Pictures of Oberlin Smith and the Ferracute Machine Company, Bridgeton NJ
Thomas A. Edison of New Jersey was interested in the notion of "horseless carriages" powered by electricity, and he invented a storage battery capable of running a buggy 100 miles. His success appealed to Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company of South Bend who wrote Edison in 1902 with the notion of collaborating on an electrically driven vehicle. This collaboration does not seem to have worked because, in 1904, the brothers came out with a new line of two cylinder gas-powered buggies. Back in New Jersey, Edison started the Lansden Company in Newark to manufacture electric trucks and wagons. Because it used only Edison batteries, the manufacturing plant would stop production at frequent intervals whenever the supply ran short at the West Orange battery plant. By the end of 1911, when Edison sold the company, Lansden had made 1,750 electric trucks.
Edison recognized the limitations of his electric battery, and when he first met despairing young Detroit automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, Edison urged Ford, who had just founded his Detroit company, to keep on with his four cylinder automobile. Ford wrote later: "No man up to that time had ever given me any encouragement."
Advertisement for a car built by the Walter Automobile Company, Trenton NJ
Since the late nineteenth century, New Jersey has taken an active role in the development of the automobile manufacturing industry in the United States. Oberlin Smith, of the Ferracute Machine Company in Bridgeton, can be credited with building a "horseless carriage" as early as 1868. Unfortunately, the steam driven carriage ran wild after the control level jolted loose on the Main Street of Bridgeton in the trial run. Smith built a second machine in 1874 and powered it with a marine steam engine. It, too, failed, crashing into the local pond.
J.F. and T.E Connelly of Elizabeth built a gasoline motor in 1889 to run a street car, but they never tried to install it in a buggy. The Duryea brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts, deserved credit for that achievement when they organized the first automobile company in America in 1895. In 1899, the Riker Electric Vehicle Company was founded in Elizabeth to manufacture electrically powered cars.
Picture of an early Lansden electric car.
Automobile manufacturers came and went, often leaving no more than a trace in an industrial directory. It has been estimated that fifty different makes of automobiles were manufactured in New Jersey alone during the first half of the twentieth century. Some pioneering firms which collapsed before the onset of World War I include Canda Manufacturing Company of Carteret, a railroad car firm which began manufacturing automobiles in 1901; Prescott Auto Manufacturing Company of Passaic, 1906; Standard Motor Construction Company of Bayonne, 1906; Rockaway Automobile Company, 1906; Walter Automobile Company, Trenton; Vandewater and Compnay, Elizabeth; Torbensen Motor Car Company, Bloomfield; and Gadabout Motor Corporation of Newark.
Three automobile manufacturers managed to stay in business until after World War I. All three produced hand-tooled cars at great expense. These include the Crane Motor Company of Bayonne, organized 1912; the Simplex Manufacturing Company, New Brunswick, 1907; and the Mcreer Automobile Company of Trenton, the most famous of the three, which lasted until 1929. The Mcreer Automobile Company was backed by the money of the wealthy Roebling and Kuser families of Trenton, and their cars went into only the best garages.
During this time, there were many subsidiary producers of automobile products and parts, as well. Many of the parts, such as seats, lamps, horns, bodies, etc., were purchased locally. Nevertheless, New Jersey and all the other states were secondary in importance to Michigan's role in the automobile industry.
In 1908, General Motors incorporated in New Jersey because of the new lax corporate tax laws affecting the west side of the Hudson River. In 1923, Alfred P. Sloon, Jr. became president of General Motors and took over the company from the original founder, W.C. Durant. Durant lost control of the firm over an unfortunate and inaccurate business error concerning an electric lamp patent which had no validity in the courts.
Durant was undaunted, however, and decided to found his own company, Durant Motors, Incorporated, in 1921. He managed to purchase at public auction the defunct Duesenberg-built assembly plant in Elizabeth to house his new automobile company. The plant had been built by Fred Duesenberg of Duesenberg Motors Corporation in 1917-1918, but was soon taken over and expanded by John N. Willys of the Willys-Overland Company. Willys had poured millions of dollars into the plant for the Chrysler Motor Company, a division of Willys, but in the end, lacked enough capital to utilize it. The Elizabeth plant was considered one of the largest and most modern assembly plants in the country.
In October of 1922, Durant announced that his Durant 4 and his new Star automobiles would be made in Elizabeth. The first Star rolled out of the plant in November 1922. By 1927, there were 1,000 workers at the plant. By the end of the decade, Durant was out of business, and the Elizabeth plant was abandoned.
Durant's complete collapse cleared the way for the ultimate role New Jersey was to play in the automobile industry - that of the final assembly of automobile parts made in Michigan and elsewhere. New Jersey had all the necessary components: large open areas of land, deep water frontage and a well-developed railroad system. Leading the way in New Jersey was Henry Ford.
Ford erected five buildings in the Kearny marshes in 1918. Eventually, upwards of 8,000 men worked in the Kearny plant, turning out more than 700 cars daily. Late in 1928, after the Model A replaced the Model T as Ford's prime automobile, Ford sold the Kearny works to the Western Electric Company and moved assembly operations to the new 1,500 foot long assembly plant in Edgewater.
Until World War II, Ford had no real competition. By 1927, New Jersey had 103 firms engaged in some facet of the automobile industry. Their combined employees totaled 13,400, and their combined output equalled $154,000,000 annually, most of that concentrated in the Ford installation at Kearny and the Durant plant at Elizabeth. Another noteworthy transportation company in 1927 was International Motor Company, manufacturer of Mack truck motors in Plainfield.
General Motors did not expand until 1925, when it bought the buildings in Bloomfield where the company packed Chevrolets for overseas shipments. In 1937, General Motors built a large assembly plant in Linden to make Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs. This was the first B-O-P plant built outside of Michigan. General Motors built another plant in West Trenton in 1938 for the manufacture of automobile hardware and parts.
Ford built a new plant in Metuchen in 1948 to assemble Mercuries and Lincolns and one in Mahwah, completed in 1955 and since abandoned. The Studebaker Corporation plant in North Brunswick was finished in 1951, but only filled defense contracts.
William Durant of General Motors, and then Durant Motors
A Durant car
Ford factory in Metuchen, 1949
General Motors Assembly Plant, Linden NJ