In 1900, the United States had approximately 1,000 individual automobile manufacturers. Cleveland alone was home to more than 80 automakers, making it one of the most significant centers of the burgeoning industry.
“At one time, this was one of the wealthiest cities in the United States; one of the biggest manufacturing bases that had more engineers, more skilled workers than any place in the country, and the money was here to invest in these things,” says Allan Unrein, automotive expert and former director of the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum. “Cleveland, to me, was the car capital of the United States.”
Automobiles made in Cleveland rivaled the fine cars being made in Europe, and it all started with Alexander Winton.
In 1897, Winton, a bicycle manufacturer, founded the Winton Motor Carriage Company. In July of that year, and again in 1899, he organized a highly publicized journey from Cleveland to New York City to attract investors. Winton became the first company in the United States to sell a gasoline-powered, American-made car, which rode on tires made by the Goodrich Rubber Company of Akron.
Also in 1897, 17-year-old Frank Stearns set about building cars with youthful exuberance, and by 1910, the F.B. Stearns Company was producing an impressive-at-the-time 100 cars per year.
One of the pre-war era’s most respected manufacturers was born from James Ward Packard’s frustration. “Mr. Packard went to the west side of Cleveland to buy a Winton, and he thought it was the worst piece of junk he had ever experienced,” says Unrein, whose mentor at the museum was Frank Crawford. “He got in a heated argument with Mr. Winton, and Mr. Winton basically told him ‘if you can build a better car, go ahead and do it’. Well, he built the Packard automobile.” Built in Warren, Ohio, the 1901 Packard Model C Runabout featured a 200-cubic inch, one-cylinder engine, and was the first car with a steering wheel.
Not to be outdone, Cleveland’s Peerless Motor Car Company, founded in 1901, built the 1905 Model 9 Touring “Roi de Belges” special model. It was capable of more than 60 mph, and featured a tachometer and speedometer on its dash, with a front-mounted engine, gated transmission, drive shaft, high-pressure lubricating system and special overhead valve engine. It was an engineering marvel in a time when technology developed at a rate comparable to modern computers. To own the “King of Belgium” in 1905, you would have needed $3,500 – about $75,000 today.
Peerless was also one of the first companies to produce cars with conventional transmissions, according to Unrein. Other innovations did not take as well.
In 1916, the Cleveland-made Owen Magnetic was touted as “The Car of A Thousand Speeds.” Rather than a conventional transmission, it relied on a large electromagnet connected to a sizable generator. A cabin-mounted lever was used to control the amount of electricity to the electromagnet: the more electricity, the less slippage. There was no direct connection between the engine and the rear end. “It wasn’t very practical for an automobile, but it worked,” says Unrein.
In 1913, the Chandler-Cleveland Motorcars Corporation produced reasonably priced cars, and was eventually sold to Hupp Motor Company, producers of the famed Hupmobile.
Although originally based in Detroit, Hupp opened a second factory in Cleveland, where arguably the most famous of the manufacturer’s cars still remains at the Crawford Museum. To illustrate a Hupmobile’s reliability, two factory workers and a newspaperman, saddled with 1,200 pounds of supplies, left Detroit on November 10, 1910. They drove around the world – 48, 600 miles – in 17 months. They were the first to drive through Egypt. They got caught up in the Boxer Rebellion in China. They taught cannibals in Borneo how to drive. They had an audience with the pope. “The only thing that broke on the car was an axle that snapped in Japan,” says Unrein. “A guy in a pottery shop handmade an axle, put the threads on with a file. It still runs beautifully.”
Far from man-eaters and pyramids, Cleveland’s affluent society enjoyed leisurely drives on Euclid Avenue’s Millionaire’s Row. “It rivaled Paris in the quality of homes and the lifestyle,” says Unrein. “In Cleveland, back then, on Euclid Avenue, 145 residents drove gasoline cars, eight drove steam cars and 137 drove electrics. We’re going back to the same mindset 100 years later.”