Buffalo Auto Industry


WNY Has Helped Fuel Auto Industry Growth
By Dale English
Pub. on Business First, Nov 29, 1999

The automotive industry has played a major role in the area's economy since the earliest horseless carriages hit the roads in the late 1800s, but somehow the region never became another Detroit.

To some extent, the high quality and cost of some of the vehicles, notably the Thomas Flyer and Pierce-Arrow, was just too good at a time when competitors were mass-producing vehicles attractive to many price ranges.

"They were just too good; the quality was just too high," said James Sandoro, an antique car maven and owner of Buffalo Motor Car, which restores older vehicles, and founder of the Buffalo Transportation Museum set to open next spring.

Another Detroit?

"Buffalo could have been Detroit," Sandoro said of Buffalo's automotive past. "Henry Ford came here in the early 1900s for an auto show. Ford wanted to build a major assembly plant here, but the city fathers didn't want to give him any incentives, so he went elsewhere."

Elsewhere was Detroit, where Ford built what was to be the company's main plant at River Rouge. Originally from nearby Dearborn, Ford had gone to Detroit in 1879 as a machinist's apprentice and went on to become a mechanical engineer there before building his first automobile in 1903.

"Buffalo was a major business center. It had power, water, skilled craftsmen and a major rail yard. Canada was nearby and you could get to Europe through the Great Lakes. And, we had good roads early on," Sandoro says.

Despite that supposed setback, Ford has been a major player in Buffalo's automotive past, as well as its present -- first with its assembly plants and later with the huge stamping plant in Woodlawn.

Early history

According to the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, the horseless carriage first made an appearance in Buffalo around 1895.

"By 1902 there were 465 electric, steam and gasoline-powered vehicles in the city, passing horses and bicycles at the state speed limit of 8-15 mph on a "paradise of smooth streets."  Many of these automobiles were designed and built right here in the Buffalo area. Between 1895 and 1950, more than 30 makes were produced here, most early in the century," according to Historical Society officials.

Many were underfinanced, produced only a few vehicles, and went bankrupt within a few years. Others, in keeping with counterparts throughout the country, were unable to compete with the low-cost Model "T" introduced by Ford in 1908 and the assembly line technology with interchangeable parts Ford pioneered in 1913.

Those early vehicles made in Western New York carried such names as the Kensington, Babcock, Conrad, Willet Motor Trucks, Lippard-Stewart, Atterbury, and Parenti.

According to Historical Society material, some companies such as the Kensington Automobile Manufacturing Co. (1899-1904) started as bicycle manufacturers.

Kensington also made steam and gasoline models and boasted that its "Tonneau" version could go 150 miles on about eight quarts of gasoline at speeds up to 30 mph.

The 1903 Conrad touring car, produced on Niagara Street, listed at $1,250, and featured a 12-horsepower double cylinder engine in front, with three forward and one reverse gear, and "wheel steering."

The Thomas Flyer

One of the more successful early cars that achieved fame was the Thomas Flyer, produced from 1900 to 1913 on the site of the present Rich Products Corp. at 1200 Niagara St.

In 1908, a Model 35 Thomas Flyer traveled 13,341 miles in 170 days to win the New York to Paris auto race. The race started in Times Square and ran east to west, with the vehicles shipped by boat to Asia after motoring to the Pacific coast. Crossing Siberia, the cars had to use the Trans-Siberian Railway, but could only travel when trains weren't expected.

The Pierce-Arrow

The Pierce-Arrow was more successful -- for a while. It was produced from 1901 to 1938 in a huge plant that still stands at Elmwood and Great Arrow in North Buffalo. During its heyday, more than 10,000 people were employed there in what was reputed to be the largest auto plant in the world at the time.

"They started with iceboxes and bird cages," Sandoro said, before George Pierce built his first car, the "Motorette" in 1901. That vehicle, and other Pierce-Arrows, routinely won long endurance automobile races long before paved roads were the standard.

In 1913, President Taft bought a Pierce-Arrow -- the Historical Society has a letter from him to a Pierce-Arrow executive discussing the vehicle -- and in 1930 the company made headlines by producing a $20,000 vehicle for the Shah of Persia.

By the 1920s competition from other luxury models began to hurt, but Pierce-Arrow executives acted as if there was no significant competition. Since it built only luxury cars, mass assembly methods and diversification did not appeal to company executives. Studebaker bought the company in 1928 and in 1933 a management team bought Studebaker. With the new owners, Pierce-Arrow changed its market strategies and cut prices, but it was too late. In 1938, while the country was still wallowing in the Great Depression, Federal Judge John Knight ordered the company liquidated.

Ford's presence

By that time, however, other manufacturers were building cars in Buffalo. Even though Henry Ford built his main production facilities near Detroit, he had been assembling Fords in Buffalo since 1910 and had a major facility near Main and Rodney in Buffalo.

In 1938, Ford opened a much larger assembly plant on Fuhrmann Boulevard and its pre-Skyway intersection with Ohio Street. It had the advantage of being right on the water so lake freighters could load and unload parts and product easily.

That plant produced an estimated 2 million Fords in the next 20 years before ending production in 1958. The building is now owned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. Ford opened its Lackawanna stamping plant in 1950.

General Motors

General Motors has been a Buffalo automotive player since at least 1923. On Aug. 13 that year GM began assembling Chevrolets in what is now the American Axle plant on East Delavan Avenue.

GM continued producing Chevrolets there until July 31, 1941, when, with America's entry into World War II looming, assembly stopped and the plant was converted to defense production.

In 1946, the plant was converted back to automotive production, this time as a manufacturer of rear axles under GM's Saginaw Division. The operation was spun off to American Axle several years ago.

GM's Town of Tonawanda operation, now the Powertrain Group, has been producing automotive engines and other components under various designations since 1938.

GM's presence also extended to Lockport until recently when its former Delphi Harrison Thermal Systems was spun off to Delphi Automotive Systems. A manufacturer of radiators and other heat exchangers, including auto air-conditioning components, it has been around since 1910, when Herbert Harrison made his first automotive radiator from a small shop in Lockport.

Dunlop and Trico

Two other major players have long had a strong presence in Buffalo's automotive industry -- Trico Products Inc., and Dunlop Tire and Rubber in Tonawanda.

Dunlop had its beginnings in England in 1888 when John Boyd Dunlop, seeking a smoother ride than provided by the hard rubber tires on his son's bicycle, invented the pneumatic tire.

By the time Dunlop came to Buffalo in 1923, he was already manufacturing pneumatic tires in Europe and Asia.

The company continues to produce original equipment and aftermarket tires for the automotive and motorcycle industries from the site of its first plant at Sheridan Drive and River Road in Tonawanda. The company has undergone several ownership changes and is now controlled by Sumitomo Rubber Industries of Japan.

Trico had its start in 1917, a year after its founder, John Oishei, invented the first hand-operated windshield wiper after he struck a pedestrian on Delaware Avenue during a rainstorm with his wiper-less car.

The device was an instant hit and the Oishei Family began manufacturing wipers here and in England and Australia. The present name, Trico, is a contraction of its original title, Tri-Continental.

Now a mere skeleton of its former self in Buffalo, as late as 1985 Trico employed 2,200 workers in three plants here. Within a year after the death of Oishei's son, R. John Oshei in 1990, the Buffalo presence had eroded to one plant and employment was down to 853 here, with most of the work transferred to the Texas-Mexican border.

The Playboy

Then there was the Playboy, the last automotive venture started in Buffalo. The Playboy bowed in in 1948 as an inexpensive two-door convertible intended to be a family's second vehicle.

Production was started in the former Chevrolet Plant No. 1 on Kenmore Avenue by the Playboy Motor Car Corp. amid plans to build 100,000 cars a year and expand the line to include a station wagon and two sedans. Only 97 were ever produced before the company was forced into bankruptcy.

The company had been torpedoed by an inability to raise capital through stock sales or local bank loans. A year earlier a non-Buffalo enterprise had been accused of bilking investors out of money for a dream car called the Tucker, and brokers were afraid to touch any offering by another start-up automobile venture.

And, as Norm Richardson, a Playboy founder, put it many years later: "The Buffalo fathers weren't ready for us. There were too many fuddy-duddies in this town."

Perhaps that was Henry Ford's experience, too.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2017
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