The 1920's were a time of amazing change across the United States. The strong economy and the ability to pay for cars on installment plans allowed more Americans than ever to get behind the wheels of their own automobiles.  Their biggest challenge was that roads were not very good.  Most were dirt, and a little rain could make them impassable. It would take a major overhaul of the nation's transportation infrastructure to make it car friendly, and that all began as mass production techniques were perfected by the Big Three (Ford, General Motors, and the newly-introduced Chrysler Company).  Smaller car manufacturers felt the pressure of competition during this time, but most persevered. They would be fine, so long as there were no major financial crises to affect the market, and most people said the stock market was permanently strong, and that it would never fail....

Auto Red Bug:

  • Auto Red Bug microcars were originally produced between 1910 and 1930.  Called “Flyers,” early Red Bugs came with a motor wheel - a fifth wheel located behind the rear wheels used for actual transportation that is attached to a gasoline engine. These allow the cars to travel as fast as 25 m.p.h. By 1925, they also offered a battery-powered electric version as well that reached only 15 m.p.h.
  • A.O. Smith originally made them prior to selling out to Briggs & Stratton.  Eventually, Briggs & Stratton was bought out by the Majestic Engineering & Manufacturing Company.  They changed their name to Automotive Electric Service Company of North Bergen, NJ in 1924, then again to become Automotive Standards in 1928).  Later versions were powered by a Dodge electric starter motor.
  • These expensive wooden vehicles cost $300.  They were so expensive that they sold only to wealthy patrons, usually for use in amusement parks or, more likely, resorts.  In fact, many used vehicles of the day could be purchased for less than a new Red Bug would cost.  Production ceased during the Great Depression, since sales dropped significantly by this time. 
  • Jekyll Island, Georgia has been a retreat for wealthy travelers for decades. One draw for golf lovers is the availability of Red Bugs, which continue to zip through the courses on the island. Although the original Red Bugs from the early twentieth century are few and far between, reproductions are readily available today as kits.  The fun and thrill of driving these low-riding little vehicles continues to enthrall fans.


1922 Stanley Steamer:

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  • The Stanley Motor Carriage Company produced steam-powered automobiles from 1902 to 1924.  It was founded by identical twin brothers Francis and Freeland Stanley in Newton, Massachusetts.   Francis E. Stanley (1849-1917)  and Freelan O. Stanley (1849-1940) started their car company only after they enjoyed success in a number of different industries.  Their first venture found them using skills they learned from their grandfather, Liberty Stanley, in the manufacture and selling of violins.

  • From violin production, the Stanleys proved themselves innovators in their own right, creating early x-rays, and a gas-illuminating device.  They then developed a photographic dry plate system that became hugely successful.  They sold their patent for this important innovation to George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, and became fabulously wealthy.  Eastman would, too, as the Stanley's technology would prove pivotal Kodak's .  Francis also had the original patent on the airbrush. 

  • The Stanley brothers stumbled into steam-car production after they witnessed a poorly-designed vehicle drive by them one day.  They knew they could do better.  So, in September of 1897, the Stanleys created their first Steamer by attaching a boiler and an engine to a wagon.  The boiler and a thirty-gallon drum of water were located under the front hood, called by the car's critics a "coffin nose" for its distinctive shape, while the engine sat over the rear axle.  The water got heated by lit kerosene (vaporizing gasoline), and then the steam shot down pipes to work the engine.  The actual power of the cars comes from the steam – the steam rotates the gears in the engine, which move the wheels – one engine rotation for one rotation of the wheel.  There are approximately twelve moving parts to the Stanley engine, which makes for greater durability, and the location of the engine over the rear axle not only allowed for more effective support of its weight, but its proximity to the rear wheels maximized power output.  Some nicknamed the car the “Flying Teapot.” 

  • Stanleys had greater power than all the other cars presented at the 1898 Massachusetts Auto Show, which made them much in demand for prospective drivers.  Two hundred Steamers were produced in 1899, more than any other American company that year.  At the time, steam power was safer and created a more comfortable ride for consumers than early internal combustion vehicles. In fact, no Steamer ever exploded due to the high pressure boiler, despite popular myths of the time.  Stanleys had so much stored power that they could go from zero to sixty miles per hour in eleven seconds. They also had unprecedented success in climbing.  In 1899, a Stanley was the first car to drive to the top of New Hampshire's Mount Washington.  

  • The Stanley brothers sold the patents for their early car design to Locomobile, only to realize they still had ambitions in the industry, so they returned to automobile production shortly thereafter and created a new company. They managed to improve upon their earlier designs while avoiding infringements upon the patents they sold to Locomobile.  Locomobile eventually gave up on steam power and moved into internal combustion cars.  The Stanley brothers never strayed from steam.  Rather, they focused on steam-powered luxury cars, and produced them one at a time.  Each car they made was on commission, beginning production only after their buyers paid cash upfront.  By 1914, Ford was making twice as many Model T cars in one day as Stanley made in one year.

  • Early Steamers had a flaw wherein the fuel burner often flooded.  This caused great flames to shoot out of the rear of the vehicle.  They frightened passersby and inspired a negative reputation that proved very difficult for Stanleys to shake.  They also required water to be added every thirty to fifty miles as the steam was let out as exhaust.  Later models corrected this problem by re-converting the steam to water to be used again, permitting cars to travel up to 300 miles on a single tank of water.  Early cars took approximately thirty minutes to start, later ones fifteen. 

  • Stanley boilers are practically indestructible.  The brothers once jacked the steam pressure in one up to 1,500 pounds per square inch.  Rather than explode, the fire tubes started to leak, making it impossible to increase the pressure even more.

  • Stanley Steamer engines emit a high-pitched whistle negligible to the human ear, but of great interest to dogs.  When one drives into town, dogs come from all around to check it out.  To scare the dogs away, some Steamers were fitted with railroad whistles. 

  • In 1906, Fred Marriott took a Stanley to Ormond Beach, FL and drove a Stanley at a record 127 mph.  The next year, he broke his own record at Daytona, going close to 150 mph before the car crashed in the sand and was totaled.  Marriott was sent to the hospital but was fine.

  • Internal combustion engines increased in popularity when automatic ignitions replaced hand cranks, and fuel efficiency and power delivery improved for them.  Stanley used negative advertising to try to steer customers away from “Internal Explosion Engines.”  It didn’t work, and they were unable to compete with the new technology.  Steamers were also substantially more expensive by the 1920s than their gas-powered competition.

  • In 1917, Francis died while driving on the Newburyport Pike (Newton, MA) when trying to avoid two carriages blocking the road ahead of him.  He veered into a ditch and was killed instantly.  Freeland moved to Colorado, where he lived until he was 91.  Stanley changed hands and survived as a company until 1925.

  • The Stanley Steemer carpet cleaning company has no relation to the Stanley Steamer automobile.  The former was established in 1947 by Jack A. Bates, likely using the familiarity of the automobile company's name to his advantage. They are now in the third generation of Bates family leadership and continue their long tradition of commercial and household cleaning to this day. 

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1924 Cadillac Sedan:

  • Cadillac pioneered many early automotive innovations that are still used in cars today, including automatic ignition, enclosed car bodies, electric lighting, and climate control.
  • Cadillac introduced their V-8 engine in the 1924 year Sedan model. The balanced two-plane crankshaft design used for the engine proved so efficient it is still in use today.
  • Cadillac was the first car company to gear their advertisements towards female drivers, showing them driving cars rather than traveling as passengers.  This proved extremely successful marketing, with Cadillac becoming a favorite for women.
  • Henry Leland, the founder of Cadillac, had a friend named Byron Carter.  Carter had established the Detroit-based CarterCar company and was driving on Belle Island near Detroit in December of 1908 when he spotted a woman in distress whose car had stalled. She was stranded on the side of the road when he pulled over and offered her assistance.  At the time, the only way to start a car was to manually retard the spark, then turn a crank connected to the engine.  When Carter began turning the crank, he did not realize that the car's driver had neglected to retard the spark. The crank kicked back, connected with Carter's jaw and broke it.  The injury became infected and Carter died a few weeks later.  Leland was devastated and committed himself - and Cadillac - to prevent similar accidents from ever happening again.  He hired a young automotive engineer named Charles Kettering to develop an automatic ignition system that would make hand cranks obsolete. Kettering (1876 to 1958) managed to develop a self-starter for Cadillac within a few years, and they incorporated it in their vehicles starting in the early 1910's.  Other automotive companies were slower to embrace the technology, though, and cranks would continue to appear on some model vehicles well into the 1920's. Kettering, meanwhile, found long-term employment with General Motors and continued to innovate for the company for decades. One of his less praiseworthy inventions (in hindsight, anyway) was the development of leaded gasoline.  True, it helped reduce knocking in engines, which was a nuisance for many, many years, but it emitted an exhaust into the air that proved harmful not only to the environment but to humans as well. 


1927 Willys-Overland Whippet:

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  • John Willys (1873 to 1935) was born in Canandaigua, New York.  As a young man, he started selling bicycles.  Then he started making his own. He did well enough that he decided to upgrade to the next big thing - automobiles, and successfully sold Overland cars in nearby Elmira. Discovering that the Indianapolis, Indiana-based Overland company was unable to fulfill his orders, he decided to buy the entire company.  That was in 1907. Five years later, he changed the name to the Willys-Overland Motor Company.  He obtained the rights to the well-respected Knight 'sleeve-valve' engine, and achieved great success, becoming the second largest American producer of automobiles by 1915, moving the company's headquarters to Toledo, Ohio, where he at one time directly or indirectly employed a full third of the city's population.
  • 1919 proved both a great and challenging year for Willys. They obtained the Duesenberg company (that was the great), but their factory in Toledo was wracked by labor disputes.  Strikes shut down the plant for several months and Willys went to General Motors to recruit help in salvaging his company. The man he went to was Walter Chrysler, who he offered an astonishing million dollar annual salary to take over operation of the plant. Chrysler's ambition got the best of him, though, and he attempted a takeover of Willys.  When it failed, Chrysler left to start his own company.  John recovered from the drama and continued to grow his car company through the twenties, contributing to the design of his popular Whippet, before getting distracted by politics. An ardent Republican, he was appointed in 1930 by President Herbert Hoover to the ambassadorship of Poland. He was there until May 1932, when he returned to his car company, then in the throes of bankruptcy reorganization.  His car company survived, but tragically he did not. In August of 1935, he died of a stroke, following a heart attack he had the previous May.
  • The Whippet was introduced to the market in 1926.  These small (for their era) 4-cylinder cars were described as light, sturdy, fast, inexpensive, stylish, dependable, affordable, roomy, and well made. The Whippet had four-wheel drive, and proved to be truly innovative for its time.  Some contend that the success of this car compelled Henry Ford to finally retire his Model T, revamp his factory, and introduce the Model A in December of 1927.  In 1928, Whippets were the third-bestselling car in the United States, and they remained in production only until 1931, as Willys continued to attempt improvements on their designs to fight the economic impact of the Great Depression.  During the 1930's, Willys struggled to stay in business as they continued to improve on their technology. Most notably, in 1938 their chief engineer Delmar "Barney" Roos developed a 4-cylinder engine that was durable and capable to withstand extreme situations.  It would prove the perfect complement to a vehicle the United States Military was looking to have produced on the eve of America entering World War II - the car that would become known as the Jeep.  

1929 Ford Model A:

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  • Ford produced the Model T from 1908 to 1927. During that time, automotive technology improved dramatically and, while Ford regularly upgraded the T, he allowed the competition to outpace him until, by 1927, he had to acknowledge that he was losing pace in the highly competitive automotive industry.  General Motors ranked the number one company in the nation, with more than twice the number of Chevrolet's selling than Model T's by May.  So Ford shut down all of his plants on May 26th, 1927, the day after he and his son Edsel drove the fifteen-millionth Model T out of their factory.  60,000 factory workers were laid off as the factories were set for a major overhaul that required replacing all of the machinery necessary to create the new design.  Ford wouldn't introduce the new Model A until December of that year, but it came with a media blitz unlike anything before. 
  • The new Model A (Ford had produced a previous Model A from 1903 to 1904) was offered in a variety of different colors, as well as in numerous styles based on price points:
    • The Tudor Sedan cost around $500, came in a choice of standard or deluxe features.
    • There were numerous styles of two-door Coupe, including the Regular, the Business, Sport, or Roadster, some also in standard or deluxe design.
    • The Convertible Cabriolet or Sedan.
    • The Phaeton in standard or deluxe.
    • The Tudor Sedan.
    • The Town Car cost around $1,200.
    • The Town Sedan.
    • The Fordor in two-window or three-window format, in standard or deluxe. 
    • The Victoria.
    • Then there's the station wagon, the truck, the taxi cab, and the commercial Model A.
  • Model A's were the first Ford vehicles to include standard driving options that had long prior been embraced by the competition, including clutch and brake pedals, a throttle, and gearshifts. It was the first vehicle to have safety glass in the windshield, and there was a way to manipulate the temperature in the car - well, heat, anyway.  Air conditioning in cars would be introduced in 1939 in the luxurious Packard. 
  • In only four years, almost five million Ford Model A’s were produced; however, Ford never truly recovered the momentum they had experienced in the early days of the Model T.  While generally regarded as a huge success, Ford was initially unable to keep up with demand, which fueled some resentment towards the company.  The short lifespan of the Model A is indicative of the end of an era. No longer would a car be able to remain popular for years on end.  In fact, people increasingly grew to expect automobile manufacturers to update car designs annually.  
  • Rumble seats first appeared in horse drawn carriages as early as the 1860’s, and they remained popular into the 1930’s. The upside: cars could remain compact and the seat could be used for storage when not for passengers.  The downside:  passengers had no protection from the elements whatsoever. An early definition of a 'rumble' was 'a boot.'  Generally, only the Roadster, Cabriolet, and the Coupe were available with the rumble seat option.


1920's Republic Motor Company Truck:

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  • The Republic Motor Company operated between 1913 and 1929 out of Alma, Michigan. Prior to World War I, they were the largest company in the world to exclusively produce trucks. In fact, they produced one out of every nine trucks in the United States during that time.
  • Republic received positive press for two trans-continental drives made in the days before quality roads stretched across the country.  One of these treks was made by Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of the highly popular "Tarzan" series of books) and his family, which he wrote about in a personal memoir. 
  • They were a major supplier of “Liberty trucks” to the military during World War 1.  All tolled, 9,500 Liberty trucks were manufactured by fifteen different American companies and sent overseas.
  • After the war, a massive surplus in former military vehicles saturated the civilian market, which seriously impacted the ability for Republic and their competitors to remain in business. Republic sank into further decline with the unexpected death in 1928 of its president, Oliver Hayes, which compelled them to go into receivership. Republic changed hands - and names - numerous time before White Motor Company finally absorbed them in 1951.