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The Columbia Car: Reliable, Simple to Operate and Ready for Action

In 1995, the Columbia was one of five antique autos selected to be shown on a series of U.S. postage stamps. Its owners have included Queen Alexandra of England, President Theodore Roosevelt, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, gold and art collector Solomon R. Guggenheim, financier Howard Gould, and many others both rich and famous—and not so. Its history arises from the bicycle industry and is entwined with that of a man known as the father of American bicycles—Albert Augustus Pope.

Albert A. Pope
Albert A. Pope

From bicycles. . .

Pope was a self-made man from Boston who learned the ins and outs of business at a very early age. Only nine when his father speculated in real estate and lost everything, young Albert worked his way through school. He rode a plough horse for a nearby farmer for several years before graduating to a business of buying produce from farmers and delivering it directly to customers, an enterprise that could bring in $100 a season. After leaving school at fifteen he sought another line of work, eventually settling on the shoe-findings and supplies business. Civil War broke out and the young man's passions turned to the study of military tactics and the challenge of preparing those in his shoe shop for military service. In short order he volunteered for service in the Union Army and at nineteen marched through Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi, mustering out as a 21-year old Brevet (you get the temporary rank but not the pay) Lieutenant Colonel. At the War's end he returned to what he knew and became president of a shoe-findings business.

Then, in 1876, he visited the Philadelphia Exposition which celebrated the U.S. centennial and exhibited such new products as the typewriter, telephone, and Heinz ketchup. What caught Pope's eye, however, was the velocipede, an early bicycle with a large front wheel. The next year he had an English bike made for him and learned to ride it before ordering eight others. Convinced that bicycles were the next wave in transportation, he visited England to learn how they were manufactured, and in 1878 he started manufacturing his own bicycles at the Pope Manufacturing Co. using the Columbia name. His Columbia sold for $95 whereas an imported bike went for $113. (In addition to manufacturing, he took out all the U.S. patents he could on the European models so that other American manufacturers had to pay him about $10 for each bike they produced.) By the mid-1890s he was the leading U.S. bicycle producer, rolling out about 250,000 bikes per year—and he was becoming a very wealthy man.

Pope set up shop in Hartford, Connecticut to take advantage of the skilled workers there, workers experienced in making firearms, clocks, and sewing machines. He determined to manufacture all the component parts he needed and ensured they were machined to fine tolerances. Parts were made interchangeable and easy to assemble and Pope designed an integrated assembly line, a concept Ford later adopted. There was a patent department, a legal department, a telegraph office, print shop, design and model room, forge shop, die making shop, lathe room to make parts, tiring room, assembly room, inspection room, paint shop, nickeling room, and storeroom for small parts. Pope was proud of the way he treated his employees, too, and proud that they never felt the need to unionize. On a tract of land near the factory he built dozens of houses which he sold at cost to his workers. At work, each employee had his own locker and sink, a stall in which to park his bicycle, and the use of the company library during off-hours. He could get a cheap cup of coffee and lunchtime soup at the canteen and might even play in the company's brass band.

The great bicycle craze also coincided with a boom in advertising. In fact, at the height of the cycling fad roughly ten percent of magazine ads were devoted to selling bicycles. There were advertising buttons, lapel pins, paperweights, spoons, game counters (score keepers), ash trays, pen knives, scarf pins, rubber trousers guards, etc. Pope hired famed illustrators of the day and held annual poster contests, as well. An artist who later rose to great fame, Maxfield Parrish, won the first of those in 1896. His prize was a new bicycle and $250. New bicycle models were introduced each year and the press was invited in for the initial unveiling. Pope would later call upon this experience with advertising when he entered the automotive market.

Columbia Bicycle Ads
Columbia Bicycle Ads

Another of Pope's interests that had significant applicability for the development of cars was road improvement. Because it was hard to learn to ride a bicycle and the newfangled things often scared horses, bicycles were banned from public highways. It might not have seemed like a great loss at the time because of the poor condition of roads generally but if there was no place to ride a bicycle, why would you buy one? At least that's what Pope may have been thinking as he formed the League of American Wheelmen in 1880, largely a collective of existing bicycle clubs, to lobby for creation of better roads.

These cyclists began a national campaign for road improvement, encouraging the creation of public policy as to the location, construction, and maintenance of roads. They wanted to see a National Road Department with a Commissioner of Highways, a Corps of Engineers, and suitable appropriations. At the state level they recommended that states be divided into districts, each with its own supervisor to maintain old and construct new roads. They also added that taxes should be collected for road upkeep, that road construction should be contracted to professionals, and that roads should be classified according to use so accurate maps could be produced.

To groups large and small Pope crossed the country speaking about the need for better roads. In 1893, Congress appropriated seed money for the Department of Agriculture, with an eye toward expanding markets for farm products, to look into the matter. Pope himself donated $6,000 to MIT for new highway engineering studies. While it wouldn't be until 1921 that substantial funding ($75 million) was committed to national highway improvement, Pope and his Wheelmen had raised popular concern and had begun to see planning for state highway departments. And, what at the time was most important, they were enjoying a few more paved roads.

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