Do I have a deal for you! It could easily have been the cornerstone of a successful marketing campaign. It could have become an even more popular slogan than “See the USA in your Chevrolet”. But, unfortunately, before commercialization could really begin, a company with enormous potential closed its doors. There was little fanfare. And aside from the effect the shutdown had on the small southern Michigan town, few people even noticed.
The story begins at the dawn of the age of the automobile when a Duryea Motor Wagon, the first American-made automobile for sale to the public, was headlined on “Albino” and “Dog Faced Boy” at Barnum & Bailey Circus. . It was an incredible time of transition. But in 1900, for hundreds of car manufacturing companies, the future looked increasingly bleak. And yet, for companies with visionary leadership, it was also an era of unbridled opportunity.
Studebaker was a company that had survived nearly fifty years by adapting skilfully to changing times. The South Bend, Indiana-based company was also one of the few that not only made the transition from cars to automobiles, but also one of the only pioneering companies to become a leader in the automotive industry. .
The origins of the company were as a simple blacksmith shop. Then came the making of wheelbarrows, the handles of shovels and pickaxes, and the harvesting of wagons, in the gold fields of California. By the mid-1880s it was one of the largest producers of wheeled vehicles in the world; prams, freight wagons, goat carts, surreys, coaches, gun carriages and ambulances. Then, at dawn on the 20e century, the company took a timid step into automobile manufacturing with the production of an electric car designed by Thomas Edison. It was the start of a new chapter for a company that would become an industry leader.
Jacob J. Deal emulated the Studebaker brothers when he launched his manufacturing empire. He established a blacksmith and wagon repair shop in Jonesville, Michigan in 1858. Then in 1865, with a staff of only twelve men, he began manufacturing wagons, buggies, carriages and sleds. By 1890, Deal was producing hundreds of horse-drawn vehicles each year.
For the business owner and the board of directors, the automobile represents a new opportunity. Shortly after the turn of the century, the company diversified and was a major supplier of commercial van bodies to fledgling automakers in the nearby towns of Jackson, Albion and Hillsdale.
Yet by 1908 even a company as successful as Deal could no longer ignore the dominance of the automobile. And so, once again, the business was reorganized and diversified to include automotive manufacturing. By all accounts, the automobiles produced by the company were as good as the cars and wagons that had rolled out of the factory for decades. Still, it turned out to be a short-lived venture and the company abandoned automobile production, returned to manufacturing wagons, then with little fanfare closed in 1915.
Another company that attempted to make the transition was the McFarlan Wagon Manufacturing Company of Connersville, Indiana, which was established in 1856. As with Deal, the company prospered, grew, and by the end of the 19e century was one of the main manufacturers of horse-drawn transport. But unlike Deal, McFarlan successfully transitioned from the wagon maker to the luxury automobile maker that became an industry standard as a teenager.
One of the keys to the company’s transition was the vision displayed by the owners in 1886 when they established a modern industrial park. McFarlan Park provided immediate access to the railroad and cheap energy, as McFarlan also owned a natural gas company. By leasing property to manufacturers and suppliers of transportation and buggy equipment, as well as furniture companies, McFarlan was able to reduce their production costs. At the beginning of the 20e century, the fleet would be dominated by automotive component makers, and that too would work in McFarlan’s favor.
In June 1909, there was a simple, short advertisement in a trade newspaper, “The McFarlan Carriage Company of Connersville, Indiana has announced that they will shortly begin manufacturing a motor buggy.” Outdated business practices doomed the company. Just as Henry Ford was about to launch mass production to reduce the cost of each vehicle, McFarlan opted to manufacture two hundred vehicles a year for the “savvy buyer”. As a result, from its inception, the company began to withdraw from the market. Early models had a factory list price of $2,000 (a Ford was $850), but by 1918 prices were over $5,000 when a nice house could be had for $2,500.
During adolescence, the three “P’s” – Packard, Pierce Arrow and Peerless – dominated the luxury car market, but McFarlan was in a league of its own. Before the company closed in 1928, the company had earned a reputation for limited production of huge luxury cars with ostentatious bodywork that attracted movie stars, gangsters and oilmen. The list of owners included boxer Jack Dempsey and Virginia Governor E. Lee Trinkle. Al Capone purchased a McFarlan for his wife, Mae, in 1924 and purchased a second in 1926 for her use.
As an example of companies above luxury appointments, in 1922 a special model was built for display at the Chicago Auto Show. Standard models made extensive use of nickel plating. On the show car, this was replaced with 24 carat gold! It was purchased by a wealthy Oklahoma oil tycoon as a gift for his wife for the princely sum of $25,000.
Initially, the company used engines produced by various companies, including Buda, Continental and Brownell. For the range of commercial cars developed in 1920 the company would continue its association with Continental, but in the cars built for the discerning buyer the engines were produced by McFarlan. This included the monstrous 573-cid Twin Valve Six with triple ignition and three spark plugs per cylinder rated at 120 horsepower. The original, often problem-prone options were also part of the cars’ appeal. These included vacuum assisted starting, heated steering wheel, front and rear heating and self-lubricating chassis.
In 1922, the company’s best year with a production of 235 vehicles, the proverbial writing was on the wall. The post-World War I recession had crippled a number of automakers, and a company like McFarlan was unable to compete. They still used the antiquated T-head engine and technologies that were at least a decade behind the competition. Worse still, their prices now ranged from $6,300 to $9,000.
By contracting with Lycoming the cars were mechanically updated but the styling was increasingly dated and the ever more luxurious interiors and gimmicks were not enough to sustain even mediocre sales. Then in 1924, Harry McFarlan fell ill and entrusted the management of the company to Burton Barrows. The knockouts came in 1928. McFarlan and Barrows died within weeks of each other. And that was shortly after the company went into receivership.
The final chapter in McFarlan’s story was written by EL Cord, the swordsman entrepreneur behind the Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg empire. In 1926, Cord began building his automobile empire by trading Auburn stock for a controlling interest in Duesenberg. The following year he took control of the Lycoming Engine Company of Pennsylvania and purchased large automobile factories in the McFarlan Industrial Park, the Lexington Automobile Company and the Ansted Engine Works. Then in 1928, he acquired the Central Manufacturing Company followed a few months later by the acquisition of McFarland. He then consolidated the factories and turned 82 acres of the park into a manufacturing complex for Auburn.
By 1930, McFarlan was on the fast track to becoming a historic footnote. With no resale value as a used car, McFarlans were relegated to the back of car lots, salvage yards, and were converted into trucks. The survivors were consumed by junkyard drives during World War II. Today, only nineteen cars exist and rarely change hands. Each is a tangible link to a bygone era, a time when an automotive company could cater almost exclusively to the rich and famous and turn a profit.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America