Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Yes! They built them here: Rolls Royce manufacturing in Springfield, Massachusetts

Logo on a Springfield Rolls


Had you just returned from The Great War, say around 1919 or so, you would have noticed that the Wilson Administration’s haphazard efforts to rev up the economy to absorb the many doughboys being mustered out were having a negligible effect.  The economic first fruits of what eventually would be called “The Roaring 20s” were still far from ripe, and the sons of America’s great burgeoning middle class were coming home from Europe to marry their sweethearts and to have kids.

The members of their parents’ generation, born in the late 1870s and early 1880s, who may have served in the Spanish-American War, who suffered economic deprivation in the depression years of the “Gay ‘90s,” and who marveled at the American “Can Do” spirit that constructed the Panama Canal, did well during The Great War.  A great many companies, formed during the darker economic days of the late 19th Century, expanded and profited in the early 20th Century.  They were buoyed by the groundswell of trust-busting and prosperity that characterized the “Oughts” and the “Teens.”

The doughboys returned to jobs as farmers, factory workers, clerks, salesmen, and accountants. Some had money in their pockets…but all were suffering from two to three years of pent-up demand.  One savvy engineer in Detroit, a chap named Henry Ford, figured out how to meet that demand.  He devised a way to produce a four wheeled, self-propelled vehicle called a Model T, on a scale so efficient that the end product — a transportation appliance, if you will — started out being sold in 1907 at $850, but could be sold in the early 1920s for the princely sum of $290.
But if you were a member of the elder generation and fortunate enough to be of the ownership class, you were prepared to spend a great deal more on an automobile.  You could afford the best…and you knew that the name of “the best” started with a “P.”   You would choose either a Packard from Detroit, or a Peerless from Cleveland, or a Pierce Arrow from Buffalo.  These were cars of the highest quality in both their design and their construction.  Typically they cost somewhere between five and seven thousand dollars, depending upon the configuration of the car you ordered from the manufacturer.

But, if you were among the truly elect, let’s say from the class of American wealth who’d built the cottages of the Berkshires or Newport, those whose net worth was the envy of the world, you didn’t buy an automobile that started with the letter “P.”  Between 1921 and 1931, you could buy an American automobile with a double name, both of which began with an “R,” because Yes! They built them here.

Act One:  Satan’s Kingdom, November 1977

I have always had a passion for walking in the woods.  Not hunting, not fishing, not camping — simply walking.  I become lost in my thoughts or I spend time noticing little details of what’s bloomed along the path I’m following.  I find it soothing, as if trees themselves are absorbing whatever’s troubling me at the moment.  I always come out of the woods feeling at peace.

It was on a Sunday afternoon during November 1977 that I was on just such a walk in the woods neighboring the Farmington River in New Hartford, Connecticut, the eastern-most town in Litchfield County.  I was passing through conservation land in a section of town known as “Satan’s Kingdom.”  I don’t know the derivation of the name;  but if you were to stop at the post office in New Hartford to ask for “Satan’s Kingdom,” they’d direct you eastward through the hamlet of Pine Meadow, past the old Waring Blender factory, about a mile or two from the Canton town line.

It was a gray afternoon; pure November.  The sky was pewter, the leaves had fallen from the trees and blanketed the floor of the forest, and a myriad of gray trunks lined the rutted dirt road I was walking along.  The breeze had a nip in it and would carry a leaf or two in a swirl around my head.  But I was too busy to notice, choosing instead to mind my footfalls, making sure I wouldn’t trip on the frozen jeep tracks that had hardened in the road, leftovers from a late October rain.

There were no birds to sing in the treetops; they were long gone.  All you could hear was the rattling of oak leaves clinging to the branches that were buffeted by the wind and the babble of the Farmington River as it hurried on its way to the mighty Connecticut.

But hold on!  There was a hum down the road a piece.  Not very loud, mind you, but down around the bend, out of sight.  Sure enough, I saw what it was as I passed over a small rise in the road.  Down the gentle slope, coming slowly around the bend, I could see through the woods some kind of antique automobile, picking its way through the ruts and carefully avoiding the larger of the rocks embedded in the road.

It was a deep green, open touring car with two aboard.  The driver was seated on the wrong side of the car, and his passenger, a woman of a certain age bundled up in a wool coat and scarf with her hair tucked beneath a dark beret, came slowly up the rise to meet me.  I stepped aside and waited for them to pass.

The green automobile was no less than an ancient Rolls Royce, replete with wooden spokes and skinny little tires barely broader than the wooden wheels of a horse-drawn buggy.  It was a lengthy car, with a broad-but-empty back seat.  The driver, wearing a tweed cap and jacket, tugged at his brim with a gloved hand, acknowledging my stepping aside to allow him and his vehicle to pass.  His passenger stared straight ahead, not noticing me in the slightest.

They passed me by, continuing to pick their path along the right-of-way, and passed down the gentle slope on the other side of the rise.  I stood and watched them until the road took another bend, and they disappeared from view.

Months passed.  Winter came and went.  And the following spring, while attending a vintage car meet in nearby Avon, Connecticut, what do you think I saw?  The very same car with the very same couple, lining up with all the other old cars hoping to qualify for a ribbon from the local judges.

I approached the green car, screwed up my gumption, and spoke to the couple.  It was immediately apparent that the woman who’d failed to acknowledge my presence in the woods the previous November was far from impolite.  She was blind.

Her husband was a voluble fellow, who stepped down from his automobile and entertained my questions.  “Yes,” he told me, “this most certainly is a Rolls Royce — a 1921 Silver Ghost, in fact.  But this is no ordinary Silver Ghost, don’t you know.  This one was built in Springfield, Massachusetts.”

“Springfield?”  I asked, rather puzzled.

“Oh yes!” he replied.  “They built them here.”

Act Two:  Exposition

Frederick Henry Royce was the quintessential engineer.  He possessed an analytical and exacting mind and owned an electrical manufacturing firm of some modest success.  In was in his factory in 1904 that he built his first car…which he dubbed a “Royce.”  Within a year he’d sold one to an adventurer and bon vivant by the name of Charles Stewart Rolls, who was the classic salesman — boisterous, generous, “hail-fellow-well-met.”

Though cut from two different bolts of cloth, Royce and Rolls hit it off, and in 1905, the two decided to form a company to produce automobiles utilizing Rolls’ abilities to raise capital through his considerable personal relationships and Royce’s impeccable engineering skills.

In 1905 and 1906 the newly founded company produced 40 vehicles with four cylinder engines that produced an astonishing 20 horsepower.  In the autumn of 1906, Charles Rolls, considered by some to be a marketing whiz, decided to take four cars to America to drum up interest in its rapidly growing market for high-end luxury vehicles.

Rolls was driver and an automobile enthusiast, and during that trip, he took great delight in meeting Wilbur and Orville Wright, whose adventures at Kitty Hawk just three years before had captured the world’s imagination.  The encounter turned out to have more significance, though, than Charles Rolls realized.  He was absolutely smitten with what was then termed the “aero plane,” and within four years he was dead, Britain’s first flying casualty.

But Rolls was delighted by his reception in America.  He sold his first car immediately upon arrival.  The car had barely made it out of the cargo hold before it was sold and was shipped to Texas.  The second of the four was sold in quick time to a local resident in New York, and Charles Rolls hung on to the remaining two.  One appeared at the New York Auto Show, which engendered an order for four more cars and resulted in the creation of the entity that would become the Rolls-Royce American distributor.

But it was the non-auto show vehicle that made the most news.  Charles Rolls took his car to Detroit, where he met with William C. Durant, the general manager of Buick and Ransom E. Olds, the owner of Oldsmobile.  Durant had built a grueling test track for new automobiles.  Not a single car of the era could round the track for more than three hours before breaking down — not a Buick, not an Oldsmobile, not a Ford, not a Cadillac, not even a Stoddard-Dayton, which had been designed from 1906 to be America’s finest example of automotive engineering.  Durant suggested that Rolls try his luck.

The Silver Ghost not only broke the three hour mark; it went on to complete a full 24 hours before it motored away.  The news was electrifying.

The annual American sales of Silver Ghosts went from four in 1906 to 100 in 1913.  But the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 meant there were no more Rolls-Royce chassis to be had.  Instead, owners elected to rebody their pre-war cars, ensuring that they would keep up with the latest fashions.  Therein lies a huge difference between buying a luxury automobile in 1913, and buying a luxury car today.

Were you to walk into a Rolls-Royce showroom in those days, be it in London or New York, you would buy nothing more than a chassis with an engine, steering column, and wheels.  No body, no seats, no accessories.  And it wasn’t cheap.  You’d be plunking down about $10,000.  The corresponding cost for a Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, or Packard was about three thousand dollars less, and you’d obtain delivery of a complete car, just like the one you saw on the showroom floor.

The custom in Europe, including Great Britain, was completely different.  You bought a chassis from a manufacturer, and you took it to a coach builder.

There were coach builders in the United States, too.  In fact, some of the more successful ones were scooped up in later years by the American manufacturers themselves.  In the 1930s, Fischer Auto Body was acquired by General Motors.  Likewise, LeBaron was purchased by Chrysler.

But at the turn of the 20th Century, there were dozens of American coach building companies, each of which was eager to build you a body for whatever frame you had purchased.  In the case of Rolls, the locations of coach makers ranged from Amesbury, Massachusetts to Cincinnati, Ohio.  The most notable of the group was the Brewster Coachworks of Long Island, New York, a company that had started building horse-drawn coaches in the mid-19th Century.

After four long and bloody years, the guns across Europe fell silent.  Though victorious, the British had suffered tremendous losses, and Britain as a nation was exhausted.

Not so in the United States.  Yes, American men died in the fighting after the country entered the war in 1917, but the percentage of the men in the ranks who were killed or wounded paled in comparison to that of the British, the French, the Belgian or the German armies.  Before entering the war, the nation had begun to flex its industrial muscle, producing a soaring economy that barely broke its stride with the advent of hostilities.  And with the Armistice in 1918, America was ready to supply an exhausted Europe both with aid and with goods.

Henry Royce, whose partner had died in a plane crash eight years earlier, recognized that the American automotive market was so large that it exceeded that rest of the world combined.  He also realized that his chassis’ reputation in America had only increased during its four year absence from the market.  Lastly, his business sense told him that the price he’d established in the United States between 1906 and 1914 would yield a far greater profit were he able to avoid paying tariffs.  The only way to do that was to begin manufacturing Rolls Royces in America.

In 1919, Royce dispatched Claude Johnson, his general manager, to New York.  His mission?  To scout out an appropriate location to establish a manufacturing plant.  Johnson before the war had advocated the creation of such a plant, even to the point of renting space in 1913 from the Brewster Coachworks at their facility on Long Island.

This time, however, Johnson had even grander ideas.  He settled on a factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, formerly home to the American Wire Wheel Company.  Springfield made great sense from a business standpoint, as the region was filled with skilled machinists and metal workers who had learned their trade in the armories and factories along the Connecticut River from Vermont to Long Island Sound.  The region, famed for producing everything from Columbia bicycles to Colt revolvers, from Royal typewriters to Winchester repeaters, was the Silicon Valley of its day.

Springfield was also equidistant between Rolls’ two largest markets:  Boston and New York City.  And the American Wire Wheel factory sat alongside a rail line, making it an ideal site for shipping chassis to coachbuilders.

In 1920, no less than Henry Royce himself, along with 50 British managers and foremen and their families, arrived in Springfield to set up the facility.  In short order, after hiring some 400 assembly workers, the factory produced its first Rolls Royce “Silver Ghost” chassis in early 1921.  The company stated firmly from the very start that the output of the Springfield factory was to be the equal of that of its Derby, England production plant. 

The first 25 rolling chassis were identical to those produced in England, in large part because they were constructed of parts manufactured and shipped from the Derby factory.  But as time went on, more and more of the content of the American-made Rolls Royces came from American sources.

By 1921, the Silver Ghost had grown in power and speed.  The engine had evolved from four to six cylinders, displacing 460 cubic inches, and making 80 horsepower.  It boasted a top speed of 70 miles per hour, the likes of which only a sports car like a Mercer Raceabout or Stutz Bearcat could attain before the war.

In 1925, the Springfield manufacturing facility made significant changes in the cars they were producing.  Unlike their British cousins, their engines now featured valve covers.  They adopted the use of drum headlights, sturdy American electrical components, and tubular bumpers.  But the most radical development was creating a car with the steering wheel on the left.  Even the mighty Rolls Royce, which had stubbornly resisted the move for four years, would finally bow to American tastes. 

Yes, many of Rolls Royce’s American customers engaged a chauffeur to maintain and drive their vehicles.  But the percentage of cars termed “self-drivers,” in which the owner him- or herself operated the automobile, was far greater than in Britain, and the figure was growing.  Having a steering wheel on the right-hand side, with a floor-mounted gearshift on the right blocking access to the driver’s seat (as was the practice in Britain), was now considered by American “self-drivers” an impediment to entry.

The year 1925 also saw two important corporate developments for Rolls Royce, one affecting their Springfield facility and the other affecting their factory in Derby.  In America, Rolls acquired the Brewster Coachbuilding Company, enabling the seven factory-owned showrooms in New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, Hartford, and Troy, New York, and the sixteen independently owned dealerships around the country, to offer a standard line of bodies ranging from roadsters to sedans to sedancas, the classic chauffeur-driven design which cosseted passengers in closed comfort while the driver sat in the open, unprotected from the elements.

In Derby, 1925 saw the introduction of the Rolls Royce “New Phantom,” a model meant to supersede the Silver Ghost, which had been in production since 1905.  It was a thorough modernization, introducing an overhead valve, in-line six cylinder engine that was capable of producing 113 horsepower, mated to a newly designed three-speed transmission, and stopped by servo-assisted four wheel brakes.

It would be two more years until the tooling would become available to have Springfield begin the manufacture of “New Phantoms.”  But when they arrived in 1927, they were greeted with great acclaim.  A Phantom could run at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour.

With the booming American economy, the Springfield plant was producing 12 automobiles a week, and the public was clamoring for more.  They were now commanding $20,000 apiece.

But 1928 saw a weakening of demand.  American manufacturers like Packard, Deusenberg, and Cadillac were producing comparably powerful and equally luxurious cars at a much lower price.  Twelve automobiles per week drooped to nine per week.

Competition in Europe was equally fierce.  Rolls Royce on the continent was being chased by Hispano-Suiza, Mercedes-Benz, Bugatti, and Isotta-Fraschini.  By 1928, the “New Phantom,” introduced just three years earlier, was being eclipsed.  To counter their competition, in early 1929 Rolls introduced an ultra-high tech and thoroughly more sophisticated model dubbed the “Phantom II.”

And then the market crashed.

The nine-per-week production rate of Springfield “New Phantoms,” now termed “Phantom I’s”, dropped to just under three a week, and before long, it went down to less than one per week.

The estimated cost of re-tooling the Springfield factory to produce the Phantom II was thought to exceed one million dollars, and the demand for cars that cost $20,000 a piece had collapsed.  It was clear that given the state of the American economy, Rolls Royce would never recover the expense.

The factory closed its doors in 1931 and was soon sold, but the company honored the last 200 orders for their cars. By 1935, these cars had their coachwork installed on Long Island and were delivered to their customers. 

Today the factory still stands, and is visible from Interstate 290, a stretch of superhighway connecting I-91 to the Massachusetts Turnpike.  It houses Tite-Flex, a division of Smiths Tubular Systems, and its red brick walls have been painted white.  Ten years ago in a freak windstorm, the Tite-Flex sign was blown off the building, revealing the distinctive Rolls Royce logo that had been painted onto the brick surface in 1921.

Act Three:  Ask the man who owns one

There were many notables who owned the cars manufactured in the Springfield Rolls Royce factory.  Former President Woodrow Wilson owned one, as did the Guggenheims and the Bloomingdales.  But arguably the most famous owner of a Springfield Rolls was a fictional character invented by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Jay Gatsby, the central figure of the novel The Great Gatsby, owned a 1922 Silver Ghost, a cream colored car that Daisy Buchanan was driving back to East Egg when she struck and killed Myrtle Wilson.

The most notable owner of a Springfield Rolls, however, was a fellow by the name of M. Allen Swift of West Hartford, Connecticut.  In 1928, Allen Swift was given a brand new Phantom Roadster by his father as a graduation gift.  Over the intervening years he put 170,000 miles on the car, driving it until October 2005, when Swift passed away at the age of 102.

When he died, Mr. Swift’s Rolls Royce, along with a donation of $1,000,000, went to the Springfield Museums, where today it stands proudly as the centerpiece of a museum display devoted to Springfield’s history as a center of automobile and motorcycle manufacturing.

M. Allen Swift, by the way, owned and operated his Springfield Rolls for more than 77 years. This is the longest amount of time any human being has ever owned and operated an automobile purchased new.

Act Four:  The Satan’s Kingdom Rolls Royce

Given Mr. Swift’s example, it appears that once you own a Springfield Rolls Royce, you become reluctant to part with it.  With the help of the current president of the Modern Car Society of the Rolls Royce Owners Club, a chap named Michael Gaetano of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, I’ve been able to track down that Silver Ghost I saw in the woods 32 years ago.

No longer green, it’s now red, but it’s still owned by the same fellow, John Parker III of North Stonington, Connecticut.  Sadly, his wife, Amy Morgan Parker, passed away in 2008 at the age of 77.  John bought his 1921 Springfield Silver Ghost in 1970, and last September he won best in class at the 44th Annual Bennington Antique and Classic Car Show.  As you’ll see from the picture I’m passing around, he's clearly proud of the fact that "Yes! They built them here."

Photo by Glenn Franco Simmons, used under Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. My father Tod Perry owned one for a while during the 1950s. Enjoyed your article. Doane Perry