Herreshoff Marine Museum and Ameerica's Cup Hall of Fame
Herreshoff Marine Museum

The Curator's Log 2014: December

December, 2014

Charles Frederick Herreshoff 2nd
and the Herreshoff Motor Company
Part Two


Introduction & Background
This is the second of two articles about naval architect, engineer and automobile entrepreneur Charles Frederick Herreshoff 2nd and the Herreshoff Motor Company he founded. Part One covered his early life and designs for racing yachts and auto-boats up to the founding of the Herreshoff Motor Company in September 1908.

“The Herreshoff Automobile” by Bill Cuthbert (The HORSELESS CARRIAGE GAZETTE, July/August 1996, pp. 14-17) is the best short history of the company and its products. This paper draws upon that excellent source and expands on issues of business strategy, marketing and competition in the rapidly consolidating auto industry.

As Chief Engineer of the American and British Mfg. Co. (A&BMCo) Bridgeport, CT, Charles designed some 4- and 6-cylinder lightweight engines for both marine and automotive applications. In 1907-08 he designed and his company delivered to the automobile manufacturer Thomas-Detroit a new engine to replace a failed Thomas-Detroit design. This success earned him an excellent reputation among automobile engineers. Thomas-Detroit had its beginnings in 1902, but by 1908 with sales sliding the company was sold. Charles, age 29, and a partner purchased the closed Thomas-Detroit plant to build the Herreshoff automobile. Hugh Chalmers, CEO of National Cash Register, bought the rights to the Thomas-Detroit auto to build in a new plant under the name Chalmers-Detroit. He also brought with him, to the chagrin of Charles (as we shall see), his best salesman Joseph E. Fields. In 1924, Walter P. Chrysler created the Chrysler Corporation by buying the assets of the successor Maxwell-Chalmers and Chrysler later built Jeep Grand Cherokees in the Chalmers plant until 1991.(1)

Herreshoff Motor Co.- Business Plan and Results
The company’s strategy can be summarized as follows:
  1. The Car
    1. Build a light car of entirely Charles Herreshoff’s own design, “embodying the best features of all the well-established cars in the field”. It was intended to “appeal to the owner of high grade cars, to be built of the best materials throughout and finished with careful attention to the most minute detail, on the principle that the big car owner needs a light car to relieve the heavy machine of city and suburban work for which the big car was never intended”. (2) (Possibly the first pitch in the industry for a second car in every garage.)
    2. Uncompromising quality- “of class as the highest–priced foreign car.”(3)
    3. Better performance- turning, braking, acceleration, speed and fuel economy; with lower initial price (because of shorter wheelbase), smaller upkeep and smaller operating expense.
  2. Production Plan
    1. Factory to employ 100 men in full operation to assemble up to 1000 cars per year.
    2. Component parts including engines produced by independent “parts specialists” to Herreshoff designs.(4)
    3. Initial year (1909) start up to build only a single chassis and engine with two body styles.
  3. Marketing Plan
    1. Initial year (1909) all units sold through one selling agent (Harry S. Houpt of New York City) to avoid the expense of establishing a distribution network.
The start up of production was not easy; witness the following excerpt of Charles letter to his mother (and anxious company investor), of June 14, 1909. (5)

“The business is I believe getting into better shape all the time and I hope to bring our output up to a car a day by the end of the month. We have 6 cars ordered for immediate delivery. The number of cars sold to date is 51 valued at $61,989.90. When we deliver the 6 cars on order we will have 30 motors on hand and paid for and $14,000 cash in the Bank. This should be our condition on July 1st at which time I hope to have additional orders for cars on hand. I am not sleeping on the job and hope to have more definite news for you soon.”

The first year production goal of 1000 units was not met. Cuthbert writes the best year was 1911 when the company “claimed” to have produced 2000 cars. This is doubtful, and if built, they did not sell that many. One estimate is that they sold 200-300 cars per year. (6)

Over the six years (1909-14) the Herreshoff Motor Co. was in business it introduced attractive new models with innovative features- no problem there. The failures were rather in the financial arena. The company was under capitalized from its very beginning; made more difficult in 1910 with the added expense of selling through a variety of dealers. It repeatedly faced cash flow deficiencies, late payments to vendors, accumulation of debt; insurmountable financial constraints that eventually forced its bankruptcy. Bill Cuthbert notes, “Herreshoff’s excellent talent for technical design did not extend to the administration of a complex firm”. In this regard it mirrored the 1916 experience of his engineering genius Uncle Nat, faced with running the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. without the talented businessman John Brown Herreshoff at the helm.

Marketing the Herreshoff Motor Car
Harry S. Houpt started aggressively in January 1909 with half page spreads in major newspapers (Figure 6) prominently featuring the HERRESHOFF name, extolling the cars advanced technology and Implying a direct descendancy from the Herreshoff’s of Bristol winning lightweight sailing and power vessel designs. “That Herreshoff should have been able to develop a light car without sacrifice of class is characteristic.” By March, in a full-page ad on page 16 of the Cycle and Automotive Trade Journal, Houpt proclaimed the car “an Immediate and impressive success” having received “applications” for more than 3500 cars. (Figure 7) What a shock it must have been to find on page 72 of the very same issue, the headline- “Herreshoff Buys Chalmers-Detroit Car”, accompanied by a strong endorsement from John Brown Herreshoff. (Figure 8) So much for the value of the Herreshoff of Bristol connection.(7)

From 1910 on Herreshoff did its own advertising starting with a slick 23-page sales brochure that included a decent photo of Charles. (Figure 9) Models were well covered in newspaper ads and featured in automobile periodicals. (Example Figure 10) The copy under banners such as- “A Car Worthy of Its Name” and “The Little Thoroughbred” emphasized the performance and economic benefits of the light vehicles:
  • Power sufficient to drive at 55 mph when necessary (Runabout ran to 65). 25 mph over any road regardless of condition.
  • Herreshoff car with the initial 24hp engine weighed less than 70 lbs per hp.
  • 25 mpg for the 24 hp engine.
  • 8,000 miles on a set of tires; twice as long as big cars and the lighter tires cost half as much.
For 1910- 12 Herreshoff added the banner “National Champion” after sweeping all races for vehicles in its class at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (The Speedway opened briefly in 1909 with races on a crushed stone and tar surface that did not survive one weekend of racing. The track was paved in brick before the 1910 races.) On Independence Day weekend a stripped Herreshoff roadster with the 24 hp (134 cu. in.) engine won all three races for cars under 161 cu. In., two of 5 miles and one 10 miles; and repeated again with two 5 mile wins on Labor Day weekend. (8)

The Cars
The Company developed three body styles; 5-person Touring; 4-person Tourabout; 3-person Runabaout and Roadster.(9) (Figures 11 & 12) A 4-cyl 24 hp engine derived from a marine engine, Herreshoff designed and built while he was at A&BMCo, powered the 1909 and 1910 cars. The cylinders were cast in pairs and assembled as a single unit with clutch, 3-speed transmission and aluminum crankcase. For reliability two sets of spark plugs were provided; one powered by a magneto and the other by a battery and dash mounted coils. The channel section pressed steel frame provided rigidity with lightweight.

The Company practiced continuous improvement of design annually introducing new models with differing wheelbases, new 4-speed transmissions, more powerful engines (25 & 30 hp 4-cyl; 36 & 40 hp 6-cyl), electric self-starting and covered a price range from $950 to $1900.

The Herreshoff family interest in automobiles did not end with the Herreshoff Motor Co. In April 1914 Charles Herreshoff formed a new Herreshoff Light car Co. in Troy, NY to build a 16 hp light car called the Harvard. It was not a success. In 1916 Sidney Herreshoff designed and built the Novara a wooden body car on a nickel steel frame. It was never put into production. In 1920 Capt. Nat’s third son A. Griswold Herreshoff (1889- 1986) designed the Hermes car for export and later was a leader in the design of the 1930s Chrysler Air-Flow models.(10)

John Palmieri

1 Roots of Chrysler: Chalmers Motor Corp http://www.alpar.com/cars/adopted/chalmers.html
3 HERRESHOFF- A Car Worthy of Its Name”. Sales brochures Herreshoff Motor Co. 1910 (Herreshoff Marine Museum Archives)
4 “The Herreshoff Motor Company”, Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal. Dec. 1909, p. 147.
5 The actual letter is identified only as “June 14” with no year. The details of the letter and average value of the cars sold lead to the conclusion that it is 1909.
6 Letter Walter O. Maclivain, (former Historian ANTIQUE MOTOR NEWS) to Mr. Red Burke, Oct. 7, 1983 (Herreshoff Marine Museum Archives)
7 JBH was partial to big cars. See “J.B. Herreshoff In Early Auto Advertising” by Carlton Pinheiro. Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle, Spring 1987.
8 Wikipedia.org/wiki/Indianapolis_Motor_Speedway_race
9 6 & 7 passenger touring cars were offered in 1914, but probably were not built.
10 For Novara see Maynard Bray & Carlton Pinheiro, Herreshoff of Bristol. Herreshoff Marine Museum 2nd edition 2005. Pg 144. & Carlton Pinheiro, “The Novara” Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle, Fall 1984.