One journalist nicknamed Connersville “Little Detroit of Indiana.” He based his opinion on the fact that, during the 1905-1941 timeframe, 13 cars were made in Connersville. The community was very much alive as an automotive center in the United States during that era.
Reflecting that history is an interesting collection of cars and automobilia at the Fayette County Historical Museum. On display are a 1870’s McFarlan carriage, three Lexington automobiles, a 1913 Empire, a 1930 Ford Model A, and a 1924 McFarlan Town Car.
The museum is open Sundays and Thursdays from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., from April to early December. The address in 103 South Vine Street, Connersville, IN, 47331, and the phone number is 765.825.0946. If your car club is interested in visiting the museum on a different day, give them a call.
I believe every Indiana auto enthusiast should visit the Fayette County Historical Museum to become acquainted with Indiana automotive history.
I believe it is time to share a little about Connersville automotive history.
During the 1905-1941 timeframe, 13 cars were made in Connersville and the community was very much alive as an automotive center in the United States. One journalist nicknamed the town the “Little Detroit of Indiana.”
Connersville built automobiles sorted by name
Lexington Motor Car Co.
Auburn Automobile Co.
Central Manufacturing Co.
Connersville Motor Vehicle Co.
Connersville Buggy Co.
Empire Motor Car Co.
Lexington Motor Co.
McFarlan Motor Car Co.
Auburn Central Co.
Packard Motor Car Co.
Van Auken Electric
Connersville Buggy Co.
Connersville made the move to the Twentieth Century when in 1886 John B. McFarlan converted part of the family farm into one of the first industrial parks in the U.S. In his desire to expand his carriage business, he lit the spark for what turned out to be a center for automobile production (36 years) and automotive component manufacturing, which exists today.
An early example is Central Manufacturing Company which was incorporated on April 7, 1898 to manufacture vehicle woodwork at 123 West Seventh. In 1903, it began to manufacture rear entrance automobile bodies for Cadillac. A Central car was built in this plant in 1905, but unfortunately the car was lost when the plant burned in 1905. The company moved to a new building in McFarlan’s park (on 18th Street north of the intersection at Georgia Street) in 1906. Central bodies became standard units on Stutz, National, Premier, Cole, H.C.S., Moon, Gardner, Wescott, Davis, Auburn, Elcar, Haynes, Apperson, Paige, Overland, Lexington, and Empire Automobiles.
The McFarlan was the outgrowth of the McFarlan Carriage Company (on the south end of the industrial park) which turned to manufacturing automobiles in 1910. The company turned out very fine automobiles built to customer specifications for the next 18 years. A 1923 McFarlan Knickerbocker Cabriolet priced at $25,000 with all outside trim being gold plated was shown at the National Automobile Show in Chicago.
In 1910, a group of Connersville businessmen enticed the infant Lexington Motor Car Company to relocate from Lexington, Kentucky, to a new plant at 800 West 18th Street in the industrial park. In 1914, the new Lexington-Howard Company produced the Howard automobile. In 1915, the name changed back to Lexington Motor Company. Two short wheelbase Lexington race cars won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1920 and 1924.
In 1912, Carl G. Fisher and Charles Sommers, both of Indianapolis, decided to contract for all parts and final assembly of their Empire Automobile by Rex Wheel Works (between Lexington Motor Car and Central Manufacturing in the industrial park on 18th Street).
The Connersville Buggy Company built a parcel post van, under contract for Van Auken Electric Company of Chicago in 1914.
In 1927, E. L. Cord purchased Lexington Motor Car Company and the adjacent Ansted Engineering buildings. In 1928, he purchased the Central Manufacturing Company and then bought the McFarlan Motor Car plant five blocks south of his existing plants in 1929.
On January 15, 1929, the first Auburn 6-80 sedan, rolled off the 900-foot final assembly line. Seventy-five percent of Auburn’s cars were built in Connersville until 1933. In the fall of 1933, Cord moved Limousine Body Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan (builder of the Auburn open car bodies) into the Central Manufacturing facilities. By 1934, all Auburn final production was done at the 82 acre Connersville center.
On February 15, 1936, the first production Cord model 810 rolled off the final assembly line. Production of the Cord model 812 ended on August 7, 1937.
On August 25, 1938, the Auburn Automobile Company purchased the Pak-Age-Car Division from Stutz in Indianapolis. They produced the multi-stop delivery truck until 1941. Howard Darrin built his Packard Darrin in the factory during 1940 and 1941. On March 10, 1941, Willys-Overland awarded Auburn-Central (the new corporate name) a contract to build 1600 Jeep bodies. This was the first of many contracts that lasted through 1948 for Willys and Ford. The total for Jeep bodies reached 445,000 over a 45-month period.
Unfortunately, today there are no existing automotive heritage landmarks in Connersville. The Fayette County Historical Museum at 103 Vine Street has a number of automobiles and other artifacts from this era.
For more information on Indiana cars & companies follow this link.
If you’re like me, you’re continually looking for interesting auto related books. Here are some picks from my bookshelf for fall 2015.
As some of you know, I have a keen interest in Indiana-built automobiles. One book in this genre about a lesser-known make is Custom Built by McFarlan: A History of the Carriage and Automobile Manufacturer, 1856-1928, by Richard A. Stanley. The author documents McFarlan’s early specialization in high-grade, light-duty carriages, spring wagons and buggies and then branching into “carriage trade” automobiles, providing a quality product at a reasonable price.
Celebrities of the day such as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Dorothy Farley, Wallace “Wally” Reid, Alma Simpson, Jack Dempsey, and Paul Whiteman drove McFarlans. Stanley’s extensive research and writing thoroughly document the McFarlan carriage and automobile manufacturing saga. He shares the story of this automotive gem from Connersville, Indiana.
One book that I eagerly anticipated this summer was Carroll Shelby: The Authorized Biography by Rinsey Mills. He documents Carroll Shelby’s early exploits as an Army aviator, his 1950’s racing activities, and the quest to develop his own sports car. This book reflects Mills’ fascination with motorsports history and covers Shelby American operations with an in-depth perspective.
I especially enjoyed Mills’ coverage of the development of the first Shelby Cobra roadster. This took place at the beginning of my auto enthusiasm. It was great to read about the development of this automotive icon.
In 1962, Shelby conceived of an aluminum bodied AC sports car with leather interior fitted with the new 260-cubic-inch Ford V8-engine. “Cobras Rout Sting Rays,” reported Motoracing newspaper about the spring 1963 Riverside SCCA races. “In their outing the beefed-up Ford-Powered AC Cobras finished 1-2 today, decimating the Corvette Sting Rays.”
His research and writing thoroughly document Shelby’s auto racing and manufacturing saga.
A new book celebrating American car culture is Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars by Paul Ingrassia. He documents American vehicular history through 15 automobiles that were at the forefront of their particular eras. The book reflects his fascination with cars and car culture starting in the 1950’s and in covering the auto industry for the Wall Street Journal in later years.
One car symbolizes the start of the mid-1960’s muscle car era – the Pontiac GTO. In early 1963, Pontiac’s engineers debuted a compact Pontiac Tempest coupe fitted with a 389 cubic-inch engine, producing 325 horsepower from a full-sized Bonneville. The GTO was born. This was their concept of a car to enhance the division’s high-performance image. GTO production for 1964 of over 32,000 far surpassed initial projections to sell 5,000 cars. GTO sales for 1966 hit a high of nearly 100,000 cars. The Pontiac GTO still resides at the top of the muscle car collector universe.
Ingrassia also provides insights about the individual creators of these mechanical icons from his time covering the industry.