Tag Archives: Prest-O-Lite

Indianapolis’ Early Auto Innovation – Part 2

Late in 1908, Carl and one of his real estate associates, Lem Trotter, were returning home on a drive from Dayton, Ohio, to Indianapolis. Their anticipated short drive soon became difficult. The car overheated twice and just inside the Indiana border the vehicle blew the third tire of the day. Fisher remarked to Trotter about how unreliable American cars were and that the nation needed a suitable test track. Trotter challenged Fisher: “You’ve been talking about a racetrack ever since you got back from Europe. If you think it will make money, why don’t you build it yourself?” Fisher encouraged Trotter to find a suitable site for such a track.

Trotter located a 320-acre parcel known as the Pressley farm, located about five miles west of downtown Indianapolis along Crawfordsville Pike. Fisher immediately enlisted his business partner Allison, who shared Fisher’s excitement for the venture. They approached mutual friends and racing associates: Arthur C. Newby, and carburetor manufacturer Frank H. Wheeler to join them. They filed incorporation papers under the name of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company, capitalized at $250,000, on February 8, 1909. They immediately began planning for the 1909 racing season.

Louis Strang with IMS model 1909
Louis Strang with IMS model 1909

For more on the happenings at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway peruse my blogs during April and May each year.

July 3, 1912, marked the founding of the town of Speedway Indiana. On this date, deeds were transferred for the 240-acre site to Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison, owners of the Globe Realty Company, and Lem Trotter, their real estate partner.

The partners conceived the town of Speedway to be a horseless manufacturing city adjacent to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway served by two railroads and modern thoroughfares. The city was designed to be attractive to skilled workers to provide steady employment for the nearby factories.

The realty company laid out the residential section on a grid of streets between 16th and 10th streets and between Main and Winton. The east side of Main Street was platted for factories.

Carl G. Fisher drives the Stoddard Dayton pace car 1909
Carl G. Fisher drives the Stoddard Dayton pace car 1909

Fisher and Allison’s Prest-O-Lite Company was the first to build five buildings on the north plat near 16th Street. The charging building was located at the far end of the property to preclude damage to other properties from possible gas explosions. This facility opened in May 12, 1913. Swartz Electric Company, makers of automobile batteries and electric appliances, opened its plant about the same time. The Electric Steel Company completed facilities in 1915. The lots on the west side of Main Street were specified for stores and offices.

Shortly after the introduction of the electric starting and lighting system by Cadillac in 1912, Fisher and Allison soon realized that this system would soon dominate the automotive market. Fortunately, they found a company interested in purchasing their Prest-O-Lite holdings. Union Carbide realized that the containers produced by Fisher and Allison had dozens of other marketable uses. In addition, the company had discovered other applications for the gasses, from welding to medical purposes. Union Carbide offered the partners roughly $9 million in a combination of cash and stock for their business in 1917.

Following the 1915 500 mile race, Fisher and Allison became concerned that European teams would not participate in International races during World War I and decided to develop their own racing team. They commissioned five racers and formed the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company in September 1915. Eddie Rickenbaker encouraged them to form the two-car Prest-O-Lite Team at the same time.

In 1916, Allison became the sole owner of the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company and moved operations to a small shop on the corner of the Prest-O-Lite lot. Of the 26 cars entered in the 1916 race, seven were from the Speedway Team and Prest-O-Lite Team companies. As a high-end machine shop, the Speedway Team Company soon began developing automotive parts for other racing teams.

That’s how Indianapolis’ auto innovation grew in the early 1910’s.

For more information on Indiana cars & companies, 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.

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.

Fisher Automobile Company

With the recent construction on the block bounded by Vermont Street, Capitol Avenue, Michigan Street, and Senate Avenue, I thought it would be a great time to take a look at how this block was the genesis of Indianapolis Auto Row 108 years ago.

In 1908, when Carl G. Fisher wanted to expand operations around his 330 North Illinois Street location, the area was already developed with commercial structures. Consequently, land and construction costs would have been higher for new development elsewhere on Illinois Street than in undeveloped locations. He decided on one block west in the then Capitol Avenue residential neighborhood. The absence of zoning regulations here also allowed development of commercial uses within a residential area.

One incentive for Fisher considering relocation of his automotive dealership may be noted in the January 24, 1903, edition of Automotive Industries, which stated: “Capitol Avenue is to be resurfaced and otherwise improved next spring, and then the heavy traffic will be excluded. The Hoosier capitol has long felt the need of a speedway and pleasure drive, such as Mayor Bookwalter proposes to make of this. The proposed “speedway” extended from North Street to just north of Fall Creek Boulevard.”

Fisher Auto Postcard
Fisher Auto Postcard

Thus, the beginnings of Indianapolis Auto Row began with Fisher relocating his Fisher Automobile Co. showroom to 400-424 North Capitol Avenue in 1908. Other auto related businesses were soon to follow.

The three buildings Fisher built at this location are the second known to have been built specifically as automobile showrooms in Indianapolis. The 400 N. Capitol building was three stories in height and contained an elevator large enough to accommodate automobiles. The structural skeleton and floor slabs were of reinforced concrete with eight-inch thick brick curtain walls. There were large display windows along the street frontages on all three levels. The parapet was sparsely decorated with geometric forms fashioned from brick.

Some of the meetings held in the Fisher Automobile Co. building included close friends, James A. Allison, Cecil Gibson, and Arthur C. Newby, who were connected to business enterprises regarding Prest-O-Lite operations, the development of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other ventures.

Fisher Letterhead 1909
Fisher Letterhead 1909

Gibson merged his automotive accessory business with that of Carl Fisher to form the Fisher-Gibson Co. in 1911, and located at 422-426. Later in 1917, the Fisher Automobile Co. expanded operations to 434-442, north of his original three buildings. Over the years, Fisher sold National, Overland, Packard, REO, Stoddard-Dayton, and Baker Electric vehicles from these locations.

Between 1910 and 1930, approximately 25 buildings were constructed for automobile dealerships, tire companies, automotive parts, and manufacturing concerns, along Capitol Avenue, thus establishing Indianapolis Auto Row.

I would like to enlist Indiana Automotive and central Indiana auto enthusiasts to band together to obtain historic recognition for the 400 North Capitol Avenue site as the genesis of Indianapolis Auto Row. This site was the beginning of our automotive heritage.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.