Cartercar’s Quirky Advertising
Written by Matthew Hocker
A Brief Introduction to Cartercar:
Named after its creator, Byron J. Carter, the Cartercar made its debut in Jackson, MI in 1905 (production eventually shifted to Detroit and, finally, Pontiac). Back then, most cars used geared transmissions, which a 1912 Cartercar brochure described as an “everlasting thorn in the side of the man who has been unfortunate enough to select a gear car.” The Cartercar’s transmission was simpler in construction and allowed the engine to run at a continual speed. Drivers adjusted the speed of the car using a lever working in tandem with the drive wheel. Moving the lever toward the outer edge of the wheel increased the speed of the vehicle, while moving it toward the center slowed it down.
The Cartercar earned widespread praise for its ease of use and efficiency. In August 1909, MoToR declared it to be “…considered by many drivers as ideal.” General Motors’ Billy Durant took note and purchased Cartercar in 1909; he was buying potentially promising companies left and right in an effort to build an automotive empire. An aggressive advertising campaign wasn’t too far behind…
Publicity Stunts Abound:
“Steep hills don’t bother a Cartercar driver,” read one 1910 ad. Cartercar frequently claimed its cars were capable of tackling a 50% grade, even with a full load. In a 1913 catalog, a testimonial from T.H. Midgeley of Kalamazoo claimed he witnessed another driver having trouble making its way up a steep hill. Midgeley used his Cartercar to haul the other car up the incline.
The Cartercar’s prowess for climbing was often demonstrated at county fairs, in which makeshift wooden inclines were set up for all to see. Another common tactic was to drive the cars up staircases. A Mr. Hall of Cleveland, OH drove his Cartercar up and down the stairs of a railroad depot, and another Cartercar conquered the steps of Minnesota’s state capitol. Such stunts were well-publicized and all in an effort to sell the public on Cartercar’s friction transmission.
Load it Up!:
The company was also keen on demonstrating how Cartercars were capable of carrying heavy loads. An illustration from the circa 1910 catalog showed Cartercar’s Detroit Branch Manager George Reason towing a massive steam traction engine. In his testimonial, T.H. Midgeley also mentioned using his Cartercar to haul such a vehicle. Such a sight on the road would have drawn considerable attention.
Other imagery included Cartercars overflowing with people. In Des Moines, 18 men and boys piled into a Model H and drove it up a 25% grade. During the 1908 election campaign, “14 Husky Hoosiers loaded themselves onto a Cartercar and paraded 6 miles at the Indianapolis Fairgrounds” upon learning of John W. Kern’s nomination as William Jennings Bryan’s vice-presidential running mate. Incidentally, Bryan would also find himself featured in Cartercar advertising; a 1912 brochure included a picture of the politician behind the wheel of his own Cartercar.
The Circus Comes to Cartercar:
Some Cartercar publicity stunts would have done well in the circus. One of these was a “fight” with Auto Ajax, a strongman entertainment sensation of the early 1900s. Ajax’s routine consisted of tethering one arm to a fixed pole and the other to an automobile, and then attempting to hold the running vehicle under ordinary power for 60 seconds. Ajax had always come out on top, that is, until Buffalo Cartercar agent Louis Engle Jr. challenged Ajax to a duel with a Cartercar in 1909. According to Motor Field, Ajax stated “The only time in my career as a professional that I ever met with defeat was at Luna Park, pulling against a 24 H.P. Cartercar. This car gave me a tough pull.”
In the realm of acrobatics, Saginaw, Michigan, Cartercar distributor Edwin Densil Doan often performed a balancing act with Cartercars. Doan was a former Oldsmobile stunt driver and circus performer. When the circus came to town in 1908, Doan advertised the Cartercar in a parade by balancing atop a wire above the moving vehicle. He performed the same feat during a Glidden Tour parade, in which he maintained his balance over a distance of more than 10 miles.
Cartercar also paid the performing little couple of Count Magri and Mrs. General Tom Thumb (Lavinia Warren) to be photographed with the car. At 2 ½ ft tall, they were among the smallest circus performers. Warren and her first husband, Charles Stratton (AKA: General Tom Thumb) famously performed with P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus. While not politically correct by today’s standards, their appearance in the circa 1910 catalog was to illustrate how easy it was to operate a Cartercar. Other ads claimed the cars were so easy to use that a child could drive one.
The Fate of Cartercar:
Despite the quirky advertising, Cartercar sales under General Motors never quite lived up to expectations. To top things off, before the GM buyout, Byron J. Carter died of pneumonia in 1908 (the result of an accident while attempting to start a car*). Therefore, the car’s creator had no say in its development or advertising. Production ceased in 1915, and GM announced the Cartercar factory was being repurposed for the manufacture of Northway’s light six engine used in GM’s Oakland brand.
Interested in learning more about quirky automotive advertising campaigns like that of Cartercar? Be sure to visit the AACA Library & Research Center or give us a call. In addition to an arsenal of over 6,500 reference books, our holdings include over 60,000 periodicals and a diverse collection of sales literature, photographs, manuals and more, spanning three centuries and six continents. Here at the library, you never know what you might find!
*The crank kicked back and hit him in the jaw. While recovering, he developed pneumonia, which ultimately proved fatal. Carter was a personal friend of Cadillac founder Henry Leland, and his unfortunate death prompted LeLand to urge Charles Kettering to further develop the electric starter (then used in NCR cash registers) for the automobile. The automobile electric starter motor was first used in 1912 on the Cadillac and the Cartercar as standard equipment.