Northern Michigan Automotive Heritage Trail
Northern Michigan Automobile and Truck Companies
Elias S. Flaglor was by trade a glass worker but was also an automotive tinkerer. Around 1911 he started to develop a prototype of a cyclecar which was the size of an early motorcycle but twice as wide. He started the Flagler Cycle Car Company out of his house in 1913 and quickly moved to a new temporary location. By 1914 he had moved the company to Cheboygan occupying an old pea canning factory. Trouble with design delayed the car but by April the company was incorporated and was slowly producing vehicles. A regular cyclecar and light delivery vehicle would be the beginning models and orders began to pour in. The vehicles received great reviews and were taken to Detroit to be shown and raced to prove their durability. Although the future seemed bright very few vehicles were made and by 1914 the company was in receivership. Flaglor continued to perhaps produce and sell them out of his house in Chicago where he started but by 1917 the company was officially bankrupt. Flaglor continued in the glass business and doesn't seem to have entered the automobile business in the years following. This stop on the tour is pinned at the Historical Cheboygan County Museum where one can learn more about Flaglor and auto manufacturing in this part of the state.
The only remaining example of an Alpena "Flyer" produced by the Alpena Motor Car Company is on display at the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan.The Alpena Motor Car Company was founded in July of 1910. The firm was actually a transplant of the Wolverine Motor Car Company that was located in Mt. Clemens, MI in January of 1910 but never got off the ground. A prototype had been built and helped convince the Chamber of Commerce to let the firm relocate in Alpena. Initially cars were assembled in the shop of W.C. French and would later be assembled in a new plant which opened in October of that year. Interest was immediate and orders were pouring in including one for 500 vehicles from a Philadelphia sales branch that was to market to the East Coast. Vehicles were shown at the auto show in New York as well as several other cities and reviews were excellent. The company built approximately 480 vehicles before declaring bankruptcy due to being sued of patent infringement. By July of 1914 the company was for sale. The Alpena Motor Car Company had hoped to be the next Detroit as did neighboring Gaylord as they looked to replace a dying lumber industry however neither succeeded.
The only known Gaylord Car to exist is on display at the Gaylord Visitor Center.Additional information about the Gaylord Motor Car Corporation can be found at the Otsego County History Museum which is located across the street from the Visitor Center.The idea for a car company in Gaylord came in the spring months of 1910. At the time Gaylord had been a city for little more than 35 years and was both a center between logging camps and a stop on the Michigan Central Railway. A. B. C. Comstock who was a local businessman and banker knew that the logging boom was coming to and end and there needed to be sustainable new industry going forward. Detroit machinist Guy Hamilton had come to Gaylord on a fishing trip and shortly after he had gotten off the train, he and Comstock met over a cup of coffee in a cafe perhaps by fate. The two men discussed the possibility of bringing a automobile factory to Gaylord that would go on to sell not only automobiles but also a "utility" type vehicle aimed at farming needs and the ability to navigate the rough terrain in Northern Michigan. Hamilton had already been working with automobiles since at least 1903 and was considered a very capable man to design a car. The two men agreed to pursue the idea and assembled other local businessmen to form a committee. The idea was well received and soon after the Gaylord Motor Car Company was born. About 350 total vehicles were built during the existence of the company but they ultimately went out of business in 1913 because of a variety of reasons including the incredibly low price of the Model T.
The only known example of the "Elmer" automobile is on display at the Kalkaska County Historical Museum.Elmer F. Johnson was born in Pontiac, MI and moved to Detroit where he was a machinist and artificial limb maker. He and his family moved to Kalkaska around the end of 1892 and by 1893 he had established the Elmer F. Johnson Cycle Works. He was not only a bicycle builder but also a gunsmith, repairman, and bladesmith. He started designing and building a steam-powered automobile around 1902 and subsequently built three more cars and a truck over the next several years. Around 1925 he moved his family to Grand Rapids where he resided the rest of his life. The second vehicle he built is the one on display at the Kalkaska County Historical Museum.
There is one Napoleon truck known to exist and it is owned and occasionally displayed at the Hagerty Insurance Company headquarters.The Napoleon Motor Car Company was founded in 1916 in Napoleon, Ohio by a group of men who had already been involved in the young automobile industry. The company found itself in need of a bigger factory and was offered the chance to come to Traverse City, MI where they could keep up with the demand. The Napoleon car business would move and become the Traverse City Motor Car Company but the truck business would stay behind and became Reya but only survived for a few years. The company would change its name to the Napoleon Motors Company in 1918 and by the end of 1919 would end its car production and build trucks only. Production thrived through 1920 but by mid-1921 orders were slow due the numerous trucks on the market manufactured for the war effort and because of the post-war recession in general. Unable to sustain itself, the company went into receivership in September of 1922 joining the ranks of other failed automobile and truck companies in Michigan and throughout the U.S.
In 1915 Walter A. Kysor, J.P. Wilcox, and C.J. Helm founded the Cadillac Auto Truck Company which operated in Cadillac, Michigan. The first truck was produced later that same year and the company began to take off. A conflict with the Cadillac Motor Car Company of Detroit prompted a change in name to the Acme Motor Truck Company in 1917. Throughout its' history, Acme built trucks ranging in size and weight as well as buses. Along the way, they were not only producers of vehicles but also innovators and contributed to many improvements in the industry. Kysor would leave the company in 1923 to start his own automotive heater company and would go on to be very successful. Truck production continued for Acme into 1929 as the Great Depression and other factors took their toll on the industry. The company would flounder until 1932 and in January of that year, Acme would cease to exist, but one can learn more about the Acme Truck Company here at the Wexford County Historical Society.
The Manistee Motor Car Company was part of the cyclecar craze from 1912 to 1917. The company was originally an idea of the Anderson Electric & Manufacturing Company in Chicago but was sold to two local businessmen with the hopes of bringing industry and jobs to Northern Michigan. The company was founded in March of 1912 and was to produce three models including a light delivery vehicle. Ultimately the company never really got off the ground producing very few cars and went out of business almost exactly a year later.
Otto and Henry Brugman started a bicycle shop in Manistee, MI in the late 1890s working on and repairing bicycles, guns, jewelry, and much more. In 1899 they began constructing a one-cylinder automobile, completing it in 1902 and building additional vehicles from 1907-to 1909 similar to the early prototype. Eventually the company became agents for various manufacturers and would serve the community of Manistee until around 1949.
Robert W. Elston was an inventor who was born in England and worked in the wagon industry at a young age. He was one of the early builders of a "horseless carriage" completing it in 1895 and had plans to enter the vehicle in the first recognized automobile race in the United States which took place in Chicago in November of that year. He first tried electric power and later a gasoline engine but could never get the vehicle to travel further than a block or two. Although he did not make the race deadline, he did exhibit the vehicle in town at a local blacksmith and implement shop. Elston also had a patent for a self-propelling vehicle but seemed to have given up the automobile business for the hotel business which he was involved in both before and after his stint with automobiles. The fate of Elston's vehicle is unknown, but one can learn about Elston and the history of this community at the Charlevoix Historical Society.
A story appeared in 1915 of an "auto truck" that was made in Petoskey from the collaboration of two local companies. The vehicle was produced with efforts from Bump & McCabe Hardware who made the body and the McDermott Blacksmith & Wagon Shop who made the frame. The truck was assembled between the two businesses and an old Ford engine and running gear of unknown origin was used to power the vehicle. It is not known if the men planned on producing additional vehicles as was the case in several cities in Northern Michigan around the turn of the century.