Made in Bridgeport: When America’s best built car was built here

Written by David Wrubel

Tuesday, 03 April 2012 12:46

"48" Locomobile, Type "M" touring car, from The Locomobile Book, 1910. Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical SocietyLocomobile, an automobile that became known as the "Best Built Car in America," was one of the most expensive and elegant automobiles ever manufactured in the United States.

It was driven by many of the country's most prominent people: The Mellons, Goulds, Vanderbilts, Wanamakers, Walter Chrysler (who took it apart and put it back together again), Andrew Carnegie, William Wrigley, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix and Cecil B. DeMille, among others.

But it wasn't manufactured in Detroit.

In 1901, investors bought the Stanley Steamer Company, renamed it Locomobile, bought 40 acres in Bridgeport, and built a factory at the foot of Main Street, on the edge of Seaside Park, where the United Illuminating Co. oil tanks now stand. By 1902, Locomobile had become the largest auto manufacturer in the country, with sales of more than 5,200 steam-powered units.

Steam-powered cars had numerous drawbacks, including limited "mileage" between water fill ups, slow boiler-pressure buildup, and the occasional explosion. Beginning in 1903, after selling the steam patents back to the Stanley brothers, Locomobile concentrated exclusively on gasoline-powered automobiles.

In the early years of auto manufacturing, international road races played an important role in highlighting engineering and durability. A win — or sometimes merely finishing a race — meant a great deal to a brand's reputation.

European manufacturers, particularly French and German companies, dominated these races from the outset. America's first great international auto race was The Vanderbilt Cup. Sponsored by the founding family of the New York Central Railroad, it was run over public roads on Long Island.

Locomobile Type "E" Runabout, from The Locomobile Book, 1908. Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical SocietyIn 1908, the Locomobile Model 16 won the Vanderbilt Cup, becoming the first American automobile to win an international road race. By beating the Europeans, Locomobile demonstrated that America would be a player in the new technology of automobiles.

On the strength of this, Locomobile became known for well-built and speedy luxury cars. The 1908 Locomobile 40 Runabout was a 60-horsepower two-seater and sold for $4,750 (more than $114,000 today).

The company's racing success also came at a time when automobile sales in the U.S. were exploding. There were 78,000 vehicles on the road in 1905, 306,000 in 1909, 459,000 in 1910, 618,00 in 1911, and 1.7 million by 1914. It was during this period that Locomobile solidified its reputation as the best-built car in America by making cars of exceptional quality and marketing them shrewdly.

Locomobile's primary luxury competitors were the "3 P's" — Pierce Arrow, Peerless, and Packard. Of the four, Locomobile was the most expensive. Lacking the financial strength of its competitors, Locomobile chose to compete by concentrating on hand-built, limited production automobiles of unsurpassed luxury and quality. Locomobiles featured details like silver fixtures from Tiffany's, velvet upholstery and electric intercoms. By 1918 the company limited production to no more than four cars per day.

In the early days of automobile advertising, it marketed itself by placing ads in the magazines of the day that catered to the wealthy. Its message was simple and consistent: Locomobile would be built for quality rather than quantity, and its hand-built cars would not be produced on an assembly line.

When a car was ordered from a Locomobile dealership, a team of six highly qualified mechanics went though the factory and gathered the parts and pieces they required to build the car to order. Although not entirely unique in its manufacturing approach, Locomobile created molds and forged its own parts out of cast steel, bronze and aluminum in the Bridgeport factory. The interiors were appointed with English broadcloths, velours and tapestries.

Locomobile's most important model was the Model 48 , introduced in 1919. Its materials and workmanship were among the best in the world; many vintage-car enthusiasts believe that it was America's Rolls Royce. Such was its pricing: A typical Model 48 convertible cost about $10,000 (almost $131,000 in today's dollars), when the average Model T Ford Phaeton cost about $300 (just under $4,000 in 2011).

After World War 1, Locomobile over expanded, and in 1922 William C. Durant, founder and former president of General Motors, acquired the company. Durant's strategy was to use the Locomobile name to sell a less expensive car that would compete with the Chrysler and Chevrolet.

While modestly successful during the roaring twenties, Durant lacked the efficient, assembly line production capabilities necessary to truly compete with these brands. Finally, the 1929 stock market crash and resulting Depression all but eliminated the market for luxury automobiles. Along with many other companies, Locomobile closed its doors forever in 1930.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, there were more than 1,000 automobile manufacturers in the U.S. More than 120 brands began with the letter "A" alone. Most produced very few cars and quickly went out of business. Of Locomobile's "three P" competitors in the luxury market, only Packard survived the Depression.

Pierce Arrow struggled financially and was acquired by the Studebaker Corp. in 1928, disappearing as a separate brand in 1938 after years of losses. The Peerless Company stopped manufacturing automobiles in 1932, and proving once again that timing is everything, began brewing Carling Black Label beer in late 1933, immediately after prohibition was repealed.

Plant of the Locomobile Company of America, located in Bridgeport, from The Locomobile Book, 1910. Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical SocietyThough Locomobile was an undercapitalized company that made the most expensive automobile built in America, it remained a successful, world-renowned manufacturer for almost 30 years by developing and earning its reputation as the best built car in America.

The fact that the best built car in America was made in Bridgeport wasn't as surprising then as it would be today. Connecticut was a national manufacturing powerhouse from the dawn of the American industrial revolution through the post-World War II era. Precision metal work was a particular hallmark. Among other things, the state churned out firearms, auto parts, copper and brass products, aircraft components, bearings, house wares, clocks and watches, hardware, machinery and machine tools.

This Connecticut industrial boom is among the themes explored in a new permanent exhibit, entitled "Making Connecticut," at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. The exhibit makes use of 500 artifacts to chronicle 400 years of the state's history, from its native-American roots through today.

The museum is located at 1 Elizabeth Street and is open Tuesdays through Fridays from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.