Earl Cars: Better Looking—Better Built - Page 3
Following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the country was in for a recession, resulting in a six-week run on banks in October and November, 1907. Reacting to the unsettling state of affairs, Briscoe suggested a consolidation of Ford, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Maxwell-Briscoe. In the days prior to antitrust legislation, this was not such an outlandish idea. While Briscoe got an investment of about $6 million from banks, that was an insufficient amount. When negotiations with Ford and others proved unsuccessful, Briscoe was left to finance the venture himself. The United States Motor Co., formed in 1910, was to be financed, in part, through debentures sold to automotive retailers who were given a guarantee of favorable financing for their sales inventory. The makers eventually agreeing to the conglomerate included Maxwell-Briscoe, Brush, Stoddard-Dayton, Courier, Columbia, and Alden-Sampson. Once financing was in place, Briscoe went on a buying spree, purchasing 126 companies and constructing a multi-story Manhattan office building for his headquarters. The company grew and expanded rapidly — too quickly, in fact. Briscoe was forced out of the company and U. S. Motors went into receivership in 1912.
Soon thereafter Briscoe and his brother Frank sailed to France, where they produced a cyclecar they planned to sell in the U.S. That enterprise was short-lived, though, and the brothers returned to the U.S. Financiers who had backed the idea of the United States Motor Co. had soured on any further financing but the Swift meatpacking company came through with the needed capital to buy out the Brockville auto manufacturer in Jackson, Michigan, where Briscoe began building his Briscoe car. In January 1914, it debuted at the New York Auto Show. Similar to the French-built cyclecar, it was promoted as the first French-designed American car, one with a "half-million dollar motor", the amount spent on its development.
Early versions of the car had a single headlight and body panels made of papier mache placed over wood framing. Later Briscoe brought out an air-cooled, 24 hp four-cylinder car. Following WWI, he offered to sell plans for building a 4-cylinder car; any U.S. town could get into the car business. In 1920, his chief engineer Jules Haltenberger devised a plan to simplify production greatly by using a single design for many components. He used, for example, a reversible propeller shaft, identical castings for clutch and brake pedals, a single design for spring shackles and bolts, etc. It may have seemed a good idea at the time but it led to numerous component failures. Sales, which had been strong, weakened considerably.
On July 1, 1921, prices were reduced $200. Ads listing Clarence A. Earl as president read, "Before you decide, take a Briscoe ride." — and "Briscoe at $1085 is a better car than it has ever been in its history." One ad of the day praised the leadership Clarence Earl exerted on the company: "Every motor car built is based on man-power as well as horsepower. Every manufacturing and selling organization is the lengthened shadow of a man. In the case of Briscoe, this man is Clarence A. Earl. Clarence A. Earl is the new president of the Briscoe Motor Corporation. For years he has been admittedly one of the leaders among the makers of motor cars. Among automobile men his name is a guarantee of value and quality, of fair dealing and progressive methods. When automobile makers generally joined in the recent price-cutting scrabble with one eye on their competitors, Earl stood apart. He knew just how far lower material costs would allow him to reduce Briscoe's price without shaving quality. He reduced Briscoe from $1285 to $1085 and not one penny further. His previous experience had taught him that an automobile of real quality cannot be produced below a certain figure."
When lowered prices failed to build sales back to previous levels, Benjamin Briscoe, saying he was tired of it all, turned over the car and the company to Clarence Earl in October, 1921. While Earl continued to produce and market the Briscoe, it didn't take him long to correct some of the Briscoe's deficiencies and introduce his own car, the Earl, one advertised as "better looking and better built" [than the Briscoe].
In assuming responsibility for the Briscoe, though, Earl took on $1.5 million in debt. He needed to market the remaining Briscoes, and he needed to convince financiers quickly to invest in his dream of the new Earl.
The Distinctive, Refined Earl
On October 3, 1921, the press announced the formation of Earl Motors, Inc., with additional capitalization of $6 million. Earl, now 47, had met with bankers in September to get things started. Thereafter, the board of directors, largely comprised of bankers and representatives from suppliers such as Ajax Rubber, Hayes Wheel, and Sinclair Refining, voted unanimously to back the new company, one which still owned nine plant buildings. George C. Scobie, who had worked both with Price-Waterhouse and Hayes Wheel Co., was named vice president and controller.
Earl released information that he had plant capacity to build 15,000 cars a year and a further plan to double capacity the following year. The Earl was even international in that it had a production facility in Brockville, Ontario. Clarence Earl had already expanded lines of distribution, adding twenty new distributors and 240 dealers since he'd taken office.
The Earl was to be a new four-cylinder car in both open and closed models, the enclosed ones ready for delivery October 15 and the open ones ready on November 1, 1921. The 40 Series cars were longer (112" vs. 109" wheelbase) and more powerful (37.5 vs. 35 hp) than the Briscoe. And a number of the Briscoe's mechanical flaws had been worked out. There were basic models: brougham, sedan, cabriole, roadster, and touring car, but the car was also available with screen delivery (screened sides and back) and panel delivery bodies. The cars utilized worm and gear or worm and wheel steering, had semi-elliptical leaf springs and an 18-gallon gas tank, and offered motorists three gears. The L-head motor with a piston displacement of 195 inches engines, stamped "EARL, Made in USA", was small bore and long stroke. The crankshaft was three bearing and well-balanced. A U.S. L. battery provided ignition and the starter and generator were produced by Auto-Lite. There were 14-inch brakes. The cars had wooden wheel spokes and non-skid, 32x4", cord white-walled tires. "EARL" was stamped onto the wheel hubs. The weight of each car was in the range of 2250-2780 pounds. Customarily there were few color choices — black, blue or gray exteriors with nickel or platinum trim, and black or gray interiors — but more colors were available for some models.