There were so many car companies in North America and Europe during the first few decades of the twentieth century there could be a few you haven't heard of. Then again, if you're a vintage automobile enthusiast then perhaps you have heard of some of these classic but not exactly household names.
It is a fact that when Henry Ford introduced his Model T there were over 170 companies already in or preparing to get into the automobile business. This was a time that the debate ensued of what was better...the horse carriage or the motorized vehicle? Horse proponents complained that the new automobile could and often would spook their teams. An automobile club in California suggested that horses be educated about the motorized vehicle. They suggested that an automobile be stationed near to the horses on a regular basis to allow the horse teams to get familiar with the sight of a car.
City names like Detroit Michigan and South Bend Indiana obviously have a rich automotive history but during the infancy of the auto business cars were being produced in places like Springfield Massachusetts, Anderson Indiana, Los Angeles California, Chicago Illinois, Elizabeth New Jersey, Jersey City Michigan, Cleveland Ohio, Stamford Connecticut, Newburyport Massachusetts and many other locales.
When Henry Ford was first building cars in Detroit there were companies in towns big and small all over the country who were doing, or attempting to do, the same thing. Most of these companies disappeared...some from bankruptcy...others from mergers. It's interesting however that some of these early rare nameplates actually survived into the mid 1900's.
Below are some rare marquee names that you may not have heard of...
Designed and built by Frederick Lanchester, the first cars were built as experimental models in the late 1890's. The second of these cars built won a gold medal in 1899 for running a distance of 68 miles at an average speed of 26 MPH. The Lanchester Motor Company Ltd. was a British automaker.
The first of the Lanchester's had air cooled engines and delivered about 10 horsepower. T The 1905 Lanchester was priced new at about $750. This was pretty much in line with what Ford was charging at the time but Ford prices would drop dramatically with the introduction of the mass assembly line in 1913.
During the Great Depression, many other luxury automakers like Lanchester were going through rough times. The company was liquidated in 1931 and acquired by Daimler.
A luxury 1931 Lanchester model would be priced in the range of $1,400. A standard 1931 Ford might have sold new for about $500 with it's luxury town car selling for about $1,200.
Lanchester's would be built until 1956.
This American automaker was based in Mishawaka Indiana. The American Simplex cars were not your ordinary automobile. They were designed very well and were expensive. They were built from 1906 to 1915 by the Simplex Motor Car Company. The company's first founders went bankrupt in 1907 but the assets were acquired by a new investor.
The Simplex factory was located on East 83rd Street in New York City. Their assembly line consisted of a long wooden bench with perhaps a half dozen chassis on them. A worker called a "fitter" would put together an entire car with the parts given to him. It was said that a good mechanic could put together an entire chassis in six 10 hour days. When the chassis was complete a seat was installed and another worker would take it to Long Island for testing.
As early as 1910 you would have paid $4,000 to $5,000 for one of their models. This was a lot of money in that era. By the same token, the wealthy of the time would have paid $10,000 or perhaps $15,000 for a luxury European import so the Simplex appeared to be a relatively good buy.
The company was acquired by another set of investors in 1914 and when World War One was over the name faded away as the current investors acquired another similar car brand, the Crane and moved operations to New Jersey. The Simplex then became the Crane-Simplex which was built until 1920. The Crane-Simplex was about as luxurious an American automobile you could buy at the time and it's market was the very wealthy.
This was a car you purchased if you had a lot of money and wanted amusement more than just transportation. The Mercer Raceabout came into being in 1905 and continued until 1925. The cars were built in Trenton New Jersey.
This also was an expensive automobile. The 1912 model would have cost you in the neighborhood of $10,000. The popular 1911 Mercer Raceabout Type 35R model was said to be able to drive over 70 MPH on a consistent basis. That was speed in 1911. The car in essence was a sports car and handled as such. It was a powerful automobile powered with an inline six cylinder T-Head engine displacing 300 cubic inches. The chassis was light and it's said that any chassis still remaining today has probably been rewelded. Although it was built as a passenger car with front and rear seats, the auto could also be considered a race car. The manufacturer guaranteed being able to do one mile in 51 seconds.
The original owners of the Mercer Automobile Company had all passed away by 1918 and the company was taken over by a Wall Street combine. New management came in and by 1923 they were in financial trouble and by 1925 the brand was history. There was an effort to revive the nameplate in 1930 by an Indiana firm but because of the 1929 stock market crash that effort was derailed.
The automobile above are just a few of the hundreds of motorized vehicles developed and manufactured when the auto industry was in it's infancy. Many, but not all, of the exotic and expensive cars that were introduced during the first few decades of the twentieth century have disappeared. They disappeared for a variety of reasons, the Great Depression being one of those causes, but most of them were so unique that they will always have a place in the history of the world's automobiles.
(Article copyright 2013 AutoMuseumOnline. Photos and images from the public domain)