The Fabulous Studebaker Boys

I recently found an old book called A Century On Wheels, The Story of Studebaker which was written by Stephen Longstreet for the Studebaker centennial.  Here’s the kicker, it was written in 1952.  In 1952, Studebaker had already been around for 100 years!  The maker of the iconic bullet nose not only started out making wagons, it dominated the world in wagon making.  The Studebaker story is a fascinating one about a group of brothers who were able to transition from building wagons to manufacturing automobiles using a business model predicated on smart business practices, hard work, and fair dealing.

In 1736, three brothers named Studebecker arrived in Philadelphia from Frefeld, Germany.  They Americanized their name, as many did, and became known as Studebaker.  One of their descendants, John, moved to a place called Getty’s Town and, as more Germans settled there, it became known as Gettysburg.  John worked as a blacksmith and had five sons, Henry, Clem, John Mohler, Peter and Jacob.

The family eventually settled in South Bend, Indiana (by way of Ohio) and Henry and Clem started a blacksmithing business in 1852 with only $68 in capital.  They wanted to build wagons, but business was slow. John Mohler (J.M.) traded one of these wagons to a wagon train for passage to California.  He intended to mine for gold and ended up in a town called Hangtown with 50 cents in his pocket.  The official name of the town was Old Dry Diggens, but it was called Hangtown because of the local, and rather enthusiastic, vigilante activity.

As soon as J.M. arrived, a man named Joe Hinds began asking the group if there was a wagon maker in their midst.  Everyone pointed at J. M. and Hinds offered him a job.  At first, he declined, because he was there to look for gold, but reconsidered after receiving some good advice from a local citizen.  He went to work repairing stagecoaches and making pick axes and wheelbarrows.  He made so many of those he became known as Wheelbarrow Johnny.

J.M. stayed in Hangtown (which eventually became Placerville) from 1853 to 1858.  His brothers, Henry and Clem, were still in business but they desperately needed capital.  Due to his hard work in the gold fields of California, J.M. now had $8,000 and he was ready to return home and turn that capital into something historic.

Henry wanted to be a farmer, so J.M. bought him out.  In 1862, the Union came calling, needing all types of wagons for northern troops to use in fighting the Civil War.  They even ordered a beer wagon for the German troops!  All of this business required expansion, so their brother Peter, who had been operating a general store, joined them and their company became Studebaker Brothers.

The Studebakers were smart and effective salesmen.  Instead of waiting for farmers to come to their factory to buy wagons, they would take them directly out to the farms. After the war, when there was a western expansion, the Studebakers erected a 75×60’ showroom for their wagons at St. Joseph, Missouri, a gateway for those headed west.  Next to the showroom they developed a camping ground so their customer base had a place to stay while looking over their wagons.  Clever strategies like these, along with effective newspaper advertising and great slogans like “Our house is founded on the farmer” helped fuel additional expansion.  By 1874, the company had 500 employees and built over 11,000 vehicles.  The youngest son, Jacob joined the firm.

Studebaker was everywhere.  The firm supplied most of the wagons for army posts in the west.  When General Custer met his demise at Little Big Horn, he had been separated from his supply train of Studebakers.  During the Spanish American War, the government wanted 500 wagons within 36 hours, and Studebaker delivered within 24!  Orders for Studebakers poured in from around the world and were used in the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War.  Winston Churchill was even sleeping in a Studebaker when he was captured by the Boers.  The world was changing, however, and Studebaker had to change with it.

To be continued . . . . .

Studebaker wagon

Ford Model K

Anyone taking the time to read this likely knows that Henry Ford’s story did not begin with the Model T.  Indeed, there was nearly an alphabet’s worth of automobiles leading up to the famous Tin Lizzie.  One world record-setting example was the Model K.  This is a picture of a Model K found at one of our nearby museums, Pioneer Village, which you really should visit if you have an interest in the history of transportation in America:


The Model K was the result of a partnership between Henry Ford and Alexander Young Malcomson, a successful coal merchant.  According to the book The Cars That Henry Ford Built by Beverly Rae Kimes, the two went into business together in 1902, with Malcomson supplying the financing.  Their goal was to develop a marketable automobile, but the two argued over what type of cars to build.  Ford wanted to build light, inexpensive cars and didn’t care for the big Model K.

The Model K had a 6-cylinder, vertical, 4 ½” bore x 4 ¼” stroke, 40 hp engine.  It had a 114” wheel base and weighed 2400 pounds.  It had a pressed steel frame and a 15-gallon gas tank under the seat that was good for 250 miles.  And just look at those brass headlights:

The world record involving the Model K was set in a 1907 24-hour Detroit endurance race.  I searched the back issues of our local paper to see if there was any mention of this race.  There was not.  Our local paper did cover many world records set that year in activities like bowling, pole vaulting, ballooning, shooting and stenography.  The paper even covered a cow in Fond du Lac that beat the world’s butter record, but apparently the car race just didn’t warrant coverage.   They should have put it on the front page, because it sounds like it was a nail-biter.

According to a write-up (found here) one of the Ford drivers by the name of Lorimer was driving at such speeds that onlookers thought each turn would be his last.   According to the writer, “It became evident to all that one of three things must happen before the day was done: (1) Either the boy who was driving with such apparent reckless disregard for consequences, would be killed in one of his mad slides around the turn; (2) the Ford car would give way under the terrific strain-and those who did not know the Ford construction,- lightness, flexibility and strength,-thought this must surely happen inside the hour; or (3) the Ford would win.”  The Ford Model K did win by covering 1135 miles, which exceeded the previous record by over 300 miles, and maintaining an average speed of 47.2 mph.

Regarding the Malcomson-Ford partnership, it had been absorbed into the newly established Ford Motor Company.  To work around Malcomson, Ford then started Ford Manufacturing Company in 1903 with James Couzens.  Malcomson saw the writing on the wall and sold his interest to Ford in July of 1906.  Ford went on to produce the car he wanted, the Model T, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nikola Tesla Speedometer


We pulled this old speedometer out of an ancient barn down by Nebraska City, and it is in admittedly sad shape.  Even though it has broken glass and a gaping hole where the clock should be, it still has a place on my office shelf where I keep some of my favorite things.  I like it because, in very small print along the edge of the face, it says, “TESLA PATENT DEC 1916”.

I took to the internet to verify that this was a reference to THE Tesla, Nikola Tesla, and I found this at the Museum of the History of Science website:

This museum is a department at Oxford University and houses a collection of historic scientific instruments.  Their website states that this speedometer was made in collaboration with the Waltham Watch Company using Nikola Tesla’s patent, and that Tesla’s patent was the very first issued for a speedometer.  Wow!

As noted in this Waltham advertisement, the speedometer was also unique in that it operated by air friction:

I am no Tesla, but apparently the air friction was generated by metal surfaces (revolving brass and aluminum cups) and, unlike cable-operated speedometers, was free of any inaccuracies caused by grease and dirt.   If you are interested, you can read more in a 1916 Scientific American article by clicking here or in the patent itself by clicking here.

This speedometer would have been found in a higher-end automobile like a Lincoln, Pierce-Arrow, Rolls Royce, Lafayette or this gorgeous 1922 Packard:

Interestingly, the Museum also notes that this instrument was likely the very FIRST to measure speed, distance and time.  It is a great relic from the beginning of the automotive age and I am happy to own it, even if it does look like it was backed over by a truck.

Oldsmobile Rocket

Well, it sure DOES pay to go rooting around in old barns.  Just look at what we found in Kansas recently:

Yes, these are an original pair of wire looms for a 1950 Oldsmobile 303.  The 303 was the first mass-produced overhead valve (OHV) V8 in 1949.  These are 1950 wire looms because they are gold with red letters, not natural metal with red letters like the 1949 version.  A quick search on the internet reveals many arguments over whether the Oldsmobile was the earliest example of American muscle (that’s right) or whether something like the Ford Mustang deserves that title (and that’s just wrong).

Oldsmobile appropriately called their short-stroke, high-compression OHV engine the “Rocket”, and it sure made the automobile industry sit up and take notice.  The other manufacturers were producing their own versions by the mid-1950s, but not before Oldsmobile impacted the record books by winning NASCAR championships in 1949, 1950 and 1951.  Even though the Rocket is a great name, Oldsmobile engineers originally wanted to name the engine after Charles F. Kettering, the retired GM research VP, but GM policy prevented that from happening.  Too bad, because Kettering more than deserved the honor.

Nicknamed “Boss” Kettering, his is one of those uniquely American stories that starts with very humble beginnings on a farm in Ohio in 1876 and ends with an estate worth more than $200 million upon his death in 1958.  In between, he spent his life seeking solutions to the problems of everyday life even when, or especially when, others were claiming it was impossible.   He made valuable contributions in the fields of medicine and aviation, helped develop new types of fuel, and even developed the refrigerant Freon.  He co-founded Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (better known as Delco) and invented the electric starter for Henry Leland of Cadillac, making Cadillac the first automobile without the dangerous and laborious hand crank.  Delco, of course, was later purchased by GM.  Upon his retirement from GM, Kettering held more than 140 patents.  He was a philosopher as well as an inventor and the source of some of my favorite quotes such as, “If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.”  In light of current affairs, however, I think I’ll end with this particularly relevant quote:   

“We have a lot of people revolutionizing the world because they’ve never had to present a working model.”

GMC Model CCKW Trucks

Fortunately for the world, America was the birthplace of the automotive industry. Having such a vast supply of cars and trucks close at hand enabled the United States Army to become the first military organization in the world to be fully motorized and to respond accordingly when advancing Allied forces needed supplies during World War II. The Allies were able to get thousands of tons of supplies where they were needed daily by developing a massive convoy of supply trucks known as the Red Ball Express.

“Corporal Charles H. Johnson of the 783rd Military Police Battalion, waves on a `Red Ball Express’ motor convoy rushing priority materiel to the forward areas, near Alenon, France.” Bowen, September 5, 1944. 111-SC-195512. National Archives Identifier: 535970

The Red Ball Express operated around the clock. According to the National World War II Museum, there were, on average, 900 “deuce-and-a-half” trucks operating on the Red Ball Express highway at any one time.  “Deuce-and-a-half” is just one of the nicknames for GMC model CCKW cargo trucks like this one, located at the Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles in Lexington Nebraska.

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Also referred to as the Two and a Half, the Jimmy and the 6×6, these trucks are on my mind because I found this 1941 maintenance manual under a pile of junk in a dusty old antique store the other day:

The CCKW was a six-wheel-drive vehicle with a payload of two and a half tons.  It was approximately 7 feet tall and 7 feet wide.  The model 353 had a longer wheel base of 21 feet, while the 352 was shorter at 19 feet.   The engine was a 6 cylinder 270 with a max speed of 45 mph.

Driver’s view:

Tool kit:

Amazingly, this old War Department memo is still stuck in the front cover:

As you can see, the memo was issued by order of General George Catlett Marshall, the man Winston Churchill called the true architect of victory in the West European arena.  He was a great American, and he did it, in part, with this great American truck.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Handley-Knight MotoMeter

My husband and I went to an auction at an old car dealership in rural Nebraska a few years ago. My daughter had a broken leg at the time (one of many broken limbs acquired during our little tomboy’s childhood) and I was pulling her around on a wagon to keep her from being bored. Luckily, my husband was paying attention to the auction and bid on (and won) this rare beauty:

I had never before seen a MotoMeter with a Handley-Knight logo. What a find! The Boyce MotoMeter Co. of Long Island, New York, manufactured radiator cap-mounted temperature gauges such as these to allow drivers to monitor the engine cooling system. This particular MotoMeter is marked with a 1913 patent date, and the company dominated the market for the following two decades until dash-mounted temperature gauges began to appear. Business was booming during this time as there were so many automobile manufacturers and many wanted a MotoMeter that was tailor-made for their brand. Here is a Ford example:

So, what of Handley-Knight? Handley was a car manufacturer based in Kalamazoo, Michigan that built cars from 1920-1923. The Handley-Knight was built from 1920-1922 and featured a Knight engine as did all cars using the term “Knight” in the title such as the Stearns-Knight and the more recognizable Willys-Knight. The Knight engine was a four-cylinder motor built by Willys-Overland and was a sleeve-valve engine, meaning that it had sliding sleeves between pistons and cylinder walls that served as valves. These engines are sometimes referred to as “silent sleeves” as they operated quietly, and they were also said to improve with use because the carbon build-up aided efficiency by making a better seal. Genius.

The Handley Company was purchased by Checker Motors in 1923. The website Conceptcarz states that there are only three known Handley-Knights in existence. If that is true, I certainly feel fortunate to have my own little piece of Handley-Knight history.

The Marmon Roosevelt

Quick! How many cars can you think of that are named for a United States President? There is more than one (and no, Ford doesn’t count), but only one proudly features a picture of the man himself on the radiator badge. I am referring, of course, to the Roosevelt, named for President Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelt was built by the Marmon Motor Car Company of Indianapolis, Indiana in 1929 and 1930, and the radiator badge was a 1 3/4 x 1 3/8” oval that looked like this:

Regarding that famous radiator, Marmon bragged that “It not only has new lines – but new feeling, reflecting the staunchness, the energy, the character of the great name which it bears.”1 Everyone knows President Roosevelt was a vigorous man of action, but I like that they also invoked character. He often emphasized the importance of character, calling it “the chief factor in any man’s success,” and believing that, “all the laws that the wit of man can devise will never make a man a worthy citizen unless he has within himself the right stuff, unless he has self-reliance, energy, courage, the power of insisting on his own rights and the sympathy that makes him regardful of the rights of others.”2 Good advice then and now.

The Roosevelt automobile was available as a Five-Passenger Sedan, a Victoria Coupe, a Coupe with rumble seat and a Collapsible Coupe with rumble seat. It featured a straight-eight 70 hp engine and was the first 8 cylinder to be priced under $1,000. It was also the first automobile to come with a radio. By the end of the 1920s, three manufacturers (Transitone, Delco-Remy and American Bosch) were offering automobile radios. The Roosevelts were factory-equipped for radio installation, but dealers selected the brand at the buyer’s request.3  Like the automobile, the President was associated with many “firsts” as well. He was the first President to ride in an automobile (while in office). He was also the first President to own a car, to fly in an airplane and to be submerged in a submarine. How appropriate that Marmon described the president’s namesake as seeming “to invite motion – to be away quickly.”4

As you can see here, the Roosevelt was a beautiful automobile featuring clean, straight lines:

This is a picture of one housed at a local museum, Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska, but you do see the occasional Roosevelt for sale. Until I have the opportunity to own one, I will have to be content with remembering that President Roosevelt also said that self-respect is the most invaluable of all possessions, and I still have that (I just can’t drive it)!


  1. “The Roosevelt.” The Pittsburgh Press 21 4 1929: 79.
  2. Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography (Np: CreateSpace, 2016), 16.
  3.  Tad Burness, Cars of the Early Thirties (New York City: Galahad Books, 1970), 256-257.
  4. “The Roosevelt”, 79.