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Automotive History Rooted in Cleveland

Ready-Made Car
Ready-Made Car

The purpose of this blog is to explore Cleveland’s unique history with regard to the many “first’s,” inventions, inventors, etc. that led this city to national and world recognition. The book titled: Cradle of Greatness, National and World Achievements of Ohio’s Western Reserve, by Earl R. Hoover was a source for the information that follows. The first topic to be explored will be the automotive industry which literally was “born” in and around Cleveland.

From the late 1890’s until as late as 1908, Cleveland was the foremost automobile manufacturing center in the United States. This was substantiated by the Cleveland Leader in 1903. The newspaper described Cleveland as “the leading automobile manufacturing city in the universe.”It went on to mention that “more automobiles are owned by individuals in Cleveland, in proportion to population than to any other city in the world and most of these are Cleveland-made”.

Between 1896 and 1932 over 115 automobile makes were produced in Cleveland and its environs, with over 80 in Cleveland alone. The auto industry was begun in Cleveland by Alexander Winton. Following Detroit, Michigan’s rise to the #1 position, with regard to volume of cars produced, Cleveland retained the number 2 slot, and held that distinction for close to 30 years. Despite losing out to Detroit with regard to volume of automobile production, Cleveland retained its #1 status with regard to production of luxury cars.

Alexander Winton set industry precedent when he laid out a production schedule for a group of cars according to a pattern. Thus, “ready made” cars were born and no longer had to be “custom made”. On March 24, 1898, history was made when a Pennsylvanian, Robert Allison, came to Cleveland to purchase one of the “ready made” cars.

One of these vehicles (pictured above), owned by the Smithsonian Institute, is on display at the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum of the Western Reserve Historical Society Museum in Cleveland.  This event led to the inception of the automobile industry.

The Winton Motor Car Company developed powerful engines for their vehicles, leading to the construction of the first big automobiles. This company was also credited with building the first diesel engine in the U.S right here in Cleveland.

Alexander Winton regarded his factory as the “largest automobile factory in the world,” by 1900. Winton’s company was the first in the U.S. to attain and continue any sizeable automobile production. The Winton Motor Car Company was considered the largest plant producing automobiles, exclusively, in the U.S. in 1903.

The first automobile reliability run was conducted just a little differently than the way we think of such “testing” today. In 1897, long distance driving was definitely “not the norm”. Alexander Winton drove one of his cars 800 miles, from Cleveland to New York. This journey started on July 28 and concluded on August 7. The actual driving time was “78 hours and 43 minutes”. It is hard for us to consider that there were NO filling stations, interstates, turnpikes, or “rest stops”, etc. Winton purchased fuel at hardware stores!

Even though this “reliability test” was a first, Winton was ignored by the newspapers. Because of his disappointment at not being recognized for his accomplishment, he placed the car on a train for the return to Cleveland. How many of toady’s automotive industry “CEO’s” are responsible for personally conducting “quality control” testing?

Not one to give up, Alexander Winton set out again from Cleveland to New York in 1899. This time, the Cleveland Plain Dealer sponsored his trip “to demonstrate the entire feasibility of this mode of locomotion”. A Plain Dealer reporter, Charles Shanks, journeyed with Winton and submitted articles for publication along the course of the journey. Upon their arrival in New York, these “road trip” pioneers were greeted by one million people! This event spawned increased public interest, ultimately zoomed car sales for Winton, as well as his competitors, and significantly contributed to the establishment of the automobile industry.

The first car to be driven across the country was a Winton. In 1903, Dr. H. Nelson Jackson drove a Cleveland-made Winton from San Francisco, CA to New York. The physician from Vermont started this 5,500 mile trek on May 23rd and completed it on July 26th. The journey was completed at a cost of $8,000. To put this into today’s framework, the same “road trip” of approximately 2800-2900 miles can be completed in 3-5 days. Even with exploding gas prices, food, lodging, toll road fees, etc., it is highly doubtful that one would spend anywhere close to $8,000 (even without factoring inflation into the comparison) to complete that trip today!

Did you ever wonder where the word “automobile” originated and how it ultimately replaced the “horseless carriage”? Yep—right here in Cleveland.

Remember that Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter, Charles Shanks, who accompanied Alexander Winton from Cleveland to New York? He is credited with this semantic change. Articles he had published during the “road test” excursion “flooded” the nation. His writing contained the word “automobile” so frequently that Americans actually “adopted” it. The articles written by Shanks “were the first real effort at intelligent publicity”. Eventually, Shanks became the “first automotive editor of a newspaper”.

On August 13, 1898, a Warren, Ohio man named James W. Packard bought a Winton automobile. For whatever reason, he was frustrated with the vehicle and returned to Cleveland to complain about it and to tell Winton how his automobiles could be improved. In not the most “customer friendly” manner, Winton told Mr. Packard: “If you know so much, why don’t you make your own car?” Those 12 words spawned the manufacturing of one of America’s most renowned cars—the Packard, which was part of the automobile landscape for over 50 years.

Winton, meanwhile, was still creating “firsts”. He is credited with production of the first mail truck in the U.S., which appeared in 1899. The first official U.S. President’s auto was a Cleveland-made Winton used by President Taft.

In 1900, Winton built a special racer in Cleveland. He became the U.S. pioneer in taking automobiles overseas for competitive racing events. He took the racer to France where it was entered in the first Gordon Bennet Cup Race. In 1903 Winton built the first eight cylinder automobile.

Winton (of Cleveland) and Packard (of Warren) obviously got past their differences and combined forces to be the first to introduce the steering wheel. This invention went on to replace the single level “tiller”.

Ransom Eli Olds was born in Geneva, Ohio, a part of the Western Reserve. However, he grew up and attended school in Cleveland. Olds was the first of five men, John and Horace Dodge, Henry Ford, and Henry Leland (founder of Cadillac and Lincoln), to make Detroit, MI the leading city with regard to automobiles. A few of the “firsts” credited to Olds and/or his company were: mass production, prices that appealed to the general public, and establishment of an assembly line, among others. Until 2004, Oldsmobile was the oldest automotive brand name in the U.S. Many people reading this blog may still own, or know someone who owns an Oldsmobile.

The steel and the automotive industries both had “firsts” in Cleveland. The first American all-steel body was produced by Eastman in 1898. Cleveland’s Peerless developed a new type of pressed steel automobile frame in 1903. This new steel frame was ultimately adopted by most automobile makers in this country.

An inventor by the name of Elmer A. Sperry came to Cleveland in the early 1900’s. His purpose in coming to Cleveland was to help establish a successful electric street railway. Obviously, his focus shifted and in 1899 he manufactured one of Cleveland’s first electric autos, named the “Cleveland Electric”. The storage battery he built allowed the car to run 100 miles on a charge. All the motions of this electric auto were controlled by one steering handle. Sperry designed this single lever control system which later became “universal” in electric autos.

Another major accomplishment linked to Sperry while he was in Cleveland, was the invention of the gyroscope. The first one was installed on a boat in Lakewood, OH, a suburb of Cleveland. He and Walter C. Baker, another notable inventor and car manufacturer, worked on projects together.

The gyroscope led to the development of additional equipment that has become essential to all types of navigation, including guided missiles. Development of the gyroscope took Sperry away from Cleveland. Today, we know the company he created by the name to which it evolved—Sperry Rand Corporation.

Various companies emerged as the automobile evolved from the horseless carriage with few parts, to the increasingly complex automobile. Early car makers actually made most of their own car parts. As the industry grew, manufacturers turned to outside suppliers.

According to author Earl R. Hoover, the Western Reserve was the leading area in the United States with regard to production of most auto parts and accessories. By the 1970’s, there were approximately 1500 manufacturers in the Greater Cleveland area. Those manufacturers produced about 8,000 various auto parts. One of the major auto parts suppliers was TRW Inc.

A company named Cleveland Cap Screw was incorporated at the end of 1900. It produced connectors and fittings that were used primarily for autos and light machinery. The company’s first technological advance was the production of valves for automobiles in 1904.

Cleveland Cap Screw became the leader in and largest independent producer of these valves in the world. Another interesting fact—the company was owned by Winton Motor Car Company from 1905-1915. Charles E. Thompson reorganized the firm in 1908 and later bought the firm from Winton in 1915. After some name changes, the company was renamed Thompson Products, Inc. By 1926, it was a well-established producer of finished automotive and aviation goods. Without going into the whole story here, Thompson Products, Inc. finally evolved to the Thompson Ramo Woolridge Corporation in 1958 and shortened its name to TRW Inc. It continued its heritage with a diversified product line containing a myriad of automobile-related equipment linked to its beginnings in Cleveland.

The Cleveland Automobile Club, founded in 1900, is the oldest of such clubs in the country. In 1902, the Cleveland Auto Club along with 8 other clubs, joined together to found the American Automobile Association (now known more commonly as the AAA).

A Cleveland advertising manager, Joseph Fewsmith, who worked for the Cleveland-made Jordan car company, made history with an ad that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on June 23, 1923. The title of the ad was: “Somewhere West of Laramie”. This represented the first time an ad was not just a usual basic description. This ad caused people to think about how they would feel when they owned this car and it appealed to the prospective buyer’s ego. The ad became a classic standard for two industries—automotive, and advertising.

Now let’s consider some “basic” car parts we presently “take for granted”. In 1910, White Motors first placed the gearshift and hand-brake controls INSIDE the vehicle!

Remember the old movies depicting the auto horn outside the car, next to the driver? The Cleveland-made Royal Tourist car innovated placement of the horn “bulb” on the hub of the steering wheel, with the horn itself under the hood. Most of us would complain if we had to reach outside the comfort of the car’s “cabin” to shift gears, tap the horn, or heaven forbid, stop!

Cleveland’s well known Nela Park was the “birthplace” of the glass sealed-beam headlamp reflector which went on to be used in most automobiles.

Cleveland-born, Claude H. Foster invented the “Gabriel Snubber” which was a device that made riding in an automobile smoother. Approximately 100,000 of these shock absorber sets were sold worldwide annually. Foster also invented the Gabriel musical auto horn.

If you live anywhere other than a desert, you can appreciate the development and patenting of the automatic windshield wipers by brothers Fred and William Folberth of Cleveland. As we know, the automatic wipers came to be “standard equipment” on all types of vehicles, not just cars. The brothers eventually held more than 100 patents.

Clevelander, Walter C. Baker formed the American Ball Bearing Company. The ball bearing became a very significant factor in the development of the auto industry. Baker’s company became to largest U.S. ball bearing company. Not only were ball bearings produced for autos, but they were also produced for other purposes.

Garrett Morgan, the son of former slaves, was born in Kentucky in 1877, and moved to Cleveland in 1920. His career began by performing sewing machine repair, but his expertise for fixing things opened many doors and opportunities abounded for him. Discussion of Morgan needs to include his invention of the gas mask in 1916. He was also known for his invention of a zigzag stitching sewing machine attachment. Morgan entered the newspaper business in 1920 when he established the Cleveland Call which later merged with the Cleveland Post in 1928. This newspaper continues to serve the African American community to this day.

Now, let’s get back to automotive history…… Most people take traffic lights for granted, and having to stop at one may, on occasion, result in provoking an “expletive” of some sort. However, there were no such devices early on in the evolution of the automobile industry. Obviously, vehicular accidents became frequent. Just consider how traffic is compromised today when there is a power outage!

While living in Cleveland and driving along its streets, Morgan witnessed a collision between an auto and a horse-drawn carriage. This experience inspired him to invent an improvement to the existing traffic signals.

Although traffic signal devices existed, Garrett Morgan was the first person to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for a traffic signal which was inexpensive to produce. The U.S. patent was granted in 1923. His invention was also patented in Great Britain and Canada.

Morgan’s hand-cranked traffic management device was used throughout North America until all manual traffic signals were replaced by the automatic red, yellow, and green signals that are used worldwide today. The General Electric Corporation bought the rights to Morgan’s traffic signal for $40,000.

It’s mind-boggling how much of the automotive industry as we know it today, had its beginnings in and around Cleveland, Ohio and that so many of the innovators were an integral part of “Millionaire’s Row”. So the next time you hear someone make some derogatory Cleveland remark, you can “come back” with some awesome Cleveland “trivia” that contributed to this city being responsible for so many “firsts”.

Look for more Cleveland historical “food for thought” to follow.

Roberta Malbin Levenson