The Franklin Automobile Company

The Franklin Automobile Company – traces the air-cooled car’s legacy from 1902 to 1934

The Franklin Automobile Company

The Franklin Automobile Company
Sinclair Powell

The Franklin Automobile Company offers a comprehensive look at Franklin’s key people, its automobiles, and the everyday person who built them. From 1902 to 1934, the company could claim the distinction of building America’s successful gasoline-powered motor car incorporating an air-cooled engine. Author Sinclair Powell spent over 12 years researching and writing the book. The depth of his work produces a well documented and easy-to-read volume.

The Franklin automobile witnessed the fortunate combination of entrepreneur and marketer Herbert H. Franklin, and engineer John Wilkinson. Like many auto pioneers in the late 1890s, Wilkinson leveraged his participation in bicycle racing into designing a gas-powered horseless carriage. By the summer of 1898, Wilkinson had developed a single-cylinder air-cooled gasoline engine. Wilkinson demonstrated his first automobile on January 1, 1900.

In November 1901, the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company was restructured to produce the Franklin automobile. Officers listed were Alexander T. Brown as president and Franklin as treasurer and general manager. Wilkinson was the chief engineer.

The Franklin company like many pioneer automotive firms, soon realized the value of racing as a public relations venue. Wilkinson put his bicycle racing experience to use in fielding Franklin autos in races and endurance events. A Franklin set a record in the 1904 transcontinental run.

As the 1900s drew to a close, Franklin offerings concentrated on the middle and high-price ranges of the market. This area of the market saw increasing competition from Cadillac and Packard. A new Franklin with distinctive styling was introduced for the 1911 model year to appeal to its markets.

Events during the teens at Franklin were much like events at numerous auto makers across America. Franklin saw increasing market erosion from mass produced autos in the lower priced range. Volume producers squeezed out smaller margins on an increasing number of autos. Decreasing reserves at Franklin encouraged changes across the product line. By the middle of the decade the company offered an updated single-product line with prices ranging from $2,300 to $3,400.

Early World War I exuberance by the buying public prompted escalating prices by most manufacturers including Franklin. A postwar recession and buyer reluctance squelched new car sales. Sales for 1920 set another record with a modest profit. In 1921, Franklin noted that the sale of closed cars exceeded those of open cars. Eighty percent of Franklin’s 1923 production of 10,100 consisted of closed type autos.

By 1925, the average price for an American car was $870. This drop spelled the doom for many auto producers in the middle 1920s. The Syracuse company planned to normalize its production at 8,000 annual units in 1927. This modest volume placed a strain on the company’s per unit costs. With the beginning of the Great Depression, resources at Franklin were strained entering the company’s fourth decade in the marketplace.

Sales for 1930 amounted to a modest 6,043 units and Franklin reported an operating loss of $4.2 million. Franklin’s 1933 year closed with a dismal total of 1,330 units and an operating loss of $819,000. In the spring of 1934, the company filed for bankruptcy.

The author does an outstanding job of placing the Franklin Automobile Company in its proper historical context. He provides the background for the growth of auto manufacturing in the early part of the twentieth century and the circumstances for the decline of independent auto manufacturers in later decades. Franklin’s saga is typical of a number of independents who produced higher priced, hand-crafted, low-volume automobiles. As time marched on, the public became increasingly interested in low to moderately priced, mass-produced automobiles. Markets for precision crafted autos evaporated. Less than a handful of independent auto manufacturers survived the Depression.

Powell tells the Franklin story with a humanistic touch. This book does more than present the historical facts about Franklin. It introduces you to the people and personalities from the executive suite down to the manufacturing floor. He walks you through the complex from assembly line, to the design offices, and up to the cafeteria on
the top floor of the plant. You meet numerous people and get a feel for who they were and how they contributed. The author’s depth of research and love for the subject is evident. Powell does an excellent job of relating the history as well as people involved in the Franklin Automobile Company.

The Franklin Automobile Company, Sinclair Powell, Warrendale,
Pennsylvania, Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc., © 1999, ISBN: 0-7680-

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