According to the “Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1805-1942” printed by Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., North Carolina was home to 13 of the 2,000 carmakers that have come and gone since the American automobile industry began in 1896. South Carolina can claim 12. Some cars were manufactured in limited numbers, but many of the companies were “paper” corporations only.
Charlotte’s only claim to automobile production for the masses was the Wizard Junior, a two-passenger roadster that weighed a mere 800 pounds and topped out at 35 mph — a respectable speed during the car’s brief life from 1920-‘21. The Wizard Automobile Co. was made up of F.W. Edwardy Jr. and Sr. and Charles Hamel, president of the Cyclomobile Co. of Toledo, Ohio.
Unfortunately, once a factory was built on the southwest side of town to produce the Junior and promised Senior, it was discovered that the Wizard’s promoters were more adept at selling stock than selling cars and the company’s building was sold for $105,000 to the Automatic Step Co. which made safety steps for railroad cars. History tells us that the site later became home to the Morris Livestock Co. Records indicate that two Junior models might have been produced, most likely to attract more stockholders.
Asheville had a brief bout with carmaking in the `teens. The Grove Park Motor Car Co. was founded in 1912 with $20,000 of capital stock by E.W. Grove of St. Louis, Mo., and W.F. Randolph and John S. Adams of Asheville, but historians doubt any vehicles were manufactured.
The Asheville Light Car Co. produced a spartan two-seater that would technically be called a “cyclecar” in 1914. Weighing just 450 pounds, the Asheville was likely too flimsy for anything but driving on the city’s few paved roads. It sported an air-cooled Indian motorcycle engine and a 94-inch wheelbase. Its long hood gave the impression of a larger, more potent powerplant.
Greensboro probably had the most realistic chance of becoming the South’s answer to Detroit, giving birth to three separate car-building enterprises.
In 1911, the Greensboro Motor Car Co. was founded with $25,000 in capital stock by H.M. Chamblee, W.M. Fowler and W.J. Sherrod. Records do not indicate if any cars were actually built. In 1920, an arrangement was struck with the American Motors Corp. of Plainfield, N.J., to build its American Balanced Six in Greensboro under the name American Southern Motors. Soon into this arrangement, however, a local banker, R.G. Vaughn persuaded the company to build an expensive car to be named after himself. In September 1921, the Vaughn was introduced at the Made in Carolinas Exposition. It must have made quite a splash with its V-12 engine, 127-inch wheelbase and $3,995 sticker. It weighed 4,950 pounds and was said to have managed 14 miles per gallon at a respectable speed of 31.5 mph over a 3,000-mile test run. Unfortunately, the car never saw production. Two months after its introduction, the manufacturer became the Irving Automobile Co. and finally went out of business in 1923, having produced only a prototype or two.
Winston-Salem might be known today for cigarettes and automobiles had H.E. Motors, Inc. – organized in 1927 with $50,000 of capital stock – managed to produce any models. It did not.
Henderson had the most successful of the North Carolina car companies in the form of the Corbitt Automobile Co. Richard J. Corbitt, an Enfield native who relocated to Henderson in the 1890s, had dreams of making his fortune with tobacco before getting squeezed out of the market by the tobacco trusts. His Corbitt Buggy Co. was profitable from the start and in 1907 Corbitt turned out his first self-named automobile, a very spartan high-wheeler that gained fenders in 1908 and acetylene lights in 1909. The following year began a campaign to distribute nationally and Corbitt diversified his business to include more types of cars, including truck chassis. The commercial vehicle market was so rewarding for the company that pleasure car production ceased to concentrate on trucks. Twenty-three countries were using Corbitt trucks by 1916 and the first school buses in North Carolina were Corbitts.
Success stayed with the Henderson-based company until the mid-’50s when Corbitt retired and sold his interest.
Other North Carolina towns with claims to automobile production include Durham (the self-named 1909 Durham roadster), Fayetteville (the 1921 Armond), Maxton (the self-named 1913 Maxton), Monroe (the 1908 Piedmont) and New Bern (the 1900-’03 Waters, a surviving example of which is on display at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh).
South Carolina, which is known today as the home of BMW’s Z3 roadster and M Coupe, had its share of automotive dreamers and schemers in the early years.
Greenville had three car company hopefuls at various times. S.W. Reams, president of the Mountain City Machine Works, announced his intention to build runabouts under the Mountain City nameplate. Despite help from George Ledbetter, an associate described as having “experience in the automobile business in the North,” it is likely that the proposed 30-hp car never saw production.
Greenville became a temporary home to the gypsy-like Victor Motor Car Co. in 1914, a business started a year earlier in Philadelphia by C.V. Stahl. The Victor was a light two-seater boasting 16.9 horsepower and a three-speed transmission. South Carolina Victor production was minimal if any cars were built at all. The Victor was relocated to Wilmington, Del., and then Jenkintown, Pa., before coming to a stop in York, Pa., in 1917.
The Cyclone Motors Corp. was established in 1920, with production running from 1921-‘22. No cars were produced under the Cyclone name as originally intended, but a fleet of W.B.C. (meaning Well Built Cab) vehicles was sold to the Black and White Cab Co. of New York. The W.B.C. was essentially a Ford chassis extended 15 inches with custom bodywork and a claimed 2-cent-per-mile operating cost. Money troubles killed any momentum Cyclone might have gained from the fleet order and its president, C.G. Eidson, announced the company was going into receivership shortly thereafter.
Rock Hill had three car companies in the early part of the century, but only one could be considered a true manufacturer.
The McFadden Auto Co. was started with a capital stock of $3,500 by V.B. and D.B. McFadden but nothing indicates any cars were produced. John Gary Anderson was the owner of his family’s Rock Hill Buggy Co. when he decided to buy unfinished cars from a company in Norwalk and sell them with Rock Hill badging — a practice that was not uncommon or unethical in those days. His car listed for $1,600 and was available with a 56- or 60-inch track, the latter being good for rural areas where tractors and wagons formed most roads. The Norwalk vehicle did not work out for Anderson, who went on to establish the Rock Hill Body Co. in 1913 and the city’s third — and most successful — car company in 1916.
The Anderson automobile, advertised as “A Little Bit Higher in Price, but Made in Dixie!,” enjoyed a 10-year run, turning out a variety of high-quality models from its inception until 1925. Andersons were offered with well-built coachwork and a large array of color options. The company stayed afloat during the lean years surrounding World War I by getting government contracts. By 1920, Anderson was at its financial peak, turning out nearly 1,200 cars, but competition from the big manufacturers caused the company to take too many risks and it suffered from its large variety of combinations and experimental engine technology. In 1924 a factory fire shut down production until repairs could be made. In 1925, the company could no longer stay afloat and shut its doors.
Other South Carolina towns with automotive dreams include Aiken (with the one-off 1909 Hoffman), Chester (the 1910 Hough), Clemson (the 1902 Barnes), Columbia (the mysterious 1901 South Carolina) and Spartanburg (the tiny 1939 Long).
In hindsight, it’s obvious that Henry Ford was destined to turn Detroit, Mich., into the car capital of the world, leaving the Carolinas free to specialize in tobacco and textiles. The Food Lion AutoFair’s “America’s Cars of the Century” display features a wide range of vehicles — from one of Ford’s Model Ts to the awe-inspiring Dodge Viper V-10.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $8 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.