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Automobile Anniversary

June 2024
1min read

As a confirmed motorhead who thinks (and teaches) about automobiles even between centennials, I’d like to extend my congratulations on the November 1996 issue of American Heritage . Great stuff, beautifully presented! It immediately goes on my list of teaching aids for the docent course at the Towe Ford Museum of Automotive History.

I do have a small historical quibble with Mr. Gordon’s “Engine of Liberation” roster of those “banging away in basements and carriage sheds.” He is right to say that Henry Ford fit that description, banging away in the shed behind his and Clara’s house on Detroit’s Bagley Avenue. Out of his (and friends’) banging came his 1896 Quadricycle. However, the rest of the men on Mr. Gordon’s list got their respective starts without being shade-tree mechanics. Each is a fascinating story in himself.

William C. Durant (evidently no fan of dirty fingernails) started as a company-builder and investor, doing his “banging” in the buggy business and in bankers’ boardrooms. Henry Eeland tapped (with precision) on measuring instruments and machine tools in New England until he moved to Detroit. There he built engines for Ransom Olds before transforming the Henry Ford Company into Cadillac, then founding Eincoln. Walter Chrysler was recruited into Buick’s front office from the American Eocomotive Company. John and Horace Dodge got their start with improved bicycle bearings and machine work, much of the latter for the young Ford Motor Company. Finally, Ransom Olds indeed built his own automotive prototypes, but did it on company time in the relative luxury of his and his father’s machine works.

Examples of your basic dirty-fingernail guys? Well, not surprisingly most of them are relatively forgotten. Like Walter Marr, Francis and Freelan Stanley, Elmer and Edgar Apperson, Charles King, Jonathan Maxwell, and many others. Then, as now, fame seems to follow money, doesn’t it?

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