Earl Cars: Better Looking—Better Built
There were hundreds of different makes and models of American cars in the twenties. Among them was the Earl of Jackson, Michigan, built from 1921-1923. Named for the company's president and founder Clarence A. Earl, in its earliest days it was advertised as a car with appeal to "your love of the beautiful and your common sense." Essentially a longer, more powerful Briscoe, the 40 series Earl cars were sold as a rare combination of down-to-earth mechanics and styling beauty. There were open and closed models, all built on a 112-inch wheelbase with 4-cylinder engines. Since so few were ever built, to find one today is definitely a rarity.
Clarence A. Earl, a descendant of an old English family, traced his American roots to Edward Earle of York, England who came to America in 1676, settling in New Jersey. Clarence's parents were William Alexander Crane Earle (born 1838), and Phebe Ogden Magie, who married into the family in 1866. On November 23, 1874, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Clarence was born. After an education at public schools, he became an office boy for American Hardware Co. in New Britain, Connecticut. That company, still in business, made keys, post office boxes, locks, etc. In the early 1900s a subsidiary company was established to manufacture the Corbin car. Whether or not Clarence had any involvement with the subsidiary, we know that he eventually worked his way up to the position of vice president in the parent company.
Resigning from that company, he next became the vice president and general manager of Hendee Manufacturing Co, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Hendee made bicycles, known from 1898 onwards as the "Indian", later the name also given to the motorcycle the company produced. Earl remained with the company until October, 1915. By then he had met Mabel Harrop, whom he married on May 21, 1900, in Findlay, Ohio.
The next step in his career journey took him to Willys-Overland Co. of Toledo, Ohio in late 1915, where he served as vice president. A year after his arrival there his new home was ready for occupancy. It was a large brick house with white-columned entrance at 4215 River Road. The house had an attached garage, still an unusual feature at that time, and careful landscaping. A son, Clarence A. Earl, Jr., must have enjoyed growing up there. The father's new Ohio roots also enabled him to become a member of the Toledo Club and the Country Club of Toledo.
Willys-Overland was going toe-to-toe against Ford. In 1915, its production numbers were second only to Ford, and in 1916 its production volume, at 143,000 vehicles, was also rivaling Ford's. By 1917, Willys-Overland was selling its car (which had a self-starter and electric lights) for less than $500, a price close to Ford. One of the largest employers in Toledo, it had a work force of about 15,000, and it had built a strong distributorship network.
In 1919, as World War I ended, however, car manufacturers were feeling the effects of wartime inflation and the cost of Willys-Overland cars had risen to $845, a price significantly higher than Ford charged for his Model T. While Ford's volume enabled him to pay his workers $5 a day, other manufacturers were unable to match the wages he paid.
John Willys, founder and president of Willys-Overland, was, by all accounts, a workaholic. He enjoyed a solid working relationship with his staff, in part because he worked so closely with them, putting in 14-16 hour days, seven days a week. As his company grew and diversified into other areas, however, he felt the need to move to New York City to manage his holding company which included, among others, a tractor company and an aviation company. He left Clarence Earl in charge of Willys-Overland, but Earl lacked significant experience in heading a production team. He knew, though, that production needed to be increased and he had an idea of how to accomplish that.
1919 Willys-Overland Strike
In 1918, Willys-Overland had offered a substantial increase in wages and profit sharing but a year later the company was flagging. Without discussing matters with its workforce, it increased the length of the work day and the work week — at no additional compensation. Workers were expected to work 48 hours: five days of 8 hours 36 minutes and one day of 5 hours. The company did not offer any increase in wages and an affiliated branch of the machinists' union believed the work week should not be longer than 45 hours.
In mid-April 1919, employees divided $400,000 in the first distribution on a 50-50 profit sharing plan adopted in January 1918. Profit sharing was limited to those who'd worked with the company at least six months and the first tranche paid was equivalent to 8% of the wages paid during the first quarter. Plans called for a total of five distributions throughout the year with another small bonus for length of service. The company already offered its employees a training school and affordable housing.