By Llewellyn Hedgbeth
The Roamer (1916-29), and its close cousins the Barley (1922-24) and the Pennant (1924-25), were manufactured by Barley Motor Car Co., first of Streator, Illinois and, later, Kalamazoo, Michigan. Marketed as "America's Smartest Car", the Roamer was known as the poor man's Rolls Royce. Over a period of fourteen years, roughly 12,000 cars were produced. Named for a distinguished race horse, its stylish lines turned heads; its power achieved numerous racing wins; and its advertising wooed the elite. These days, though, it's pretty rare to catch even a glimpse of one.
Every car made was customized, with owners selecting the paint color, upholstery, and top they desired. As a 1919 ad intoned, owners expected their Roamer to be "dominant in performance, patrician in grace, exquisite in appointment, exclusive in every detail." Customization was stressed in a 1921 company publication in which an advertising writer asked one of the car's builders to picture his customers. The builder was said to have replied, "Well, I think of an English countess I saw once; of a dare-devil young college speed-maniac, and of an artist who uses beautiful combinations of lines and colors. I try to do my work so that all three of them would think, when they saw the car, that it had been built just for them."
The Roamer's owners were legendary. From Oscar Wilde, an early owner whose quotations were featured in some Roamer brochures, to silent screen comic Buster Keaton and actress Mary Pickford (owner of a cream-colored Roamer with turquoise-colored interior features), the car was a symbol of wealth, leisure, and impeccable taste. Lesser-known Broadway and film stars were featured in Roamer advertising, too — Julia Sanderson, Raymond Hitchcock, William Farnum (a big sensation of the day), Wallace Reid (called "the screen's most perfect lover"), and many others.
An ad appearing in The Theatre magazine of December, 1916, stressed the Roamer's appeal to theatrical artists: "Let Sarah Bernhardt enter a room and instantly her personality will dominate the gathering. The same holds true of the Roamer." Then, too, the Roamer was one of the actual stars in a Broadway show when the producer of 1919's "A Regular Feller," a play about "motoring thrills and consequent romantic adventures", chose to use a Roamer when action called for a car.
1916 ad in The Theatre Magazine.
Three men collaborated in producing the Roamer: A.C. Barley (manufacturer), Cloyd Y. Kenworthy (distributor), and Karl H. Martin (designer). Their unique talents blended to develop a sporty car that appealed to America's "aristocracy".
Albert Clayton Barley, for whom the company was named, was the son of James Lafayette Barley, wealthy sawmill owner and business investor (holding interests in a number of firms, including Rutenber Motor Works) of Marion, Indiana. His was the second family in town to have a car, a chauffeur-driven one. In later years, however, the family had many more models, most of those self-drive, and, in 1908, presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan drove one of the family cars during a campaign visit.
Three years later, President William Howard Taft visited Marion, as well, and Secret Service agents used a Barley family car during that visit. In all likelihood, the family's three sons — Albert, Charles G., and Fred L. — were infected with their father's enthusiasm for automobiles as they assisted him in managing his business affairs. A sister Edith married J. W. Stephenson, a young man who began in the tin pie plate manufacturing business but who would go on to find employment with automotive concerns, as well.
Born in 1877, A.C. was the second Barley son. But it was his older brother Charles G., born 1873, who was groomed as his father's alter ego in business affairs. For a number of years he worked in an elevator company, then founded Marion Ice and Cold Storage Co., served on the board of directors for a bank, department store, stove company, table company, loan company, electric company, etc. In 1911, he bought out the Harwood-Barley Truck co., one of America's five original truck production companies. That company, which his father had headed, was originally established to make iron and brass beds, bed springs and motor trucks. As George lavished more attention on the trucking concern, he also married the other partner's daughter, Mae Harwood. The firm eventually became known as Indiana Motor Truck Co. Their trucks were powered by Rutenber engines, a company Indiana Truck would later purchase. The elder son, however, died, unexpectedly, in 1922, following an operation for uremic poisoning.
That left Albert, who had certainly not been overlooked when it came to business affairs. The elder Barley had involved him in running a business empire that stretched over numerous concerns located in several states. Born July 1, 1876, Albert attended school in Marion, and, by 1901, was managing his father's dry-goods (department) store, the Miller and Barley-owned Big Store. That year he went to Chicago to confer with an attorney and represent the family's interests in a successful attempt to secure a temporary injunction against the Royal Manufacturing Co. of Chicago, forcing them to return customer photos they held. Royal had contracted with Miller & Barley to have a concession in their store offering to enlarge a photograph for free, if the customer bought at least $25 in merchandise. Royal had hoped to interest customers in purchasing one of their picture frames for displaying the enlargement but sales were hard to come by. Barley disliked Royal's sales methods, however, and cancelled the contract. Royal sued for breach of contract and refused to return the customer photos — until the court made them do so. Barley had proved he was unafraid to face down a business opponent.