Lansing’s Inventors of Obscure Cars

Copied from The State Journal; Lansing, Michigan; Sunday, January 1, 1950.

Inventors of Obscure Cars Left in Dust of Automotive Industry
Steamers Fizzled; Fate Favored Some
Bohnet, Locomobile, Bates Were Early Tries for Success

(The author of this article dealing with Lansing’s early makes of autos, is an authority on the subject, and a member of several organizations devoted to the study and preservation of the early “horseless carriages”).

By W. Jack Down

Many a Lansing man with an inventive turn of mind burned the midnight oil during the opening years of the century, as it dawned on the public that the “horseless carriage” was here to stay – and the man who built the best one would be a favored son of fortune. Today their names are all but forgotten, and most of their experimental automobiles long since turned to rust on somebody’s junk heap, lost forever to the historian. While nothing came of many of these early cars, some made lasting contributions to a great industry. Even before 1900, one Lansing man had made the automotive world sit up and take notice.

He was, of course, Ransom Eli Olds, who built steam-powered cars in 1887 and 1891. They were not very successful. They weighed so much that their small engines could scarcely run them.

In 1895, Olds, working with Frank G. Clark, who later was to build the Clarkmobile, decided to give it one more try. This time it would be a gasoline engine. Out of an incorporation meeting held Aug. 21, 1897, came the predecessor of the present Oldsmobile division.

Olds furnished the engine from his father’s gasoline engine shop on River st., while Clark furnished a carriage from his father’s big carriage factory at the foot of E. Washtenaw st.

Failing to obtain local backing, Olds secured support from Detroit financiers, and started turning out the famous “curved-dash” auto there in 1900. He produced 425 cars the next year – the year a fire razed the Detroit plant. Olds was lured back to Lansing by a committee of local businessmen, although he continued to turn out a few cars in Detroit.

A local newspaper dated Jan. 10, 1902, announced that Lansing would see its first “Olds” next month. Then, on Feb. 14, a news story proclaimed that the first order was for 1,000 cars, but that, due to a delay by the Auto Body Works, the machine wouldn’t be produced before March 1. May 12 was the day that Lansing learned that cars were being shipped to China and Japan from the new Olds Motor Works plant. On the 23rd of the same month, it was revealed that the firm was to build a foundry, and that already was employing 300 men turning out an unheard-of 10 cars daily.

And this was several years before Henry Ford became famed for mass production.

OLDS BROKE WITH COMPANY

Olds broke with stockholders on the same mass production question in 1903. He insisted upon a low-priced, assembly-line vehicle, while they wanted a higher-priced, custom-made car. He walked out and sold his stock.

In 1905 the Detroit plant was abandoned and Olds production was centered in Lansing. Here in the then largest auto factory in the world, 6,500 cars were produced that year, shattering all records anywhere.

The famous “Olds Limited” was produced in 1910, two years after the Olds Motor Works threw in its lot with General Motors corporation.

The fifth automobile seen here was the “Bohnet Steamer,” which followed R. E. Olds’ first three cars and a “Locomobile Steamer.”

This Locomobile Steamer was brought here by a “Doctor” Homer Cornell, a patent medicine salesman whose main interest in cars was their publicity value. When the “doctor” presented his show here in 1899, George J. Bohnet, then 22, chased the Locomobile for blocks and virtually lived with it until the show left town.

Bohnet, manager of the Holms and Son Bicycle Shop, began building a steamer of his own design, working in the shop after hours. The frame was bicycle tubing welded together by hand. He even turned his own hubs, bearings and cones for the wheels. Seldom has a man been forced to make so many parts, but such things weren’t available at the nearest garage.

Bohnet tried to keep his venture a secret, but a fire next door unmasked his invention. He rushed into his shop, fearful that he might be burned out, and ripped his nearly-finished auto apart, rushing it piece by piece into the street.

The public saw it, and so did the press. An article and picture appeared two days before the new car was given its trial run.

The trial run was a success. Bohnet became associated with J. W. Post, who conducted his business end of the venture known as Lansing Automobile Works. They produced at least one more car. This was also steam-propelled.

JOINED PRUDDEN

Bohnet was asked to join the Prudden company as sales manager for the auto sales department, where he sold the up-and-coming Oldsmobile. Later, this firm sold Cadillacs, and still later Bohnet helped organize the Capitol Auto company with exclusive dealership of Reo here.

The Auto Body company, a pace-setter in its day, began operating around 1900, making bodies for both cars and carriages. Soon it was making bodies for the best known auto manufacturers, including Reo and other early Lansing firms.

Sometime after 1912, Auto Body began losing ground, failing to note the advent of metal-covered bodies. They were either unable to find new business, or money to convert to constructing the metal chassis and went out of business about 1920.

Getting back to 1902, the city was just receiving its first impact with the auto age.

This was the year A. D. Baker ran over the Western Union messenger boy without hurting him.

This was the year that Alderman Dodge and City Atty. Zimmerman decided that each car must display a license on the side and back, a “suitable bell” and a lighted lamp.

And this was the year that Alderman Dodge came up with this startling thought: “. . . In his opinion, if anyone was injured by an automobile in the city, the court would allow a judgment against the city as quickly as for injuries on a defective sidewalk.”

This, too, was the year that saw the coming of the “Greenleaf.”

Few living recall this unique Lansing-built auto. Only scraps of information are available, but the firm did build cars. In 1902 it exhibited at the Michigan Grange convention here. In 1903 an article describing a two-cylinder model selling for $1,750 (a dollar a pound) appeared in a national auto magazine. The article included the only known photo of a Greenleaf. What happened to the company, where it was located, or who the officers were is one of those historical mysteries. We only know that a Smith Clawson was engineer.

In 1903, when downtown streets were more mud than bricks, and you bought your gasoline from a drugstore or hardware. Madison Bates, J. P. Edmonds, R. W. Morse and J. Edward Roe of the successful Bates and Edmonds Motor company, together with Bliss Stebbins and Dr. Harry A. Haze, organized and built a car called the “Bates.” They built 25, in fact, and managed to lose money with ease. They had to use profits of their motor firm to keep the struggling company on it feet.

SINGLE-CYLINDER CAR

This organization started in the old armory in the 300 block of S. Capitol ave., where Trevellyan Oldsmobile, Inc. is now located. They used engines from their engine plant, producing at first, a single-cylinder runabout, and later a two-seated car with a four-cylinder motor under the hood. Payroll troubles induced them to go back to making motors exclusively, in 1906.

And what happened to Frank G. Clark, the man who started out with R. E. Olds?

On Feb. 20, 1903, The State Republican blared: “Another firm will make automobiles … The Clarkmobile will be manufactured in Lansing …”

The Clarkmobile company was organized in April 1902. For over a year prior to this, Clark had been working on a new car that would overcome many objectionable features of autos then in existence.

Strange to say, with all the publicity it received, there are few photos available, and so far, a snap of the first car or any experimental models are still to be found.

The Clarkmobile enjoyed indifferent success, and Clark tried his luck at building trucks between 1905 and 1910. The truck was a large four-cylinder model considered huge at the time. This too provided a financial failure. About 100 autos were produced and many trucks, but none have survived, as far as known.

Clark’s one-time partner, R. E. Olds, having severed connections with the Olds Motor Works, started the R. E. Olds company in 1904, later changing the name to the Reo company. The first Reo plant was officially started in September 1904, and the first carload of Reos was shipped next March.

First came a two-cylinder model which quickly gave way to the famous single-cylinder model which was still being built in 1910. President “Teddy” Roosevelt rode in one when he came here in 1907 for the golden anniversary of the start of Michigan Agricultural college. Countless others rode in them, and some are still going strong after all these years. Reo Motors, Inc., the present firm, actually has a 1908 car and a 1909 truck that run well.

In 1908 Reo added the truck, which was an asset. By 1910 it was building one-cylinder models as well as a “two” and a “four.” A “six” was added in 1915. In the late ’20’s they produced the Wolverine, but found it to be too expensive to advertise two names rather than one. So the Wolverine was discontinued as such, and was simply called the small Reo.

During the later years of the depression, Reo went into bankruptcy, and spirited batted for control were waged. Reorganized in 1939, the firm restricted itself to trucks, coaches and buses.

Another early firm which fell by the wayside was the New-Way Motor company, which advertised in 1904 that it had three Clarkmobiles for sale. In 1906 this company tried to build and market its own cars, under the aegis of its organizers, Willam Newbrough and a Mr. Way. They started operations about 1907 in part of a building on N. Cedar st., formerly occupied by the Lansing Iron and Engine Works. They built six or seven cars before losing enough money to convince them that this business wasn’t for them.

NEW-WAY

This car was called the “New-Way,” and once again we run into a blank wall, for no pictures or other relics of it have been located.

There was still another early auto here, the “R. O.,” but whether it was actually built in Lansing is now questionable.

The Reo Motor Car company in 1910 purchased the Owen automobile in Detroit to enable them to have patent rights on a new center shift control the Owen firm pioneered.

This Owen car seems to have been connected in some way with Ralph M. Owen, who was a sales agent for Reo.

In 1911, a national auto magazine announced that Reo was moving all the Owen machinery to Lansing, after purchasing that company. It added that the car would be continues here, but would be known as the “R. O.”

Shortly after this, several advertisements appeared for the “R-O of Lansing.” It weighed 3,400 pounds, costing nearly a dollar a pound. It had 42-inch wheels. Between 100 and 200 cars were produced, either here or in Detroit, but there is no known record of the date of discontinuation.

The early ’20’s saw William C. Durant make his last bid for fame and fortune here, with construction of the Durant factory on Verlinden ave. Over-expansion coupled with depression, led to bankruptcy in 1931. The plant housed the annual auto show for several years until was purchased by General Motors for the Fisher Body division.

Out of Lansing have come many of the important innovations of the auto industry. The first cars, the first bodies, the first wheels made especially for cars, the first trucks, mass production with smaller inexpensive cars available for almost anyone, rubber-tired cars and trucks, pneumatic truck tires, center gear shift, and large trucks capable of safe speeds exceeding 50 miles per hour.

These are the big and important “firsts.” and if many an early experimental car fell by the wayside – well, that’s part of the price of progress.

 

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