The Holsman Automobile Company was spitting mad. In its issue of February 13th, 1907, The Horseless Age had gone on at length about the “Western Buggy Type of Automobile”, and Holsman wanted to set the records straight. Company manager Hildreth fired off a letter to the editor. Since the Holsman was the grand-daddy of the genre – having persisted in its development, as one sympathetic trade magazine noted, “Oblivious of ridicule and a contemptuous refusal to consider its product seriously” – the company felt itself called upon to mount a stout defense.
The type of vehicle Holsman was building, Hildreth notes, was “western” only in that his company and many others like it had their factories in Chicago. Holsman had nearly a hundred of their vehicles in use in that city, and Chicago could scarcely be termed “an unsettled district”. Moreover, since seventy-five percent of the aforementioned vehicles were owned by physicians who “are pretty particular about the appearance of their equipages”, it was unfair to term such cars “anything but prepossessing” – and the blanket statement that twelve to fifteen miles an hour was the genre’s limit was absurd in view of Holsman’s performance in the Chicago 100-mile reliability run of July 1906 when the company’s entrant proved it could do all of twenty-five. “Take more pains to acquaint [yourself] with the facts”, Hildreth sniffed.
John Adams, who said lots of wise things, once commented that the dictates of our passions cannot alter the state of facts. He was defending British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre at the time. Had he been defending the high wheeler a century or so later, he might have tempered his remarks.
The high wheeler was or was not a practical answer to a crying need. It was or was not many other things. What it was definitely, however, was as American as the Fourth of July. The genesis of the gasoline automobile may have occurred an ocean away, but the high wheeler as a vehicle type was peculiarly an American invention. Ingenuity, be it said, was not its hallmark.
Many of the characteristics of the high wheeler, of course, had been adopted by the pioneer inventors of the Nineteenth Century, though these protean automotive efforts cannot truly be considered within the framework of the high wheeler movement, for reasons shortly to be made clear.
Save for the Holsman – and a few others – that were in the vanguard of the movement, most high wheelers inched their way onto the American scene around 1906. Indeed it was the marvelous success of the Holsman which after a mere four years in the business had found it necessary by May of 1906 both to sextuple its plant capacity and increase its capital stock twofold (from a hundred to two hundred thousand dollars) – and put on a night shift to boot – which had enlivened in a goodly number of enterprising carriage builders a desire to get in on the action.
The idea whose time apparently had come was for a vehicle low in cost and high in wheel that would suit itself to the roads and pocketbooks of a large portion of America. A commendable notion, to be sure.
Admittedly, the “buffalo wallows” outside urban centers that passed for highways in those days – that “land of magnificent distances” which was the Middle West – did present negotiating difficulties for anything that rolled on wheels. As a fellow, using only his initials F.B.I., wrote to the editor of The Horseless Age in December of 1906, “The tracks are swept out by the winds, and all roads have ruts at each side varying from two oi fifteen inches deep. To run a car with a nine-inch clearance over these roads in daylight is exasperating and it is practically impossible to run after dark …” He begged for a car of “sufficient clearance for the Dakotas and Montana”. And one that he could afford.
MoToR in August of 1907 had noted the “practical abandonment” of the low-priced runabout by manufacturers moving increasingly to mammoth, more powerful and showy touring cars. There was – as newspapers across the country frequently editorialized – no such thing as “the poor man’s automobile”. And no way that a rural free delivery mail carrier, say, who covered his twenty-five-mile route over country roads daily, furnishing his own conveyance and grossing about $720 annually, could visit any of the showrooms along Automobile Row in the big cities and depart with anything more than a brochure. Nor a farmer. Nor for that matter a doctor, a profession not yet widely associated with country club living.
Ergo the high wheeler. “A marvelous development in mechanics”, the Chicago American said – but then that newspaper had a rather proprietary interest in the vehicle. At least half the high wheeler manufacturers were sited in the Windy City, a goodly many more in St. Louis – others scattered variously in surrounding states, their numbers probably totaling into the hundreds, if one includes those manufacturers who couldn’t get rolling past the prototype stage, a few less than a hundred for those who proceeded into manufacture of any significance. Most had carriage building antecedents. It showed.
Obviously both high wheels and low cost dictated simplicity. The vehicle had to be strong enough for hard usage, yet light enough to be rescued from a mud hole without equine assistance, the latter for convenience, of course, as well as obviation of the embarrassment automobilists continually suffered at the hands of the get-a-horse gentry. Further, it had to be readily repairable “by a person of ordinary intelligence, and not easily deranged”.
What carriage makers knew best, and what the prospective clients of high wheels were most familiar with, was, of course, the horse-drawn buggy. What resulted with the high wheeler was plagiarism on a grand scale.
Simply because old Dobbin wouldn’t be there to hoof up mud and water against it was no reason to get rid of the customary leather dash that fronted the buggy, so it was often retained – with thin slips of fenders perched over the slender-spoked wheels which rose as high often as the buggy seat, and higher sometimes in the rear than in the front. Tires were solid rubber, sometimes iron in the more primeval examples. Wooden piano-box bodies perched on elliptic springs. In a necessary concession to technology, the front axle was stationary, with the front wheels mounted on steering knuckles.
Size, power plant and transmission varied. Nil ultra was doubtless broached on the nether end of the high wheeler charts by the Success from St. Louis, with its 2 7/8 by 3 engine, single lunged and double-horse powered, attached to the right side of the body next to the seat, with power transmitted via a two-speed planetary gear to a sprocket on the right rear wheel only. Its wheelbase was 62 inches, its gasoline tank of one-and-a-half gallon capacity, “said to be sufficient for a day’s work”, and its price $250. Subsequent Successes were more sterling in most particulars. Still it had to be the Black with its four-cylinder 4 ½ by 5 air-cooled engine, three-speed transmission, 112-inch wheelbase and price tags that could top the thousand-dollar mark which carried the high wheeler to the rarefied end of its scale.
In between these extremes was a certain variety, variations on the theme of what reporters came generally to term the “animated buggy”. Some manufacturers were openly pleased with the designation. “The Anderson is a motor buggy. It isn’t meant to be anything else,” said the people in Anderson, Indiana who put together the vehicles “That Make Good and Stay Good”. “It is built as nearly as possible like a buggy”, International Harvester declared. “This type of vehicle has been serving the country-town and rural people for years, and there is no reason why a simple motor vehicle of this type cannot serve them in the future”.
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Automobile Quarterly, The Connoisseur’s Magazine of Motoring Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow First Quarter 1977 Volume XV, Number 1