More Than A Hood Ornament
Written by Francis G. Clax Motometer Collection
Almost all antique automobile enthusiasts and owners are familiar with the lollipop-shaped gauges that sat atop nearly every automobile during the Roaring Twenties that categorically were known as motometers. The singularly most famous of these was the Boyce Moto-Meter brand that came to define this accessory product category. Motometers, introduced in 1914, have a greater backstory than many may know. Coincident with the extensive Francis G. Clax Motometer Collection on exhibit in the lobby of the AACA Library and Research Center in Hershey, this article is intended to fill in some of the historical blanks.
At the end of the first decade of the 20th century, automobiles powered with internal combustion engines began to come of age, and became more prevalent and affordable to the general public. Up to the early teens, electric motors and steam engines powered the majority of automobiles and as such did not need heat indicators. Taking particular notice that internal combustion engines all too frequently fell prey to damage from overheating was a young professional engineer and veteran automobile accessory inventor Harrison Hurlbert Boyce, who took it upon himself to figure out a means to inform a motorist of improper engine temperatures.
Boyce, already a noted quantity in the automotive industry for patenting the Hartford Shock, Sireno Horn and Demountable Rim, concluded that the most logical and proven temperature-indicating instrument of the time — the thermometer — could be leveraged to work with an automobile provided he could devise the means to successfully attach it to an automobile. By the summer of 1912, Boyce was sufficiently confident in his invention that he and amateur hillclimb auto racer, George Henry Townsend II, began talks to bring the invention to market as a viable product. The two negotiated and signed an agreement stating that Townsend would be given the right to manufacture, market, sell, and distribute Boyce’s invention in exchange for $5,000, with $300 paid upon signing along with a royalty at the rate of ten percent of the net selling price of each unit sold, plus a minimum royalty of $50 per month. Boyce was required to successfully obtain a patent for the full working version of the invention and Townsend had to establish a company to perform the necessary functions to bring the product to market and begin manufacturing within 90 days of official patent registration notice.
Incredibly confident, on October 18, 1912, Boyce officially filed for patent of his “Casing for Automobile Radiator Indicators,” the first stage in intellectually and legally protecting his ultimate invention. On October 22, 1912, Townsend filed for New York State incorporation of the Motometer Company, listing his $5,000 investment as start-up capital. In December 1912, Boyce and Townsend exhibited Boyce’s prototype heat indicator at the New York Auto Show to drum up interest and sales. On January 3, 1913, Boyce filed for a patent on an “Indicating System and Apparatus for Internal-Combustion Engines,” receiving his official patent registration (Number 1,090,776) on March 17, 1913 (see above). The clock was ticking against Townsend as he then had a maximum of 90 days to get this product to market.
Having no factory or labor/work force of his own, Townsend turned to the country’s leading thermometer instrument construction company, Taylor Instruments of Rochester, New York, to expertly supply the appropriately scaled-down thermometer instruments, skilled workforce, and facilities to assemble these innovative motor heat indicators. Within 60 days Taylor was able to churn out the initial commercial batches.
While Taylor manufactured and supplied the thermometer instruments and assembly labor, the specially formulated zinc alloy metal casings were manufactured by Doehler Die Casting, which had factories in Newark, New Jersey, and Batavia, New York, and the glass crystals were made by Corning in New York.
The early Boyce Moto-Meters bear the “Made by Taylor Instrument Companies” engraving along the lower edge of the glass retaining bezel. Reportedly, only 6,000-10,000 of these were made, with surprisingly few known to exist.
By early 1916, Motometer and Taylor parted ways as Harrison Boyce, in particular, grew tired of the pay-on-delivery terms mandated, which he saw as Taylor not having faith in his product’s sales viability and imposing an undue financial burden upon the fledgling Motometer Company. Boyce urged Townsend to find sufficient investment capital to facilitate in-house device production and assembly. Whereupon Townsend turned to Yale University classmate, roommate and successful attorney Paul Lansing Veeder, who invested $50,000 in his friend’s company. Veeder’s investment capital assisted in the purchasing of a new factory facility located at 15 Wilbur Avenue, Long Island City, New York; acquiring necessary assembly and basic finishing equipment; and hiring a workforce to build the devices.
With the help of race car driver Caleb Bragg, another Townsend Yale University classmate and friend, Motometer was able to secure a contract to supply Boyce Moto-Meters as “standard installed equipment” on Mercers, as Bragg was a member of their factoryrace team and had provided the race-endurance testing of the device during its development stages.
With Mercer contractually on board in 1914 to install Boyce Moto-Meters to its 1915 models, and racing fans having either witnessed or heard of the Boyce Moto-Meters’ success onboard the 1914 Indianapolis 500-mile Sweepstakes race-winning car of Renee Thomas (along with the next four finishers — see above), the general public and the auto industry began to take notice. Auto manufacturers Haynes, Stutz, Simplex, and Packard stepped up next with some 100-plus others to ultimately follow.
General motoring public sales of the Boyce Moto-Meters were spurred along by innovative Motometer customer service product quality guarantees and promotional programs, such as the “Free Dial Offer,” which allowed buyers to personalize their own meters, and an extensive national print advertising campaign offering free literature.
By 1919, the Boyce Moto-Meter had become the de facto motometer of choice, desirability, and use by major championship-winning racers, automakers, and the general public. Sales boomed to a million units, requiring three factories to run around the clock to keep pace with demand. Motometer also established foreign subsidiaries to produce the product in Australia, Canada, England, France and Germany.
Throughout the years, the “Moto Meter Company” (its new name iteration) would make many changes to the design and components of their key product line. In 1916 the company added the Midget and Ford Special models to the Standard (sometimes called a Senior) and Junior, and in 1918 the non-thermometer Distance Types for airplanes and motorboats were commercially available. The following year brought the introduction of the large and substantial DeLuxe and the Truck and Tractor types. In 1922 the Universal type was made available for affordable use across the wide variety of automobiles with various engine displacements.
The Motometer company, much like Apple today, made small customer-appealing product changes that served to increase desirability and sales. In June 1926 they reported total sales of eight million units, quickly increasing to 10 million the next month.
During the mid 1920s, with the U.S. economy on the rebound and more women choosing to own automobiles, the appearance of some motometers became more decorative and elaborate to appeal to these new potential customers. Boyce Moto-Meters could be had with decorative laurel wreath motif bezels and screw sets. Limited-edition manufacturers like ANCO (replacement windshield wiper blades) offered the MOTOTECTOR with its ornamental archetype design, and Albert Sohm marketed the stunning butterfly Auto CON-DEN-SO meter — two of the most beautiful and technologically sophisticated ones ever built.
Between automobile engine design changes, the impending Great Depression and decreasing automobile sales, radiator-mounted motometer sales began to decline. The advent of better motor-driven water pumps (versus the old thermo syphon engine-cooling method) improved coolant flow within the engine and facilitated the trend toward cowl, steering column or in-dashboard instrument mounting. Despite urban legend, the Moto Meter Company actually led the transition from radiator filler tube to in-dashboard installation.
As early as 1916, Harrison Boyce had patented a remote sensor Temperature Indicating System and Apparatus for Internal-Combustion Engines” later marketed as the Distance Type for use in dashboards (see patent number 1,206,783). In a recent and interesting conversation with Boyce’s grandson, he told us that he recalled having viewed old company meeting minutes revealing that early on Boyce was quite opposed to marketing non-radiator mounted devices. In 1925-28, Distance indicators were finally more prominently marketed.
In any event the Motometer/Moto-Meter/Moto Meter/Moto Meter Gauge and Equipment Co., irrespective of name spelling, did not occupy the automobile temperature-indicating accessory market alone, though it did dominate it. Companies like Bushnell, Faith, Heat-Ometer, Jarvis, Stewart-Warner, and Wilmot Breeden made valiant attempts to gain market share, though not enough to truly compete with the Boyce. Some of these companies were sued for patent or market infringement with injunctions requiring them to pull their products from the market or pursue meaningful re-design.
By 1934, radiator-mounted engine temperature indicators had fallen out of favor. After the war, however, hot rod builders resurrected them for a retro stylish look or homage on their sporty custom- built cars. During the early to mid-1960s, visionary automobilia preservationists began collecting them, and today there’s a noticeable resurgence in collecting interest.
No serious discussion of motometer history can omit or underplay the role of the Boyce Moto-Meter. The Francis G. Clax Motometer Collection artfully displayed at the AACA Library & Research Center until April 1, 2016, successfully tracks, documents, and encompasses the comprehensive history of motometers manufactured throughout their heyday in the most vivid manner possible. Examples include the earliest known survivors to those throughout the market life cycle, including a great many from around the world. The exhibit includes other rare artifacts referenced within this article and then some. The collection brings new life to this important, yet long overlooked, subject.
Motometers were so much more than hood ornaments as they actually served a purpose beyond aesthetics or symbolism. At one point Boyce Moto-Meters were U. S. Court-declared the most necessary instrument on an automobile. Collecting them is a great hobby, which harkens to the development of the automobile and its many defunct marques. It is also educational, entertaining, interesting, fun and a fascinating topic. It is a pleasure to share this collection with the public.
To learn more about the current exhibition, motometers in general and specific, or to simply see more of this amazing collection beyond visiting it in-person, visit motometercentral.com.
— Francis G. Clax