Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Many Pennsylva­nians, born near the turn of the century, grew up during the infancy of the auto­mobile. Their earliest memo­ries, quite often, were from the seemingly far-removed horse­-and-carriage era, a world of dusty roadways, wooden hitching posts, watering troughs and musty stables. It is literally impossible for a young American, born into today’s fast-moving world, to appreciate the difference be­tween the well-kept highways and the mud and manure littered thoroughfares that were part of Pennsylvanians’ everyday life before the com­ing of the automobile. The arrival of the automobile al­tered the pace of Pennsylvania forever, changing it from a bucolic rural community to a swiftly moving and highly industrialized society.

At one time, during the opening decades of the twenti­eth century, Pennsylvania contributed tremendously to the embryonic automobile industry. In fact, scores of cars were once manufactured within its borders. Most of the car manufacturers were active during the dosing years of the horseless-carriage age, before mass production proved profit­able and long before it took a large accumulation of capital to compete in the field. These early automakers, in spite of their brief tenure , are an important component of the state’s rich industrial and so­cial heritage.

Proving grounds for cars of the 1940s and 1950s were somewhat lenient compared to the rigid trials put upon an automobile first constructed in Philadelphia in 1908. Strangely enough, however, the com­pany that possessed that sort of foresight, making road­-testing an art, encountered an early demise because it tended to ignore another important part of the business: careful and consistent marketing techniques.

Louis J. Bergdoll was one Pennsylvania automaker who recognized that, to prosper and succeed, innovation was the order of the day. Bergdoll had seen car after car intro­duced to a travel-hungry pub­lic without anything more than a simple, and brief, test­-run. Without hesitation, he decided to construct fifty models of his own design. Yet, before offering them to the Philadelphia consumers, he placed them on the city’s busy streets for two years, with each logging between seven and ten thousand miles. He attempted to prove that the Bergdoll model would hold up over the long haul, and was, therefore, worth buying.

By 1910, Bergdoll intro­duced his first consumer models at the Philadelphia Automobile Show. Many were sold immediately, and the demand remained consistently high for several years. Within one month after the auto show, Bergdoll realized that his plant was not prepared to meet either current or ex­pected orders, and he moved his operation to a vacated electric bus firm. Within a year, Louis Bergdoll had produced no less than ten different models which were available on one standard frame pro­duced by Westinghouse. He touted his cars’ inexpensive­ness in early advertisements: “The Bergdoll ’30’ inaugurates a new and startling era in the manufacture of automobiles. The first modern-priced car fully equal to the most expen­sive …” Prices were moderate for most Bergdoll models. All materials, including his Wil­liam and Harvey Rowland springs, were warranted for one full year.

As time passed, the Bergdoll line grew. A larger model was introduced in 1912, and in 1913 the “Fairmount” was added to a still larger chassis. Unfortunately for Bergdoll, America had its eyes on lighter automobiles as 1914 approached. Louis Bergdoll was caught unprepared, a situation from which he would never recover. Perfect timing had launched him into the limelight, yet poor planning had prompted his failure.

In 1918, a full-page adver­tisement, set against a posh, country club background, appeared in a local Philadel­phia newspaper, heralding a new auto and a new auto­maker: “The thrills of speed with perfect control are his who drives the Biddle car equipped with Deusenberg motor. Security and comfort are also his – for the character of construction assures them.”

The gilded name of Biddle, quite prestigious in Philadel­phia social circles, often drew a second glance from pedestri­ans along the byways, for many appreciated the automo­bile that reminded them of the German Mercedes-Benz. Es­tablished in 1915, the Biddle Motor Car Company of Philadelphia constructed impecca­ble automobiles at modest prices. Early Biddle roadsters and touring cars, with their V­-shaped radiators, angular fenders, and spoke wheels retailed for an acceptable – and affordable – seventeen hun­dred dollars.

Soon, however, a three thousand dollar town car, possessing a huge four­-cylinder Buda engine, was added to the line, and it .was not long until Biddle’s prices began to grow in proportion to its prestige. Ever so slowly, the angular fenders began to fade, as Biddle introduced two new models in 1916: a town car, selling for forty-two hundred and fifty dollars, and a large brougham offered at forty-­eight hundred dollars.

Five hundred Biddle auto­mobiles managed to keep the motorists of Philadelphia sup­plied in 1917, supplemented by eight new models unveiled the following spring. Among them was a car described as “the roost beautiful ever manufac­tured in America.” Two re­markable products included the magnificent Park Phaeton, with its double-tulip body, and the Victoria touring car sport­ing exterior exhausts. Perhaps the most unique of all Biddle models was the Brewster road­ster, which exhibited a sloping body-line that curved down­ward from the windshield to the rear.

The success of the Biddle Motor Car Company encour­aged extensive expansion in 1919, and the operation shifted to New York City. Almost immediately, financial troubles befell the company. Today, only four Biddle models, re­stored to their original majesty, are known to exist, magnifi­cent memorabilia of a presti­gious maker that had somehow overspent, depleting its funds by 1923.

For many other early car owners of Pennsylvania, lux­ury was a car known as the Daniels. It was not unusual to see a seven-passenger, eight­-cylinder custom touring car, complete with a Victoria top, motoring through the Pennsyl­vania countryside. The Daniels also exhibited deluxe mahog­any cabinet fittings and wind­shield frame, outfitted with hand-buffed leather upholstery – and all for a rea­sonable twenty-three hundred and fifty dollars.

The custom touring car was the first model offered by the Daniels Motor Car Company, based in Reading, Berks County, and founded by entre­preneur George E. Daniels in 1914. His goal was to produce five hundred affordably-priced automobiles each year.

George E. Daniels had begun his illustrious career with the Oakland Motor Car Company, but decided to return to his native Pennsylva­nia to launch a vehicle of his own design. With the assist­ance of a friend, he managed to test run his automobile in May 1915.

By 1917, Daniels was dis­playing some of the most interesting body lines ever seen at the annual New York Salon. They included a shiny white and green cloverleaf, a large black-and-cream lan­daulet for forty-five hundred dollars, and a handsome sub­urban convertible selling for forty-two hundred and fifty dollars. The bodies had been constructed at the Keystone Vehicle Company, located opposite Daniels, which would later be absorbed by the com­pany.

In 1922, Daniels designed an advertisement that depicted “Charles,” the chauffeur, hold­ing a Russian wolfhound, while “madame” shopped in a nearby expensive store. It asked: “What makes distinc­tion? A caravan of camels in the Sahara ‘gets you there’ – but what an ordeal! Many motor vehicles will ‘get you there,’ but there are few cars of real distinction …”

Yet, by the next year, “bleak” had become the watchword for the Daniels manufacturing future. The company was sold to the Levene Motor Company, lo­cated in Philadelphia, and the new management immediately announced that the Daniels line would be continued. As predicted, in 1924, a Daniels design did appear on the mar­ket; however, it carried an exorbitant price of ten thou­sand dollars! Although the car proved unsuccessful, George E. Daniels was not. He would go on to play an important role in the making of such popular automobiles as the Locomobile and the Flint.

Another Reading resident, J. Middleby, was characterized as an extremely conscientious man. He once proclaimed that he “never owed a dollar longer than five days from the receipt of a bill.” Furthermore, he wouldn’t have managed any other way.

J. Middleby could also be characterized as an individual of rare perseverance. Residents of Reading, who knew him personally, were quite sure of that when he purchased the old Duryea plant for the pur­pose of manufacturing cars. They knew that he would stay with his pet project until he had created a fine – if not perfect – automobile.

Those same people would have, most probably, bet their life-savings on the fact that Middleby was not the sort to venture away from the old tried-and-true air-cooled engine-something that he was “mighty strong on …. While he might change horse­powers in the middle of a stream, he’d never give up the air-cooled engine.” Yet, they were to discover later that they were absolutely wrong.

The earliest Middleby air­-cooled automobiles resembled the popular Corbin, but they were set on a shorter wheel­base. One of the sportier models was a convertible sur­rey that retailed for a mere one thousand dollars. It attracted a great deal of attention throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and good sales prompted Middleby to add four new designs in 1910.

One of these, an eight hun­dred and fifty dollar runabout, really brought about swift business for Middleby. Its major selling point was its rocker panels, which covered the entire area between the running boards and the body. In addition, a gently sloping cowl created a cockpit atmos­phere for the driver. Perhaps its most intriguing features were its oil lamps, positioned on each side just behind the entrance openings.

For reasons mysterious to both consumers and competitors, who felt they knew Middleby to be a man of un­wavering principles, the 1911 models shifted from air- to water-cooled engines. The Middleby motor was not the only change that year; the complete chassis altered its style. The inventive manufac­turer installed a one hundred and twenty-two inch wheel­base that floated on thirty-six inch wheels. And the price for the runabout rose to a “shock­ing” twelve hundred and fifty dollars.

It was not long until Read­ing’s residents thought that most of Middleby’s designs has lost their appeal, and sales began to sag. Although a com­bination of quality and low price should have equalled success, public resentment over the unheralded changes, coupled with Ford’s mass­-produced Model T, spelled doom for Middleby. The com­pany went out of business in 1913. Ironically, the only Middleby in existence today is not one of the later, more inno­vative models, but an air­-cooled design so well-thought of by his once-loyal customers.

If automobiles “born” in Pennsylvania had birth certifi­cates, records would indicate that most “conceptions” took place in the wondering minds of township dreamers; that “labor-pains” often occurred in dimly lit back-alley bicycle shops; and that successful “deliveries” were midwifed by struggling mechanics with a great deal of patience. Such was the case of the Reber Man­ufacturing Company of Reading.

James C. Reber entered the industry by incorporating the Acme Manufacturing Com­pany and constructing a bicy­cle known as the “stormer.” In January 1903, he introduced an automobile bearing his name, a twelve-horsepower touring car with a detachable tonneau and bearing a resemblance to European styling.

In 1904, the family name was dropped in favor of the better known “Acme” title for the automobiles. The new Acme was a reworked Reber with a squared-off front end. Not only had it changed its name, but it had undergone extensive development and cost a little more than sixteen hundred dollars.

In 1905, Reber reversed his direction once again, leaning toward a more rounded front section. Several models were produced, with a variety of options, including a single­-cylinder runabout, a chain­-driven two-cylinder, a shaft-driven two-cylinder, a popular four-cylinder touring car and a stylish model known as the “Opera Bus.”

A larger model, with a low center of gravity and a six­-cylinder engine, made its debut for forty-five hundred dollars in 1908. This model, along with a roadster that was eventually destined for race­way fame, was mounted on a one hundred and twenty-six inch chassis. Finally, as a trib­ute to the annual Vanderbilt Cup races held on Long Is­land, one 1909 model was dubbed the “Vanderbilt.” The Reber-Acme automobile was then promoted as the car with the “Perpetual Guarantee.”

As the premier models began to rise in price beyond the reach of the average con­sumer, Reber decided to pro­duce a lighter, cheaper car for the masses. These new auto­mobiles featured a low hood-line and high fenders. Headlamps were positioned on the sides for night driving. A Model-A touring car and a Model-B roadster, selling for only twenty-five hundred dollars each, attracted many new customers to Reber-Acme dealers throughout the region.

Another branch of Reber­-Acme, founded in 1912, was known as the S.G.V. Com­pany. The initials honored three hard-working men who had been the guiding light for the company in recent years: H.M. Sternbergh, Robert E. Graham, and Fred Van Tine. This venture aimed for the construction of automobiles which would possess superior quality to any makes or models on the market. Their Colonial Brougham boasted cottage-style windows, enclos­ing the entire passenger com­partment, and their “Enclosed Submarine Model Runabout” was outfitted with odd-looking porthole rear windows and a hood that sloped upward from the radiator to the windshield. Behind the cab was a rounded tail-section that resembled the nose of a blimp.

The next two years saw changes which prompted all of Pennsylvania to begin recognizing that the S.G.V. was certainly a major competitor in the market. The changes in­cluded projecting front fenders offering a sporty appearance, a Vulcan electric shift with six buttons for different speeds (including neutral and re­verse), and a “Collapsible Landaulet Coupe,” with a V-­windshield and angular lines. However, when the company was sold to a concern in New­ark, New Jersey, in May 1915, it began a decline in popularity. The “life-span” of Reber­-Acme-S. G. V. came to an abrupt end in 1919.

In Philadelphia, L.S. Chadwick took control of the stagnant Searchmont Automo­bile Company in 1901. Soon, with Chadwick as superin­tendent, the company began looking for a larger plant to conduct business, and a new building was established in Chester, Delaware County.

Chadwick designed a four­-cylinder engine for the firm, which instilled new life into the company. But, in 1903, a catastrophe occurred in the midst of a depression, and the superintendent found himself without a job. Gathering up his plans, along with his spare parts, he built a single auto­mobile, which he subse­quently sold for four thousand dollars. Encouraged by even this meagre capital, he rented a garage in Philadelphia, in which he would build about forty-five four-cylinder vehicles.

Chadwick forced the world to sit up and take notice by creating a major innovation to his engines. He added a strange-looking copper water­-jacket, resembling an inverted pail, over each pair of cylin­ders. It was designed to be used for cooling purposes, and shrouded the cylinders and valve assemblies to the block. Water was circulated into these jackets by a gear-driven pump.

In 1905, Chadwick found financial backing from the Fairmount Engineering Com­pany. In October of that same year, the initial models rolled out of his garage. With grow­ing success, he moved the entire operation to Pottstown, Montgomery County, where he established the Chadwick Engineering Works.

The “Chadwick Great Six” was soon introduced, boasting six-cylinders of raw hill­-climbing power. By 1908, the supercharged run-about was guaranteed to travel at a maxi­mum speed of one hundred miles per hour. Later that year, the “Pottstown Speedster” competed in and won the Ohio Valley Climb competi­tion. With the new publicity that his firm received, Chadwick gained a good deal of confidence in his product. He proceeded to establish the Fleetwood Body Company which would construct car bodies exclusively for him.

1911 proved to be a fateful year for L.S. Chadwick . Even though he wanted to build a vastly improved model, his financial backers desired to remain more conservative. Chadwick the man decided to separate from Chadwick the company. The automobile that held the hill-climbing record finally reached its zenith. Perhaps if Chadwick had stayed, his car would still be in competition today.

The Chadwick – like so many other vehicles produced during Pennsylvania’s golden age of automobile manufacture – suffered its demise in the keen, sometimes brutal, competition of the day. More than one hundred auto­mobiles have been produced in the Keystone State. Many of their names are obscure now – the Gregory 555, the Harvard, the Lion, the Twombly, the Banker – and few specimens are extant, except in private and museum collections throughout the country. Pennsylvania’s automakers’ prized products were made not only in Philadelphia and Reading, but in Greensville, Beaver­town, Lebanon, Sharon, York, Morrisville and Wilkes-Barre. Perhaps, in the international world of auto making, the span of Pennsylvania’s manu­facturers may seem brief, but, nevertheless, the period was not insignificant. In fact, with­out the inventive genius of Pennsylvania’s brilliant auto­makers, there might not possibly have been the innovations enjoyed by the Detroit com­panies and their designers and fabricators.

 

For Further Reading

Cohn, David L. Combustion on Wheels: An Informal History of the Automobile Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1944.

Flink, James J. America Adapts the Automobile, 1895-1910. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970.

Glasscock, C. B. The Gasoline Age. New York: Bobbs-Merril, 1937.

Georgano, G. N. The Complete Encyclopedia of Motorcars: 1895. New York: E. T. Dutton and Co., 1968.

MacManus, Theodore F. Men, Money, and Motors: The Drama of the Automobile. New York; Harper and Brothers, 1929.

Maxim, Hiram Percy. Horseless Carriage Days. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1936.

 

Louis S. Schafer, a resident of Winn in central Michigan, teaches American History in the Claire Public School District . He is also a member of the Claire Planning Commission. Long fascinated by the nation’s early automobiles and their makers, he has written and published similar articles in vari­ous magazines and newspapers. A graduate of the University of Toledo, he is currently completing his master of arts degree at Cen­tral Michigan University.