “Electric carriage company” is beginning to take a similar place as denoting the special class of citizens who appreciate and observe good form in carriages well as in clothes, in dwellings, in manners and in everything else.

Again, the place of the Electric is in the center of family life. It is a carriage of ready service and equal convenience for every member of the family, for the office, the church, the theater, the neighborhood call, the shopping excursion, the drive on the boulevard, the trip to the park, or the country club. It dispenses with chauffer or driver, presents no mechanical difficulties and causes no trouble. Even the children may operate it with safety.

The place of the Waverley Electric is all of this and more. It is the place of leadership, of constant advance along its own individual lines, of steady progress in all those minor details that make for perfection. It is the place of rank and influence, the place of recognized superiority in point of excellence, in beauty and fitness of design, in mechanical efficiency and durability. The ownership of a Waverley suggests no invidious (causing envy) comparison, invites no criticisms. It is the accepted standard of its class. The purchaser of a Waverley is never called upon to explain or apologize for his choice.

Different models of Waverley’s have special points of convenience and excellence. All are alike in the essentials of Waverley efficiency, workmanship, and style.

Some of these points may be valid today. That’s how electric vehicles were marketed over 100 years ago.

Check out Indiana Automotive’s revised website

This week I was introduced to Indiana Automotive’s revised website.

Duesenberg Final Assembly
Duesenberg Final Assembly

This website takes you on a tour of all the features of Indiana Automotive. The groups events allow you to experience talks by experts in automotive heritage, tours of sites important to our automotive history, and viewings of private vintage and classic automobile collections. Indiana Automotive members get discounts and the first opportunity to register for these events. Follow this link for the upcoming events.

Indiana Automotive members and friends write about influential people and places significant to our state’s rich automotive heritage for the website. Follow this link for a sample.

For those interested in joining Indiana Automotive, follow this link. .

I encourage you to take a tour of our revised website.

National Motor Vehicle Company was the sixth largest auto producer in Indianapolis

L.S. Dow and Phillip Goetz founded the National Automobile & Electric Company in Indianapolis during 1900. The first National vehicles were light electric vehicles offered in a plethora of body styles. A 1901 advertisement boasted, “The electric vehicle is always ready, requires no mechanical knowledge to run it, and among electric vehicles, the ‘National’ is pre-eminently simple, powerful, elegant, and excellent.”

In 1904 the company was reorganized as the National Motor Vehicle Company. Its first gasoline auto premiered in 1903. By 1905, a National car employed the powerful four cylinder Rutenber engine, with a round radiator that served as a distinguishing feature. The company stopped electric car production in 1906.

1906 National
1906 National

National introduced a six-cylinder Model E seven-passenger touring car in 1906, one of the first sixes in America. The 1906 catalog stated, “It was placed on the market to supply a growing demand for a high-powered commodious touring car of extremely flexible control, in which vibration is reduced to a minimum.” Its cylinders were cast separately until 1908, when National produced engines with cylinders cast in pairs.

The U.S. shield shaped radiator design debuted in 1908. In 1908 and 1909, National offered two models each with higher h.p. ratings in the four- and six-cylinder lines range from $2,750 to $5,000.

Immediately after a strong showing at the inaugural races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during August 1909, National featured the 1910 Model Forty in a two-page advertisement in Motor Age magazine: “The National ‘Forty’ this year is the fastest, the most powerful, and most capable car that has ever been offered at anything under $4,000 heretofore.” The price was $2,500.

During this period, racing played an important part in National’s plans. National finished seventh in the Inaugural 500-mile race on Memorial Day 1911. Additional 1911 competition road race victories include Elgin, Illinois; Santa Monica, California; and the Cactus Derby from Los Angeles, California, to Phoenix, Arizona. Joe Dawson driving a National won the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in 1912 with an average speed of 78.7 m.p.h.

1912 National
1912 National

In 1912 the company focused on production of a variety of fours and sixes with pricing starting at $2,500. Eleven models were available in the 1914 line with prices ranging from $2,375 to $4,800.

In 1916 a new range of six body styles was announced with a Highway Six or the Highway Twelve in the same chassis. The 12 was drop¬ped in 1920, and National soldiered on with six-cylinder cars for its final four years. A merger in 1922 between National, Dixie Flyer and Jackson led to a range of three cars for
1923 and 1924. In January 1924, the company entered receivership.

For more information on Indiana-built automobiles follow this link.