Route 66 Chronicles: Chevrolet, Ford and the Studebaker Brothers

The immortality bestowed on a select number of pioneering automobile manufacturers is of a very dubious nature. Their last name is recognized throughout the world, is emblazoned in chrome script on tens of thousands of vehicles, and yet their first name as well as many of their greatest accomplishments are cloaked in obscurity.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford has rightly been credited for putting the nation behind the wheel with the legendary Tin Lizzie, the Model T, and wrongly credited for inventing the assembly line. Few, however, realize that he was also instrumental in the establishment of Cadillac and unleashing the American automotive industry from the constraints imposed upon it by the Selden patents.

The Ford contribution to the formation of Cadillac was his stubbornness that manifested with an ego-fueled fit. By the spring of 1902, William Maybury and Lemuel Bowen, the financiers behind the Henry Ford Company, were becoming increasingly desperate to see a return on their investment.

Ford was quite content to build racers to further and to test his experimentation, not a very profitable enterprise. Still, when Mayberry and Bowen hired Henry Leland, a gifted machinist and mechanical engineer, as a consultant to appraise the facility in the hope of being able to recoup a portion of their investment through the company's sale, Ford was incensed.

Leland inadvertently fueled Ford's rising anger by selling Mayberry and Bowen an engine he had designed for Olds as well the idea that with this engine, the company could be profitable. Ford's response was to demand removal of his name from the company and $800 severance pay.

Therefore, the company reorganized under the name of Cadillac, homage to Le Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer that had initially established Fort Detroit. With the new name and Leland's engine, the company quickly became an industry leader.

In an odd turn of events, Ford and Leland as automobile manufacturers would cross paths again, with similar results. Shortly after William Durant added Cadillac to the General Motors stable, Leland left to form a company to build aircraft engines under military contract. This new endeavor, named for the first president for whom he had first voted, Abraham Lincoln, soon diversified into automobile manufacturing.

A string of debilitating circumstances, including the post-war recession, forced Leland to place the company into receivership. Shortly after selling the company to Ford, who purchased it largely for his son, Edsel, the Lelands, father and son, left the company and initiated a costly and lengthy series of lawsuits.

Louis Chevrolet

Chevrolet, today, is truly an American icon. Oddly enough, the man behind this endeavor, Louis Chevrolet, was associated with his namesake company for but a short time. Even more ironic is the fact that he was Swiss, not American.

Louis Chevrolet arrived in America in the employment of Fiat. The next step in Chevrolet's rise in America came when William Durant sought to capitalize on Louis', as well his brother's, mechanical and driving skills, with the establishment of a factory-sponsored team to promote Buick through racing and endurance runs.

In this capacity, Louis Chevrolet became a household name associated with speed and endurance, the Mario Andretti of his day. It was this reputation, more than his mechanical skills, which led Durant to form an automotive company that bore his name.

There is an interesting historical footnote pertaining to Louis Chevrolet, the driver, and Kingman, Ariz. In 1914, the course for the last of the Desert Classic "Cactus Derby" races followed the National Old Trails Highway through Kingman to Ashfork before turning south toward Phoenix through Prescott. Counted among the drivers was Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield.

David Dunbar Buick

David Dunbar Buick was multifaceted in his genius as made manifest in his development and patent for the method of affixing porcelain to cast iron as well as the development of an overhead valve engine. The sale of the former funded the latter, which became the cornerstone for the Buick Manufacturing Company.

Unfortunately, Buick's talents did not extend to business management. After losing control of his company and being prohibited from using his own name, a trademark, hapless Buick dabbled in a wide array of endeavors, including the manufacture of a carburetor, two different automobiles and land speculation. His last employment was as a clerk at an information desk for the Detroit School of Trades.

Ransom E. Olds

Ransom E. Olds suffered a similar fate in regards to usage of his name. Undaunted by the loss of his name as well as his namesake company, he launched another successful automotive endeavor, REO, utilizing his initials.

The development of steam as well as gasoline engines was but one Olds contribution. Others included the establishment of what he envisioned as the prototype for the successful industrial community of the future, Oldsmar, Florida, and the development of the gasoline-powered lawn mower.

Immortality denied

For some of the most influential pioneers of the automobile industry, however, even this dubious form of immortality has been denied. In light of their many contributions, this is quite surprising.

C.H. Wills is the man behind the famous Ford script as well as the planetary transmission that was a key component in the initial success of the Model T. He was also responsible for the development of molybdenum and vanadium steels. Other endeavors include the manufacture of a namesake automobile powered by a 265.5 c.i.d., overhead valve, V8 engine in 1921 and the development of the sealed-beam headlight.

Ralph Teetor was truly prolific in his developmental endeavors. From the gyroscope mechanism for torpedoes to the establishment of the world's largest piston ring company, from a patent for the first torque converter automatic transmission to an electric razor, from cruise control to the SAE. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Teetor's astounding career is that he was blinded in an accident at age 5!

Who today remembers the Stanley twins? The men behind the legendary Stanley "steamer" were also instrumental in the formation of Eastman Kodak? Who remembers that the genius behind the modern mechanical cash register is the same as that behind the electric automobile starter?

If there is a lesson to be learned from the obscurity and convoluted immortality of the automotive pioneers, it is this: Fame, at best, is fleeting. It is also elusive.

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Route 66 Chronicles is an exclusive monthly feature written for the Kingman Daily Miner online edition by Jim Hinckley. As associate editor for Cars & Parts magazine, Jim writes a monthly column, The Independent Thinker, and special features. His work has appeared in numerous publications. In addition, he has authored five books and has a daily blog - www.route66chronicles.blogspot.com.

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