Made in Connecticut
With only a handful of automakers based in the United States today, it can be surprising to look back on the early days of automotive history and see just how many companies were building vehicles. During the "Brass Era," so named for the brass fittings used in components such as lamps and radiator grilles, more than 1,000 businesses tried their hand at building a horseless carriage.
The Brass Era is generally considered to have lasted from the late 19th century to just after World War I. Automakers experimented with steam, electric batteries, and gasoline for propulsion. Everything was open for innovation, from the number of wheels to which side of the vehicle the steering wheel was located on.
Connecticut not only took part in the early automobile revolution, but once produced the bulk of the vehicles available in the nation. Paul Pellerin, author of the 2010 book "Connecticut Created Cars," says almost 200 different vehicle models were made in the state. The first one, built in 1798 by a man named Apollo Kinsley, was a steam-powered contraption.
As with other entrepreneurs in the Brass Era, some vehicles built in Connecticut were one-off models cobbled together by tinkerers. Pellerin records three such examples made in Stonington, with an additional one built in New London.
Some companies folded after making only a handful of vehicles, and others only produced a model on paper. One concern, the Connecticut Automobile Works, proved to be a scam; ironically it ran advertisements for its nonexistent affordable cars with the warning, "Beware of the Robbers."
Other vehicles built in Connecticut proved to be exceptionally popular. Here are some of the most notable stories from Connecticut's auto manufacturing days.
The serpentine history of the Columbia vehicles includes a connection to a major local employer, a court battle with Henry Ford, and a reorganized company which is still in business today.
Albert Augustus Pope found his first success in making bicycles. He started using empty space in a Hartford sewing machine company for this purpose, but by the end of the 1880s he was producing 5,000 bicycles a year and bought the building outright.
In 1895, the Pope Manufacturing Company began working on automobiles. Believing that battery electric vehicles offered the best type of propulsion, Pope focused on this type of power source. However, his company would also make some gas-powered cars.
The Columbia Motor Carriage, debuting in 1897, consisted of four sets of batteries providing a whopping two horsepower. The vehicle had a top speed of 15 miles per hour, could go 30 miles before it needed to be recharged, and had pneumatic tires rated for 3,500 miles. The coach itself used plenty of luxurious materials, including an oak wood frame, a satin roof, and goatskin upholstery. The horseless carriage could be had for $5,000.
The Columbia Electric Phaeton was introduced in the same year, selling for $3,000. A reporter for the Hartford Times praised the simplicity of the Phaeton's controls, saying he had "never found anyone so stupid that they could not run the carriage but there are many who can't handle a horse."
Columbia underwent several name changes in the late 19th century. The Columbia Automobile Company was established as an independent company in 1899, turning out 2,092 vehicles – nearly half of all automobiles produced in the United States. But by the end of the year it had merged with the Electric Vehicle Company, a manufacturer of electric taxis. That business had been bought a year earlier by Isaac L. Rice, who in 1899 would also found Electric Boat to produce submarines.
The Electric Vehicle Company had shelled out $10,000 to acquire a patent from George B. Selden, who in 1895 acquired the broadly worded rights for vehicles powered by a "liquid-hydrocarbon engine of the compression type." In essence, Selden was claiming that he was owed royalties from any and all automakers who were producing vehicles with gas-powered engines.
Soon after buying the Selden patent, the Electric Vehicle Company claimed that the Winton Motor Carriage Company—then the largest manufacturer of gas-powered autos in the United States—was was infringing on the patent. Winton settled, and later joined with the Electric Vehicle Company and several other companies to form the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers.
This was essentially a way to guarantee a monopoly on gas-powered vehicles. ALAM would threaten or pursue litigation against any automakers who didn't first acquire a license under the patent and pay them royalties. They could even press this threat against people buying unlicensed vehicles, taking out advertisements warning, "Don't buy a lawsuit with your car."
ALAM mostly consisted of East Coast automakers, who specialized in high-end vehicles which were marketed to wealthy buyers. Car manufacturers in the Midwest focused more on making affordable vehicles for the everyman, and the Selden patent proved especially rankling to them.
Eventually, Henry Ford refused to honor the patent and continued making his own gas-powered models. His decision to stand up to a multimillion dollar conglomerate made him something of a folk hero, even though he had unsuccessfully tried to join ALAM on a few occasions. In 1903, ALAM sued Ford for patent infringement.
The case languished until 1909, by which time Ford's iconic Model T had been on the market for seven months. Although a judge ruled in favor of ALAM, Ford won on appeal. In 1911, one year before the Selden patent was set to expire, an appeals court determined that infringement of the patent would only take place if an automaker built a vehicle with an exact copy of the Selden engine.
The rudimentary vehicle outlined in the Selden patent was only built many years after the fact, so it could be used as an exhibit in the case. This prototype is now on display at the Office of Policy Management in Hartford.
By the time the case was resolved, the Electric Vehicle Company was ailing. It had gone into receivership in 1907, and was reorganized as the Columbia Motor Car Company.
Facing increased competition from the Midwest, the business joined the United States Motor Company in 1910. This group was meant to unify smaller companies to rival larger automakers, but it collapsed in 1912 – the same year ALAM dissolved. Left on its own, the Columbia Motor Car Company vanished in 1913.
Pope was never involved in these various machinations. He returned to bicycle manufacturing after auto manufacturing was spun off from his company, but in 1901 he decided to reenter the trade. In 1903, the Pope Manufacturing Company began producing cars in Hartford as well as Hagerstown, Indianapolis, and Toledo.
The newly revived company went into receivership in 1907, two years before Pope's death. The Pope Manufacturing Company was dissolved in 1914.
Pope's business has had a lasting legacy, however. Reorganized on a number of occasions in the ensuing years, it relocated to Westfield, Mass., and shifted its focus to making school furniture in the 1950s. It continues this work today as Columbia Manufacturing Inc., while the classic Columbia bicycle design has been revived and is marketed through Ballard Pacific.
Locomobile got its start in Watertown, Mass., after the owner of the magazine Cosmopolitan became fascinated with automobiles. After seeing a performance by a steam-powered car built by twin brothers Freelan and Francis Stanley, John Brisben Walker offered to buy a majority share in their company.
The brothers refused, but Walker persisted. Finally, they set what they thought was an exorbitant price of $250,000 in order to make Walker go away. To their surprise, he accepted. However, he needed some help from his next door neighbor, the asphalt entrepreneur and millionaire Amzi Lorenzo Barber, to provide the necessary funds.
The newly established Locomobile Company of America was established in 1899 to produce steam cars. The name of the company, a portmanteau of "automobile" and "locomotive," referred to the vehicles' similarity to rail locomotives, namely in their pistons and connecting rods. When William McKinley became the first U.S. President to ride in an automobile, he was in a Locomobile.
Despite this historic achievement, Locomobile had a bit of a rocky start. After a falling out between Walker and Barber, the company was split in half. Walker opened an automobile factory in Tarrytown, N.Y., which folded within a few years. Barber moved Locomobile's operations to a 40-acre plot in Bridgeport, becoming the nation's largest automaker in 1902 when he sold 5,200 cars. But as steam cars became less popular, the business found itself on the verge of bankruptcy.
Barber's brother-in-law, J.J. Albright, helped buoy up the company's finances. Andrew Riker, who had sold his electric car business to the Electric Vehicle Company, accepted a designer position at Locomobile as it repositioned itself to make gas-powered vehicles.
The company debuted its first gasoline vehicle, the four-cylinder 12-horsepower Model C, in 1902 with a price tag of $4,000. Locomobile ceased its steam car production the next year. In 1908, Riker designed a car dubbed "Old 16" to compete in the Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island; driven by George Robertson, it became the first American vehicle to win the prestigious race.
Cars were sold to such renowned buyers as Charlie Chaplin, Andrew Carnegie, and Cecil B. DeMille. Walter Chrysler reportedly purchased a Locomobile from the Chicago Auto Show in 1905, disassembled it, and put it back together to learn more about automobiles.
Locomobile's business stayed robust as it diversified its offerings and racked up strong international sales. It began offering fire apparatus, selling engines to communities as far away as San Antonio. The company sold more military trucks to the British military than any other American company during World War I, and became the main supplier of vehicles to Japan.
As Ford's assembly lines began producing thousands of Model Ts each month, Locomobile announced that it would focus on quality rather than quantity. Its Bridgeport factory used molds to forge its own parts from steel, bronze, and aluminum.
Unfortunately, Locomobile's expectations for a booming postwar demand caused it to overextend itself. Sales proved unimpressive, leaving the company with unsold inventory and high debts. It didn't help that vehicles were becoming more affordable to the general public, leaving Locomobile as a niche manufacturer of luxury cars.
Locomobile was subsequently bought out by the Mercer Automobile Company of Trenton, N.J. It was able to regain its independence in 1921, but could not capture its prewar luster. The company continued producing cars into 1922, when it went into receivership.
Durant Motors, which was started by former General Motors CEO Billy Durant, acquired the company's assets after this second round of financial trouble. The Bridgeport factory continued making cars for the automaker's Locomobile line until the end of the 1920s, when dwindling sales forced Durant to discontinue production.
A classic line of motorcycles was based in Massachusetts for much of the 20th century, but had its birthplace in Middletown.
In 1897, George M. Hendee began a bicycle production company in Springfield. The "American Indian" brand became its best seller, and its name was later shortened to simply "Indian."
The first purpose of the Indian motorcycle was a pacing bike for non-motorized cycling races. After meeting engineer Oscar Hedstrom and seeing some of his motorized bicycles, Hendee asked him to build some prototypes for him.
Hedstrom got to work in the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company in Middletown, renting factory space for a dollar a day. He finished his first motorized Indian bike in May 1901, and would send it and two additional examples to Hendee in Springfield.
The motorized Indian proved to be an unexpected success. The motorcycles first became available to the public in 1902, and the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company would become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. The company was active in Springfield until 1953.
The exact location of the factory where Hedstrom built the first Indian motorcycle was up for speculation until 2015, when Middletown resident Chris Hinze determined that the address was 24 Hamlin Street. This road has since been shortened, and the former site is now on property owned by Wesleyan University. A granite memorial now marks the exact location of the departed factory.
The Cameron Car Company existed in fits and starts. During its 18 years in existence, automobile manufacturing took place intermittently in eight different cities, including New London.
The company was established in 1902, after founder Everet Cameron secured financing from a wealthy Pawtucket textile manufacturer to build single-cylinder gas-powered engines. Cameron factories would be established in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, including West Haven, New Haven, and Norwalk.
Six-cylinder touring cars and runabouts were built in New London starting in 1909, but manufacturing of other models likely took place earlier. A 1908 advertisement for the Model 15 cited both New London and Beverly, Mass., as having Cameron factories. The vehicle was listed as having a four-cylinder 24-horsepower engine, artillery wheels, and an automatic oiling system. The advertisement touted it as an "Ideal Car for the Business Man, the Doctor, Merchant, the man that wants to go and come in a hurry at any time."
Cameron typically had several vehicles to offer each year, but didn't produce any new models in 1906, 1913, or between 1915 and 1918. The company made its last car in 1920 before shifting its focus to making marine and aviation engines.
New Britain holds the nickname "Hardware City" for its history of prominent hardware manufacturers, with some companies still headquartered there. In the early 20th century, some of these businesses dabbled in making cars as well.
The Corbin Motor Vehicle Company was named for Philip Corbin, who founded a hardware company that later became part of the American Hardware Corporation. The automaker was established in 1903 when the corporation and Russell & Erwin Company purchased the Bristol Motor Car Company.
The company's first two cars had air-cooled four-cylinder engines and were priced at $2,000 apiece. Corbin would create a wide range of models, including a seven-seat limousine and a truck with a 2,000-pound carrying capacity.
Initial plans called for the company to build only 100 cars a year, but demand soon exceeded this figure. More than 600 Corbin vehicles would be made in the company's history, with showrooms set up in Boston and Madison Square Garden. The cars were further promoted by taking part in competitions, including a Worcester hill climb in 1908 where a Corbin placed second with a top speed of 51 miles per hour.
The Corbin Motor Vehicle Company ceased production in 1912, after it couldn't keep up with larger automakers. The American Hardware Corporation continued to make car parts and service vehicles after its auto manufacturing arm disappeared.
A company in Bridgeport that entered the scene in the latter half of the Brass Era may have had a promising future, but for the intervention of World War I.
A Detroit-based engineer, Harry J. Stoops, designed his first vehicle in 1912. He came to Connecticut after his American Cyclecar Company was acquired by brothers Alexander H. and Isaac B. Trumbull. The business would later be renamed the Trumbull Motor Car Company, with the names of its models changing from Americans to Trumbulls.
The company was only officially in business from 1914 to 1915, but it proved highly successful. It produced four-cylinder roadsters and coupes for the affordable prices of $425 and $600, respectively. About 2,000 cars were produced, with roughly three-quarters of them going to markets in Europe and Australia.
The Trumbull Motor Car Company was dealt a blow in May 1915, when the British passenger liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland. Isaac, the company's treasurer, was one of the 1,198 people who died in the incident. He was traveling to England to close a deal for 300 cars with one of the company's distributors. Twenty Trumbull vehicles accompanying Isaac were lost with the ship.
Isaac's demise, along with reduced demand for vehicles overseas during World War I, caused the Trumbull Motor Car Company to close down by the end of the year. Alexander said he was seriously considering whether to transition the automaker's factory to making munitions for the Allies in order to avenge his brother's death, but it is unclear if he did so.
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