In the early, feverish days of American car development, it seemed as though every small machine shop or carriage builder had an idea or two about building a better car. Most states boasted several or more such wannabe auto manufacturers, and Virginia was no exception.
The first known sighting of a car in the Commonwealth of Virginia came in Norfolk, Virginia in 1899. Just as in other states, there were no real roads, no maps to the paths that did exist, and no expectation that any of these speedy chariots would go more than 10-20 mph. The earliest cars were all inventions, created from various available machined parts assembled in whatever way the inventor deemed appropriate. There was no standardization of parts, sizes, connections, etc.
In 1901, the first known car to be made in Virginia was the Dawson Car, named for George Dawson, an Ohio machinist. Dawson set out from Cincinnati for Basic City (now Waynesboro), Virginia, via the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (C&O), in 1899. There, at the crossroads of the C&O and the Shenandoah Valley (later the Norfolk & Western) Railroad, he established a machine shop known as Dawson Manufacturing Company. While the railroads likely kept him in business, Dawson also decided to try his hand at building a steam-powered car.
Dawson Steam Automobile.
The Dawson Steam Auto-Mobile was a 2-cylinder runabout with single chain drive and tiller steering. The driver and one or two passengers could sit atop the bench seat; the engine was located beneath it. The car rode on wire-spoked wheels with white rubber tires. Its top speed was said to be somewhere between 25 and 30 mph, and its side brass lamps ensured that a driver could continue driving into the evening hours. After the first model was on the road and a proven success, Dawson tried advertising the car in an automotive trade journal — but there were no takers. Because he wanted to continue building a second car, eventually he sold the first to Luther Gaw (auto mechanic) and John Clark (barber) of Waynesboro, Virginia. While Dawson continued to try to get backing, Basic City's businessmen and bankers were not inclined to support the start-up car manufacturer. Discouraged and leaving his second incomplete car unsold, Dawson closed his business and returned to Cincinnati.
It didn't take long at all for another Virginia car to appear, this time in Richmond in 1902. R.W. Coffee & Sons, Inc., a machinery manufacturing firm, had branched into gasoline engines and transmission gears. The logical next step was for the firm to produce a car. The prototype they developed was a one-cylinder, 12 hp touring car. That grew into a touring car which, according to Motor World magazine, ran smoothly, was simple to operate, and had "ample power for any contingencies that might arise. Powered by a horizontal, two piston "Binate" engine, it was entered in a 100-mile endurance test held May 30, 1902. The cars competed in a run from New York City to Southpoint, Connecticut and return. Designed by sponsor the Automobile Club of America to be completed in 6 hours, 40 minutes, Charles E. Miller was the driver. The open car had wooden artillery wheels, three bench seats, and a nearly vertical steering wheel at its square front. Although Coffee did not finish the race, the car was purchased by George Donelly to carry passengers from the Pelham Avenue station of the elevated railroad to the Bronx Park station. Miller wanted his own car, a specially designed model that Coffee & Sons produced in 1902. It was a gasoline tonneau with the "Binate" engine, this time producing 16 hp. It had two forward and one reverse speed. Despite these early successes, by 1903 Coffee & Sons were no longer producing cars.
Miller car, as depicted in The Horseless Age of July 30, 1902.
Another Richmond concern developed what is claimed as the first production car to be built in Virginia, the aptly named Virginian. Manufactured by the Richmond Iron Works, a concern comprised of several small iron foundries, the Virginian was a large car with a 130" wheelbase, 4-cylinder engine, and three speeds. Available from 1910-1911 in a 4-person torpedo roadster or 7-person torpedo touring car, each car was priced at $3000.
First announced in November 1910, experiments with the car had been underway for a number of months. The earliest car produced 40 hp though the firm hoped to get 50 hp in the car's second year. A catalogue issued in January 1911 explained that the firm aimed at "quality and dignity". The men behind that claim were President M.A. Finn, Vice President H.H. McCurdy, Treasurer M. J. Francis, Secretary W. P. Seassaussure, Assistant Secretary and Treasurer R. Massie Nelting, General Manager W. H. Woody, and Sales Manager H. G. Wagner. They oversaw work at a plant covering 4.5 acres on North Boulevard near the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railway and claimed to have large contracts with the U.S. Government. Construction was also begun on a special building for car manufacturing.
The Virginian was powered by a 4-cylinder Continental engine and a three-speed sliding gear transmission. It was said to have a clean dash with a flush-mounted magneto switch and 8-day clock. Equipment included a mohair top, top cover, side curtains, windshield, speedometer, horn, adjustable foot rail, robe rail, tool set, tire pump, and tire kit.
It was all set to go but in Virginia there still weren't that many good roads. In November, 1910, however, work began on a new road to connect Richmond to Newport News 86 miles away, or four hours by car. In December of that year, New York millionaire Frank J. Gould donated $100,000 to construct a highway between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, passing through Fredericksburg. The Automobile Clubs of Washington and Richmond also agreed to raise some of the needed funding. On Valentine's Day of 1912 the automotive upstart went into receivership with debts of $65,577.96 as against assets of $111,351.90 and real estate valued at $75,000. Most creditors were local concerns.
1911 Virginia Chassis.
While the slow-moving Dawson hadn't gotten much respect in Virginia, other cars had. There was significant growth in car ownership in the state, with more than 37,000 cars registered by 1916. Just a year later, Virginia's sole business chartered to mass produce cars opened — the Piedmont Motor Car Company of Lynchburg, Virginia — and began building touring cars (either Touring or Speedster Touring), roadsters (known as Club Roadsters), even light trucks.
From 1917 to 1922, nearly 2500 vehicles were produced. An undated copy of an ad placed in The Lynchburg News shows a sketch of the plant alongside car models and heralds that the Piedmont was "no longer a stranger but a tried and tested friend with Style, Comfort, and above all Durability". The ad went on to address prices, as well, noting that "values offered in the cars shown here may seem too good to be true, but they are true and are made possible by close attention to every mechanical detail, careful buying and standardized production."
The best-selling Piedmont was a touring car, a 6-cylinder (Model 6-40, with 40 hp produced by a Continental engine) or 4-cylinder (Model 4-30, with 20 hp produced by a Lycoming engine,) designed to carry up to five passengers. Model 6-40 rode on a 122-inch wheelbase, and, according to a 1921 ad, weighed 2750 pounds, could reach speeds of 55 mph, and sold for $1495. Model 4-30 had a wheelbase of 116 inches, weighed 2350 pounds, topped out at 45 mph, and was priced at $1270. The exterior color of most models was--what else? — a dark Piedmont Green, with black fenders. Both models had three-speed transmissions, three forward gears and one reverse gear, and 32-inch wheels. Their body styles were the same — according to a former Piedmont employee, copied from the Hudson of the time.
The light commercial car (what we now might call a light truck) of 1921 rested on a wheelbase of 116 inches, weighed 2250 pounds, and was capable of reaching 40 mph. It could carry a load up to 1000 pounds, and came either open, at $1200, or with a closed-panel body, at $1225. Its Lycoming K side-valve engine was four-cylinder, 3-1/2" bore x 5" stroke.
W. A. Taylor, also a breeder of pigs, owned and was President of Piedmont. Fred Harper was its Treasurer, A. I. Stephens its Secretary, George L. Hay its Purchasing Agent and H. W. Kriner its General Manager and engineer.
In one of its brochures, Piedmont claimed that its cars were not an assemblage of parts — but a 1921 article in Automobile Topics of July 23, listed numerous component parts that made up its new half-ton commercial truck: Lycoming engine, Carter carburetor, Dyneto starter, Connecticut ignition, Willard 6-volt battery, Stewart vacuum system, Grant-Lee transmission, Peru axles, and pressed steel chassis frame from Parish and Bingham. For the first couple of years of its existence, Piedmont even purchased the car body from Norwalk Motor Car Company of Martinsburg, West Virginia.
A network of company agents sold the Piedmont but advertising was not a company hallmark. Beverly Rae Kimes, in her encyclopedic American Cars 1805-1942, noted that dealers complained about not getting deliveries of the Piedmont (because the company was fulfilling orders for other makes) and that, in the Lynchburg News of December 19,1920, the company appealed to local buyers: "We have set aside 20 of our latest model automobiles — to be sold between tomorrow and January 15, 1921, only to residents of Lynchburg, Campbell, Bedford, Amherst and Appomattox at the following prices" [those prices being $500 below usual]. Reducing prices in the home market suggests that Piedmont was not the most popular car. It is said, however, that George L. Hay, the company's purchasing agent, with some difficulty, finally convinced the local police force to use Piedmonts. The Piedmont's lack of popularity may have been, in part, that it was a plain vanilla car with a price tag almost four times that of Ford's Model T. Nonetheless, a 1922 announcement in Motor Age of August 23, set forth that the Piedmont would be 'invading the west for the first time", with J. A. Carson as the distribution agent in Walla Walla for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho — so distribution was nationwide.
These franken-cars were not always sold with the Piedmont badge, either. Piedmont also built cars for Bush of Chicago, Lone Star of Texas, and Alsace of New York (for the European market). John H. Bush decided, in 1915, that he'd try selling cars via mail, advertising his car and asking for money up front. Once he had money in hand, he went to manufacturers ready and willing to supply him a car with a Bush nameplate. The Lone Star Motor Truck and Tractor Association was established in San Antonio, Texas in 1919 and, while it gave the impression that its cars were Texas-built, they were actually made in Virginia. The Lone Star cars, however, were available in a quieter, hard top touring car not usual for the Piedmont line. Alsace was only in business between 1920 and 1921. Through the Automotive Products Company of New York, these right-hand drive Piedmonts (with a four-cylinder Herschell-Spillman engine, a magneto, and a Rolls Royce-shaped radiator) were sold overseas.
In October 1922, Piedmont declared bankruptcy and, in November, its plant was sold at auction. A Dr. Norford, a former faculty member at the University of Virginia, had been called in to assist with the company's financial decline but, no doubt, was shocked to find the depth of the company's problems. Piedmont, ever hopeful, had stored on its warehouse shelves automotive parts and supplies valued at nearly a quarter million dollars. But sales were limited and there was insufficient cash flow to save the business.
In addition, in January 1923, James T, Driver, formerly associated with Preston Motors Corp., organized in Lynchburg to revive the Piedmont. His venture failed, however.
Soon after the Piedmont's demise, another Virginia car got its start in the Norfolk area — but its developer actually began in Portsmouth, Ohio. In 1911, W. B. Robe (associating with other family members P. Robe, O.R. Robe, and H.B. Robe as well as Charles and Carrie R. Morgan) started a venture with $10,000 and intent to deal in automobiles and conduct a garage business. Over the course of several years he built three prototypes of a cyclecar (a very light, open, two-seater car with simple bodywork). In 1913, he finally had a design he liked (with a four-cylinder, water-cooled engine) and, in a letter to the editor of the Automobile Trade Journal (Volume 18) he included a sketch of the car, explained the progress he'd made, and asked readers for their comments and views as to the future of cyclecars. While we don't know how many responses he received, we do know there were plenty of developers for such cars; there were handbooks to help those developers get their start; and the cars never were very popular. The Robe cyclecar never went beyond the prototype stage.
Robe, however, like many an American entrepreneur, never gave up. In 1924, in Nansemond County, Virginia (near Suffolk) we hear of him again in connection with the Robe Motor Corporation. With capital of $500,000 provided by J.D. Stone, President of a real estate firm, Robe was back in business. Incorporating on May 26, 1923, Stone was the firm's president and William C. Hess its secretary. The company's offices were at 4 Arcade Building in Norfolk whereas its factory was in a barn, though there were plans to build a 50-foot by 300-foot factory.
While a prospectus gave further details of the planned Light Six car, all the models ever built were four-cylinder cars. Had the Sixes been manufactured, however, the promise was that there were to be both a five-passenger Touring car, listed for $895, and a five-passenger convertible, listed for $1145. A prospectus detailed that the cars were to be built on a 106-inch wheelbase, have three forward speeds, gray texileather upholstery, and a dark blue, "Robe" metal finish, with black fenders. Included equipment was to have been quite extensive, with a sunshade, speedometer, clock, headlights, motometer, parking lights, side lights, horn, front bumper, trunk, five cord tires, and a full set of tools. Had all that equipment been thrown in for the proposed price, customers would have gotten quite a deal and the company would have lived up to its claim, saying, "When you buy a Robe Light Six you get a car complete to the last detail." Unfortunately, while the company sold stock, in the final analysis they couldn't deliver on the cars they detailed.
Even before the Piedmont took to Virginia roads, another Virginia automotive concern, originally imported from Pennsylvania, was adding cars to the roadways. James A. Kline of Pennsylvania, a self-taught mechanic, built his first gasoline-powered car in 1900. After a number of years as agent for Locomobile, Franklin, and Oldsmobile, he was offered a job redesigning an existing car. That done, however, the company (Pullman) had no further use for him, so Kline partnered with Samuel E. Baily and Joseph C. Carrell in the B.C. K. Motor Company which first produced the six-cylinder Kline Kar in York, Pennsylvania in 1910. It took no time at all before Kline Kars took to the dirt race track with the "Jimmy" and "Jimmy, Jr." race cars. Some businessmen from Richmond, Virginia took notice. With Kline Kar sales also doing well in Virginia, it seemed to them a good move to bring the car to the Old Dominion. In early 1911, they bought B.C. K., and moved the concern — and Kline — to Richmond, reorganizing as the Kline Motor Car Corporation and operating a plant there from 1912-1923 which, in total, produced about 3700 cars.
James A. Kline driving his 1912 Kline Kar.
They were so anxious to get started, in fact, that they purchased engines (both 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder, according to Kline's design) from the Kirkham Machine Company in Bath, New York rather than gear up to produce that complicated machinery in the plant. But they supplied most of the car bodies and, to keep the weight down, used steel rather than iron parts. They — and dealerships in Scranton and Dorranceton, Pennsylvania, Newark, New Jersey, and Buffalo, New York — wanted to make sure the cars coming off the line sold well.
They were selling the 1912 line-up, as detailed in a full-page ad in the Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal, which included four different models. The Model 4-30, 4-cylinder, 30 hp, 5-passenger Touring and 4-passenger Toy Tonneau sold for $1750, and the two-passenger Runabout for $1700. All these models rode on a 114" wheelbase, had four forward speeds, a 14-gallon gas tank, and wooden wheels made of second growth hickory. For the purchaser willing to pay a little more, these models also came with automatic starter. Their equipment package was quite extensive, including a side curtain, dust hood, clear vision shield, tire irons, two gas lamps, two side oil lamps, one tail lamp, horn, foot rail, coat rail, tire repair kit, pump, jack, and complete set of tools. The upgrade on those models was the Model 4-40 — a 40 hp, four-passenger Runabout at $2200 and the five-passenger Touring or 4-passenger Toy Tonneau at $2250. Those models were advertised to go up to 5 mph faster, with a gas tank that held 19 rather than 14 gallons. The light six-cylinder cars came in Model 6-50 (a 50 hp, five-passenger Touring or 4-passenger Toy Tonneau) at $2850, or in Model 6-60 (60 hp) where the Touring and Toy Tonneau cost $3500. All these cars, the ad guaranteed, offered "power on hills, durability always, and speed when wanted."
Whatever the model, however, these were expensive cars, built and styled by hand, and priced at about four times more than a Ford of the day. But the cars were advertised as classic quality, a 1913 ad quoting John Ruskin who said, "All works of quality must bear a price in proportion to the skill, time, expense and risk attending their invention and manufacture." Only 86 cars were built in 1914, some of them five and seven-passenger limousines. That was the last year, as well, for production of four-cylinder models. The company, however, went into receivership in 1915. Somehow the firm survived and, in 1917, produced nearly five hundred cars, putting it in good shape to enter the postwar market. Those 1917 machines, among them a new, $1195, four-passenger Shamrock (a hybrid of Touring Car and roadster), were advertised with an ability to go 2-55 mph, meeting popular demand for "speed, power, smart appearance, smooth running, and economical operation."
Kline Kar ad from 1917.
Kline Kars had a few good years just after WWI, with production peaking in 1919, but the company suffered through the post-War recession. The company turned to the use of 3672 cc Continental engines, a Westinghouse starter, Rayfield carburetor, Hotchkiss drive, etc. and away from purpose-designed components. For Kline, who is reported to have said once, "I would rather see my children dead that prostituted to cheapness and inferior workmanship," that turn must have been difficult.
In 1922, the company roster included James A. Kline as Vice President and General Manager, W.B. Vaden as Sales Manager, and J.P. Harbold (formerly with Pullman) as Chief Engineer. Despite introducing five new Light Six models (Special Sport Touring, Sport touring, seven-passenger sedan, three-person roadster, and four-person coupe), however, they could do little to stave off falling sales. Just two years later, only twenty-eight cars were produced. With radically reduced sales, the company was forced to close.
From 1901 to 1924, Virginia's early car manufacturers were learning alongside other American car makers how to improve upon a car's look but also its functionality. Customers helped them understand what features were most important and what prices the market would bear. Over time, for instance, the four-cylinder models gave way to the greater power of six cylinders, closed models overtook open ones, and electric starters became a "must have". And, while hand-made parts meant higher quality, the hand writing was on the wall that mass production and lower costs offset the charm of owning a quality car only a few could afford.
While the car makers concentrated on improving cars, the state was coming to grips with the need to improve roadways. During the twenties, just as these car makers were closing their doors, Virginia realized its need to build better roads. In 1921, for example, the Automobile Club of America was recommending to travelers driving north to south that they skip Virginia if at all possible. Its roads were not of good quality and were not well maintained.
Fiscal conservatism dictated a "pay as you go" methodology rather than the authorization of highway bonds to build better roads. It took a little while but by the mid-thirties Virginia roads had improved to the extent that gas stations, roadside motels, and small restaurants had begun to populate roadsides. There was no longer a need for motorists to try to avoid the state but those motorists coming through weren't driving cars made in the Commonwealth. Virginia's car industry, once so promising, was no more.