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Winton: The King of Cars

1917 Winton 6-33
1917 Winton 6-33 (Photo courtesy of HymanLtd)

The Winton automobile certainly caught the public imagination—first when it was introduced in the Gilded Age (late 1890s), again when it was featured on a 1995 U.S. postage stamp, and yet again when, in 2003, PBS aired "Horatio's Drive" about a doctor, his chauffeur, and his faithful dog Bud who made the trek cross country, from San Francisco to New York, in their trusty Winton. Only 19 when he arrived in the U.S., Scottish immigrant Alexander Winton got work as an engineer on a steamship, then hired on at the Delameter Iron Works in New York and, later, at a marine engine shop. In 1884, he made his way to Cleveland, Ohio, where his sister lived and where he found work as a superintendent in an iron factory. Then, in 1891, with some help from his brother-in-law Thomas W. Henderson, he opened the Winton Bicycle Co. where he manufactured bicycles according to a design he had patented. While that enterprise flourished, it wasn't long before the motor carriage bug bit him hard, just the way it had bitten other early bicycle manufacturers.

The Early Years

Winton built his first single-cylinder automobile in 1896, exhibiting it to Cleveland newspapermen that October. The following year he built a second 10 hp two-cylinder car, and, along with partners Thomas W. Henderson (Vice President) and George H. Brown (Secretary), he incorporated The Winton Motor Carriage Co., capitalized by 2,000 shares selling at $100 per share. A crew of sixteen dedicated workers assembled the early motor cars in a portion of a factory owned by the Brush Electric Company. There were machinists, woodworkers, a blacksmith, painter, tinner, trimmer, and all-round helpers working on Winton's invention, one he developed through an understanding of how bicycles worked and at-home experiments with a gasoline engine.

Acknowledging the power of the press and describing his first car, a dos-a-dos (back-to-back seats) in a November 1896 article in The Horseless Age, Winton detailed that the car weighed less than 400 pounds, had wooden rims and pneumatic tires (he'd convinced Benjamin franklin Goodrich to develop tires for cars that were strong enough to handle higher speeds and heavier loads), a five-gallon tank, an engine with all working parts immersed in oil, and could achieve a speed of 30 mph.

Authoring another piece in the May 1897 magazine The Horseless Age, Winton wrote about his second, new and improved car with 2-cylinder vertical engine that rolled out of the shop just two months after the company's founding. A 60-mile road test from Cleveland to Elyria, driven at an average speed of 12 mph, proved—to Winton's satisfaction, at least—that the car was every bit as good as a horse and wagon. There were smaller wheels in the front (30" diameter) than in the rear (36" diameter) with nickel-plated spokes, steel rims, and three-inch pneumatic tires. The use of ball bearings ensured that parts wouldn't wear away from friction. While the weight had surged to 1800 pounds and the tank now held seven gallons, the body, resting on "easy-riding" springs, came in polished natural wood with nickel trim and leather seat cushions and could be ordered with a canopy top. Answering the consistent complaint that early cars were noisy and smelly, Winton claimed his engine was "compact, practically noiseless, odorless, and free from vibration." A simple lever engaged the drive mechanism and applied the brake and with the mere press of a button, you could increase and hold speed up to 30 mph. This was the same car Winton drove at the breakneck speed of nearly 34 mph, the one which Winton and his shop superintendent William A. "Bert" Hatcher believed in enough to make a daring nine-day trip from Cleveland to New York City. Actual driving time was calculated at 78 hours and 43 minutes and refueling was accomplished via gasoline (or cleaning fluid) purchases at hardware stores along the way.

In 1898, Winton sold 22 cars, including what is recognized as the first American-made, gasoline-powered, mass-produced car to Robert Allison Cole who appeared at the factory with $1000 cash in hand to buy the car he'd seen advertised. He was responding to an ad in Scientific American: "Dispense With a Horse and save the expense, care and anxiety of keeping it." The Winton Motor carriage, which could run at a cost of 1/2 cent per mile, was said to be "handsomely, strongly, and yet lightly constructed and elegantly finished". Winton was not in the business of making made-to-order vehicles but Mr. Cole was invited to choose from any of the four completed cars then on hand. (The car he chose has now made its way into the Smithsonian's automobile collection.) The twelfth such car went to James Ward Packard—but that one cost Winton money in the long run. During the 60-mile trip to his Warren, Ohio home, Packard's new Winton stopped running. A team of plow horses had to tow him home. Thereafter, as the story goes, Packard wrote letters of complaint and returned the car repeatedly for servicing. Winton, after he'd tried going to Packard's home to make peace, eventually invited the "smarty pants" to see if he could build a better car himself. Packard did just that, after helping himself to the financial backing of major Winton investor George Lewis Weiss and hiring away Winton's plant superintendent William A. Hatcher. In 1899, the first Packard was built.

1899 was another milestone year for Winton, too. In that year Winton created the first U.S. mail truck that Cleveland's Postmaster tested, directing it on a horse-drawn wagon route that took six hours to cover. The Winton did it in 2 hours, 27 minutes—in a snowstorm, no less. While it took a number of years for mail delivery vehicles to be seen in wide numbers, the U.S. Postmaster General was apprised of the favorable test, one also reported in The Horseless Age of December 20, 1899.

In 1899, Winton's new factory superintendent Leo Malinowski asked earnest young mechanic Henry Ford to interview for employment—but Winton wasn't sufficiently impressed with his skills to hire him. Ford had already built his first motor car by then but it wouldn't be until 1903 that he incorporated the Ford Motor Company.

Early that year Dr. R. V. Pierce of Buffalo, famed creator and salesman of patent medicines like "Smart Weed" and "Pleasant Pellets", bought six Winton delivery wagons to keep sales brisk. Vanderbilt brothers —Reginald and Alfred— purchased 8-hp Wintons, as well, but theirs were for use at their swank Newport, Rhode Island summer homes. Another purchaser that year was wealthy socialite Larz Anderson, one-time U. S. Ambassador to Japan—and you can still see that car at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, Massachusetts.

As Winton searched for ways to distribute his cars, he hit upon some early solutions that still pertain today. The first auto dealership, representing Winton cars, opened in Reading, Pennsylvania. And Winton built the first auto hauler—with the shortened wheelbase of a touring car, it could pull a car loaded onto a small semi-trailer and situated part-way over the cab.

While Winton was one of the first manufacturers to create a tight production schedule, it still took a long time to produce cars. By turning to advertising and creating news stories about his product, he managed to increase customer demand, leading to significant increases in production numbers, sales prices, and profit.

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