Tag Archives: James A. Allison

Early auto history

1894 Haynes Pioneer
Elwood Haynes in the 1894 Pioneer

Copyright Elwood Haynes Museum

In 1896 there were but five gasoline automobiles in the United States; the Duryea, Ford, Haynes, Lambert, and an imported Benz. All five were purely experimental machines, although considerable effort was made to sell duplicates of the Duryea and Haynes. There was absolutely no market and it was not until March 24, 1898, that the first bonafide sale was consummated. Alexander Winton, who ranked with the pioneers, Duryea, Ford and Haynes, from the view point of experimentation, sold a one-cylinder Winton automobile to Robert Allison, of Port Carbon, PA; received payment for it and shipped the car to Allison April 1, 1898.

The Waverley Company, of Indianapolis, built its first electric carriage in 1897.
note: the first Studebaker automobiles were electric 1902.

The National Road, built early in the nineteenth century, from Cumberland, MD, through PA, OH, IN and IL, was the first and only attempt of the Federal Government to stand sponsor for a highway project. The road was approximately 1,000 miles long and was used extensively until the day when railroads paralleled it. It fell into disuse and disrepair, and about 1840 was abandoned as one entire road. From the time it was built until the present, parts of it have been in constant use. In 1910, when interest in long permanent roads for automobiles use was kindled, the route of the old National Road was rediscovered, and since then it has been repaired and still is in use today.

The first super speedway to be built in the United States was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, over which annually a 500 mile contest was staged. The moving spirits of the track were Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby, and Frank H. Wheeler. The Indianapolis course was built of brick and was constructed for a theoretical speed of 61 miles per hour. The theoretical speed limit is point where the car begins to skid. On the brick turns at Indianapolis, the slewing and slipping of the driving wheels begin after a speed of 61 miles an hour was attained. That, however, is not the practical and actual limit of speed that could be attained on the track. The 2.5 mile oval is capable of accommodating a much higher rate as has been shown in the races since 1911 and in numerous public and private trials.

Speedway a “Model” city

Speedway was laid out as a “model” city in July 1912. It was planned by Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, owners of the Globe Realty Company, and Lem H. Trotter, their real estate partner.

The partners conceived Speedway to be a horseless manufacturing city adjacent to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The city was to be as nearly fireproof as modern skills could make it. The industrial buildings were to be of concrete, steel, and tile, to avoid the use of inflammable material wherever possible. The streets were to be broad, paved thoroughfares named after pioneers in the automobile industry, such as Fisher, Allison, Winton, Cord, Auburn, and kindred titles.

The new city was to be attractive to skilled mechanics with comfortable and modern homes. The partners hoped these workers would be an asset for their planned manufacturing center. They builders desired to attract to Speedway substantial concerns in the automotive industry and hoped the prospective plants would draw over 10,000 workers in a few years.

Fisher and Allison’s Prest-O-Lite Company was the first to build five buildings on the north plat near 16th and Main Streets.

allison-marker

The lots on the west side of Main Street were originally specified for stores and offices. In late 1915, Allison became the sole owner of the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company and moved operations to a small shop on the west side of Main Street. The morning after America declared war on Germany in 1917, Allison instructed his chief engineer to find out how to get war orders going. Thus, the Allison Experimental Company was founded. Allison Experimental Company Plant 1 was built on the south side of 13th and Main Street in 1917 to produce Liberty aircraft engines and other war material.

Other factories followed and the residential streets began to fill up. In 1926, the town was incorporated and experienced explosive growth during World War II when the company, then known as Allison Division of General Motors, became a large manufacturer of military aircraft engines.

Dallara Indy Car Factory
Dallara Indy Car Factory

Speedway is experiencing renewal along Main Street in this new century. Some of these new buildings are the Dallara Indy Car Factory, Speedway Indoor Karting facility, and the A. J. Foyt Racing shops. Thus, the town is returning to its racing roots.

I invite you to come and see what’s happening in Speedway, the model city.

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

Indianapolis’ Early Auto Innovation – Part 1

The story of Indianapolis’ early automotive heritage begins a little over 120 years ago. Carl G. Fisher’s major recreational pursuit was bicycling. In the summer of 1890, 16 year-old Fisher and a dozen or so like-minded young cycling enthusiasts formed their own social club, the Zig-Zag Cycle Club. The club rented a large brick house adjoining the Empire Theater on Delaware Street. Members participated in riding events to towns located 20 or 30 miles from Indianapolis and back. At the time, riding a high-wheeler bicycle was an athletic challenge on the rutted roads of the time. Joining Fisher on those rides were James A. Allison and Arthur C. Newby.

Carl Fisher
Carl G. Fisher
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

In 1891, the seventeen-year-old Fisher and his two brothers opened a bicycle shop on Pennsylvania Street in downtown Indianapolis. Soon, Carl left his brothers Earle and Rollo in charge of the shop, while he engaged in regional bicycle competitions around the Midwest. One of his closest friends and rivals, Barney Oldfield, later became one of the nation’s most famous race car drivers. Bicycle racing provided Fisher the opportunity to cultivate social and business contacts that he would use in the future.

By the late 1890s, Indianapolis as well as the rest of the country was enjoying the bicycle craze. To some, it seemed as if bicycling rivaled baseball as the national pastime. Arthur C. Newby built a quarter-mile wooden racing oval on Central Avenue just north of Fall Creek in 1898 in time for the League of American Wheelman Convention. The velodrome offered seating in covered grandstands for up to 2,000 fans that paid admissions ranging upward from 25 cents.

Fisher purchased his first automobile, a De Dion Bouton motor tricycle in 1898. This budding interest for autos formed the springboard for converting the bicycle shop into an auto dealership later that year. Fisher and automobiles soon became inextricably intertwined in the history of Indianapolis. Fisher, Oldfield, and Newby barnstormed across the Midwest, appearing at dozens of local, regional, and state automobile races in 1901. On October 1, 1904, Fisher won the five-mile Diamond Cup race in Chicago, Illinois, driving the factory-entered Premier Comet.

Newby and two other individuals founded the predecessor of Diamond Chain Company, just outside of Indianapolis’ original mile square at West and South Streets in 1890. It was one of the first companies to exclusively produce bicycle chain in the U.S. As the bicycle craze died down about 1900, they began to produce multi-link chain for other transportation applications like automobiles. They proudly report that the 1903 Wright brothers’ flyer used Diamond Chain. Newby along with L.S. Dow and Phillip Goetz founded the National Automobile & Electric Company in Indianapolis during 1900.

Prest-O-Lite

An incident in 1904 provided the genesis for Fisher’s first fortune. Near his new auto showroom on North Illinois, Carl met Percy C. Avery, the patent holder for a compressed acetylene gas system for lighting buoys and lighthouses, who was looking for investors. Carl was so impressed with Avery’s demonstration of the system that he enlisted his friend James A. Allison to become partners with him and Avery in forming the Concentrated Acetylene Company.

Allison understood that the greatest obstacle to marketing the system was the explosive nature of the gas. Allison hypothesized a test for the compressed gas cylinder. Allison took it to the West Washington Street bridge spanning the White River. He threw it onto the rocks below, but it did not explode. He collected the device from the rocky shore and returned to Fisher’s dealership, where they agreed to start the company. The product they developed was the Prest-O-Lite system for automotive headlights. The Fisher Automobile Company location served as early Prest-O-Lite corporate offices before moving elsewhere.

In 1905, Fisher joined an American team that ventured to France to compete in the Gordon Bennett Cup races. He was stunned by the European cars’ superiority over the American models. This event started his thinking to improve American automobiles.

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

Visiting Indianapolis’ automotive sites

Over the years I have developed Indianapolis Auto Tours to visit the city’s numerous automotive sites. I would like to share some of the highlights.

In the afternoon, we could kick-off our celebration at the James A. Allison and Frank H. Wheeler’s mansions along millionaire row on the Marian University campus. Let’s look inside these 100 year-old time capsules of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, automotive, and transportation founders.

Allison Mansion
Allison Mansion

Next, we’ll continue with an Auto Pioneer Burial Site Tour at Crown Hill Cemetery nestled along the Dixie Highway. Auto pioneers Carl G. Fisher and Louis Schwitzer are buried on Strawberry Hill near James Whitcomb Riley, President Benjamin Harrison, and Eli Lilly.

Later, we’ll tour the Stutz Motor Car Company complex on Capitol Avenue to view some automobiles built in the building from 1912 -1935. Building proprietor Turner J. Woodard has autos ranging from a Stutz Bearcat to a Stutz Pak-Age-Car.

On the next morning, we’ll go on an Auto Pioneers Tour visiting some mansions along Meridian Street and Fall Creek Parkway. We then continue along Indianapolis’ Automobile Row on North Capitol and auto manufacturing sites around the belt railroads circling the city.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum

After lunch, we’ll go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum to see Fisher’s custom-built 1905 Premier racer designed for the Vanderbilt Cup Race and the Fisher-era Stoddard-Dayton. Our afternoon will finished up by touring by the Prest-O-Lite and Allison Engineering factories on Main Street in Speedway.

It is interesting how this part of Indianapolis’ business and social heritage started over 120 years ago when Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, and Arthur C. Newby met while being members of the Zig-Zag Cycling Club during the 1890’s bicycle craze. Their friendships went on to form the genesis for ventures like the Fisher Automobile Company, Prest-O-Lite Company, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway, the development of Miami Beach, Allison Engineering Company, Allison Transmission, Indianapolis Stamping Company (the predecessor of today’s Diamond Chain Company), and National Automobile Company. These men and their ideas have brought employment and enjoyment to tens of thousand’s of individuals through the years.

I invite you to contact me at Indianapolis Auto Tours to customize your visit Indianapolis’ automotive sites.

For more information on our automotive heritage follow this link.

Powel Crosley Jr.’s early automotive exploits in Indiana

Powel Crosley Jr. was born on September 18, 1886, in Cincinnati, OH, but many of his early automotive exploits took place in Indiana.

Powel Crosley, Jr.

In 1900, the age of the automobile was dawning across America. Powel became interested in cars and sketched his own design of an automobile, which he demonstrated late that summer.

In 1907, he incorporated the Marathon Motor Car Company housed in rented factory space in Connersville, IN. The Marathon Six was an assembled car with all of the components purchased from outside sources. By early fall he finished the prototype and landed six advance orders. Then the Panic of 1907 started in October, and investment capital dried up across the country. Marathon went under due to lack of funds.

In 1908, Indianapolis seemed poised to establish itself as a center of the automobile industry. Carl Graham Fisher, owner/operator of the Fisher Automobile Company, hired Powel as a floor hand at his dealership on North Illinois Street. While working for Fisher, Powel crossed paths with everyone who was anyone in Indianapolis, including most of the big names in the city’s auto industry like racers Barney Oldfield and Johnny Aitken and industrialist James A. Allison, Fisher’s Prest-O-Lite partner.

In summer 1909, Powel talked himself into a job as assistant sales manager at David M. Parry’s new Parry Automobile Company. It was Powel’s job to visit dealers and inspect operations, help them generate excitement, and promote sales.

In February 1909, Fisher and Allison, along with partners Arthur C. Newby of National Motor Vehicle Co., and Frank H. Wheeler of Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company, bought 320 acres northwest of Indianapolis to develop the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Powel began spending a lot of time there promoting the Parry Automobile Company and talking with anyone and everyone who would listen – drivers, mechanics, and the press. “He never shut up,” one observer said. Powel’s hopes heightened – maybe he could leverage his way back into manufacturing his own automobile.

Powel soon moved on to a sales position with Newby’s National Motor Vehicle Co. Within a few weeks he was working with Aitken and the rest of the company’s racing team publicizing the cars. Later, he was working for the Inter-State Automobile Company in Muncie, IN, while there he watched the 1911 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.

Powel and his brother Lewis developed the Crosley automobile in 1939, but that’s a story for another time.

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