A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 2 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Part III-Chapter 13 : Automobile & Aviation  >  Index and Introduction  :   Previous  1 2 - 3 - 45   Next


The Winton Motor Carriage Company of Cleveland, Ohio followed in March 1897 and the Olds Motor Vehicle Company of Lansing, Michigan in August of the same year. It would take several years for both companies though to build a significant number of gasoline powered automobiles.

More important, from an industrial standpoint, was the organization of the Electric Vehicle Company in Hartford, Connecticut which involved bicycle tycoon Albert A. Pope and a manufacturer of electric storage batteries : Isaac L. Rice. Within two years this company produced 500 electric and 40 gasoline carriages under the "Columbia" brand, essentially used as taxicabs in New York and other cities.

During a winter blizzard in New York City, all traffic was halted except Isaac Rice's electric carriages, which managed to operate on the sidewalks. This attracted the interest of street-railway magnate William Collins Whitney, who promptly acquired the business, added the motor carriage department of the Pope Manufacturing Company and recapitalized it all at $3'000'000.

As an important sideline deal, the traction group also acquired the rights to a patent, granted in November 1895 to George B. Selden of Rochester NY, for his design of a gasoline powered automobile. With its huge capitalization (brought to $20 million by 1902) and the rights attached to the Selden Patent, the Electric Vehicle Company was geared to become the dominant factor in the nascent American automobile industry.

Why it came otherwise and how the American automotive industry escaped control by the oligarchy of Eastern capitalists, to the benefit of the Midwest and more specifically Detroit, is essentially the story of two men, who rose to become America's leading automobile tycoons. Over a period of 25 years (1895-1920), considered the formative stage of the American automotive industry, many if not most of its pioneering businessmen orbited with their activities, in a way or another, around these two leaders : Henry Ford and William Crapo Durant.

These two, in physical appearance, character and background so different men shared a vision for the future of the automobile, a hang to grass-roots popularity and apprehension towards Eastern bankers and capitalists. Henry Ford was tall, thin and austere, while Billy Durant was undersized, jovial and charming. Ford's parents were simple although not poor farmers, whose forbears had immigrated to Michigan from Ireland, whereas Billy Durant's grandfather, Henry Howland Crapo, was an established merchant and realtor in New Bedford, who moved to Michigan to manage his investments and rose to be governor of the state.

Henry Ford was an engineer, the archetype of automotive pioneer, who tinkered on his Quadricycle in a backyard workshop of his house. Durant was a salesman, persuader and to some extent organizer, who cared little for technical details and much for people : customers, business partners and the general public. Both men liked the spotlight and popularity, fame and fortune brought them; the introverted Henry Ford using it to convey his ideas, while the extroverted Billy Durant simply made friends.

Automobile & Aviation >   Index and Introduction  :   Previous  1 2 - 3 - 45   Next

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