An Introduction to the Automotive Heritage of Kokomo

While many local citizens know about the automobile heritage of Kokomo, many do not and some people don’t care. But the history is very important. An article will appear once a month in this newspaper, thanks to the Automotive Heritage Museum and will cover many of the important events that put Kokomo on the map for automotive history that began in 1891.

It began with an idea of a horseless carriage that Elwood Haynes could use for his personal use. The mode of transportation at that time was by foot, bicycle, horseback or horse drawn buggy. That year Haynes was traveling many miles each week by way of the buggy and he always felt pity on the horse, which lead him to begin thinking about how he could travel in a carriage that could be powered by electricity or gasoline. After considerable thought, he decided a gasoline engine would be the best choice and began drawing plans for the vehicle.

At that time he lived in Portland, Indiana and was working out of an office at a large natural gas field near Greentown. In 1892, he was offered a job by his employer, the Indiana Natural Gas and Oil Company to become the manager of the Kokomo branch. After he was settled he still found the idea of a horseless carriage interesting and in September of the following year he purchased a two-cycle, one horsepower gasoline engine. He began the project at home and in an interview I had with his daughter, Bernice Hillis in 1948, Haynes had the engine mounted on the kitchen counter and while it was running, it vibrated so much that it fell on the floor and continued to run until a wire came loose. Her mother let Elwood know that his project had to be relocated.

After inquiring around he decided to try the Riverside Machine Works, which was owned by Elmer and Edgar Apperson (Edgar was a minority partner). The shop primarily worked on farm equipment, buggies and bicycles. Elwood explained that he had the plans for what he wanted built and had the engine. The project looked like an interesting adventure and the brothers were ready for a challenge. A deal was agreed to and the Appersons would receive forty cents an hour, plus parts. It was agreed that the work would take place in an isolated area and out of view of customers and work would be done during slack times. Haynes would supervise and help out. It was in the fall of the 1893. By January, there were some technical issues that were holding the project up. Elmer suggested that Haynes hire Jonathan Maxwell, a local mechanic with experience in steam and gasoline engines and had previously worked as a maintenance man at the Lake Erie & Western Railroad Company, in Peru. Maxwell became an employee of Haynes and began working with the Appersons on the project.

By July 4, 1894, the carriage was ready for its first road test, which was a success. The project was complete and Haynes was content and began driving his carriage whenever he needed to go someplace out of walking distance. Over the next few months, he found things about the carriage that he corrected. The engine lacked power and was noisy. He exchanged the engine for a more powerful one and had someone build a muffler. The solid rubber tires made the ride over bumpy dirt roads very rough and he found a local person, David Spraker who actually designed and built pneumatic tires for the carriage. This could have been the end of the story, but it was only the beginning.

By that time, there were quite a number of carriages powered by steam or electricity, but they were more prominent in New England and the larger cities. At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, there were two gasoline carriages from Germany on display. This seemed to motivate many of the spectators to build similar carriages. In 1895, the Chicago Times-Herald decided to have a contest for all of the horseless carriages, including a race with a $5,000 prize for the winner. Other cash awards were announced for special features and a $500 prize was offered for the best name of what the carriages should be called. The contest was set for November 2 and the deadline for entrants to show up in Chicago was October 29th. The newspaper expected at least 75 entrees. By the September deadline to receive applications, 89 had been received.

When word first reached Kokomo about the contest, the large cash award was too much for Haynes and Elmer Apperson to pass up. Feeling that the original car would not be competitive in a race, they decided on a joint adventure to build an improved model and to design and build a larger and more powerful engine. The Apperson brothers and their mechanics along with Maxwell would build the carriage. Working long hours, the team was not able to meet the original deadline, but neither were most of the applicants and now the Times-Herald was hoping for 30 entrees, but had to push the date to November 28th, Thanksgiving Day. On the original date of October 29th only one carriage was there, a German car with several modifications, called a Mueller-Benz from Iowa. A second carriage arrived in Chicago on November 2nd, a Duryea from Chicopee, Massachusetts. To entertain the crowd, a shortened race was held with a $500 prize. During the race, the Duryea ran off the course and the Mueller-Benz won the race. In the next three weeks a few motocycles, the name selected in the contest, began showing up. Two days before Thanksgiving both Kokomo built motocycles arrived in Chicago. Haynes only entered the new model for the race. Spectators and judges for the event liked the vehicle from Kokomo and gave it a $150 award for the best balanced engine.

On Thanksgiving morning Chicago residents were receiving a blanket of snow. While the new Kokomo carriage was driving to the race area, one of the wood spoked wheels caught in a trolley track and broke. The last thing anyone would have considered was to bring a spare wheel and therefore, the Kokomo entry was out. Eleven motocycles were scheduled, but only six arrived at the starting line. There were two electric models, three Benz and the American built Duryea. The Duryea finished the 54 mile race in first place, which was run during windy and blustery snowy conditions, causing the race to last nearly 11 hours. The Mueller-Benz was awarded second place and none of the other starters finished.

Haynes and Apperson had won some money and were encouraged by the event. They returned to Kokomo and decided to form a business building motocycles. A few months later they advertised as the Haynes-Apperson Co., and that they would build motocycles for the general public. In 1898, the company officially registered with the state as the first motor carriage builder. Haynes was still manager of the Kokomo office of Indiana Natural Gas and Oil Company and Elmer Apperson managed the motor carriage business. By the end of 1901, both of the Appersons had departed from the company. The factory had built nearly 200 cars in 1900 and I believe Elmer was overwhelmed by the amount of business. In 1902 the Apperson Brothers Automobile Company opened for business. Edgar was a minority stockholder in this company, holding only 10%.

As the years advanced, it is important to note that there are many parts on all automobiles. Since Kokomo was building cars, beginning in 1896, it was necessary to have other local companies manufacturing many of those parts. By 1923, there were over sixty auto-related factories that were manufacturing or connected to the automobile industry! While Kokomo automobile plants were having financial difficulties, many of the other local support companies were shipping parts out to other automobile manufacturers and making money. Many were shipping parts overseas. Kokomo had earned a reputation as an important city for the automobile industry, even after both our automobile factories had closed in 1925. Between the two companies, nearly 76,000 automobiles had been built in Kokomo.

With the automotive history and many empty manufacturing buildings, in 1936, General Motors moved into the newest of the Haynes plants and the following year, Chrysler Corporation moved into the Haynes assembly building.


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