Autocar in Lower Merion
by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
It may be a shopping center now, but when the factory was here, Autocar was Lower Merion’s major employer. More than that, it made some of the best and most progressive trucks in its time. When it started in 1898 in Pittsburgh as the Pittsburgh Motor Vehicle Company, it was a manufacturer of horseless carriages – a term that reflected the era. The means of propulsion, not its purpose, was the major concern. Later these horseless carriages would evolve into cars, trucks and tractors.
In 1899 the company produced its fourth model, which was a real success. It was reliable and consistent, a combination of characteristics manufactures were seeking, but often not finding with their vehicles. This model was created in three versions: Arunabout, park trap and delivery wagon. According to company archives, this delivery wagon was probably the first strictly commercial car built in this country and was the forerunner of the thousands of Autocar trucks. At this time, there were more than a thousand manufacturers of horseless carriages, few of which would survive. In the fall of that year the company adopted the name The Autocar Company and incorporated under that name.
Encouraged by this success, the founders increased the capitalization of the company from $30,000 to $1 million and began to plan a factory in Swissvale, a Pittsburgh suburb. Before plans for that were complete, the company was faced with the death of one of its most ardent supporters, Charles Clark. Shortly after that, his two sons decided to move the business to Lower Merion. On Jan 1, 1900, John and Lewis Clark began the new millennium by breaking ground for a small frame factory building on Lancaster Pike at Ardmore. That year they built 27 Type J vehicles in the Lower Merion factory, the first of which was purchased by a noted Bryn Mawr physician, Dr. George S. Gerhard.
In 1901, car companies needed to publicize their products, and many did so by running races and endurance events. Autocar was no different, and among several of their successes was a run from Ardmore to Madison Square Garden in six hours and fifteen minutes, a record that stood for several years. In fact, if traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel is slow, it can take that long today. The Autocar Type XIV, built in 1907 was produced a time when motor racing had reached the height of its popularity. In a 24-hour race at Point Breeze Park in Philadelphia in late May of 1907, the Type XIV, driven by Joe Brown with John Archfield as the riding mechanic, won first place, finishing 55 miles ahead of its nearest competitor.
Despite its cars’ success, by 1911 the company decided to concentrate on building trucks. This was the time of the great shake out of the automobile industry, when the number of manufacturers shrank from thousands to dozens, to eventually less than ten. Autocar became the first manufacturer to offer only commercial trucks. The company was noted for its innovation. It was the first truck to offer a shaft-driven system – today’s standard – rather than the chain-driven propulsion systems of the day. The company created the first porcelain insulated spark plugs – still the standard today. In fact, spark plug manufacturers settled on the thread of the Autocar spark plug as the standard for the industry. This was the first item of standardization in the automobile industry. In 1921, the Smithsonian Institution requested the original 1901 model that was the first shaft-driven Autocar for its permanent transportation display.
Always oriented towards the mechanic, the Autocar engineers designed bushings throughout the chassis to assist in reducing the cost of maintenance by confining wear to the small and relatively inexpensive renewable parts. Because of the dependability that brought, Autocars were popular for long and hard use. Sunoco used them to haul gas; the Ardmore and Philadelphia fire departments used the trucks with the Autocar plate. Even local department stores such as Strawbridges and Wannamakers used them for delivery vehicles.
Beyond the vehicles, the five-story factory was the manufacturing center of the community. As the township’s largest employer, it was an important political as well as social presence. The industry did not create untold wealth for its leaders as the railroad had. The railroad had tycoons who sought ways to spend money and demonstrate their success through stunningly expensive houses and hobbies. Autocar was much more of a middle class and working class company. It was never so large it would “own” a city, never mind a state, as the railroads did. But it did become apart of people’s lives.
During World War Two, then president of the company, Robert Page, converted the factory to support the war effort. They built 12,106 half tracks – trucks with the rear wheels replaced by treads, 27,834 motor transport vehicles and 3,019 vehicles for the Navy. In a letter to them, General Dwight Eisenhower, then Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Europe, proved the old saying that when it comes to war, amateurs discuss strategy, but professionals worry about logistics. He said, “It was the job of motor transport to deliver the goods, and American wheels and axles never let us down.”
Ed Minshall has been a part of Autocar since his birth. He grew up in Lower Merion and, after graduating from Lower Merion High School, worked at the Yellow Cab Company. He was replaced in that job by returning veterans, but that experience taught him that he wanted to do something mechanical. So he followed his father, also an Ed, into the company. His dad was the service manager for the manufacturing division – a senior position – and Ed’s arrival continued what had become a family tradition. Ed’s father worked there from 1918 until his retirement in 1953. More importantly, he met his wife there. She was Elsie Trunk and had been a secretary in the front offices since 1922, after graduating as valedictorian from Haverford High School in 1921. After courting for a year, Ed and Elsie married in 1925, at which time she became a homemaker. It was customary then for a working woman to give up her employment upon marriage. Elsie’s brother Fred worked there from 1917 until retiring in 1962. His son, Fred Jr. also worked there from 1947 until 1953, and Ed’s brother was an employee from 1949 until 1951.
Minshall tells of the fire which damaged much of the factory in 1954. “I was at my grandmother’s house and saw a big pillar of black smoke. I worked my way towards the fire,” he says. Already there were Merion Fire Company fire fighters – ironically, in their Autocar fire trucks, fighting the blaze. reenwood and Philadelphia firefighters assisted in bringing the blaze under control. According to Minshall the deluge gun of the Philadelphia fire department – mounted on an Autocar truck – was critical in putting out the blaze. “Ardmore was very lucky that day not to havebeen destroyed by the fire,” says Minshall. “There was no wind at all or Ardmore might have burned down,” he says.
Many employees of the company still reside in the area, although the company was bought by White Trucks years ago and no longer bears its own name. For those who worked there, the company lives on in their hearts. Former employees still meet; some collect and restore vehicles. Autocars are always popular at antique truck shows, and Ed Minshall is very involved making certain that the Autocar keeps its place in history. The manner in which Autocar trucks were built helps with the restoration. “Everything that can be bolted, rather than riveted, is, so there aren’t many parts you can’t take off to replace or fix,” he says. “When you bought an Autocar it was built to last, and was made very repairable.”