HARDWORKING HORSEPOWER: The Carhartt Auto
By Allie Penn, Archive Intern
“In 1911, my father was agent for Carhartt automobiles, and they were 21½ feet long...monsters. I have a horn from one of these in excellent condition, save for the rubber bulb you pressed for the ‘bonk’, ‘bonk.’ it blew perfectly until a few years ago, when the bulb became decayed. Carhartt left off autos, decided blue overalls were more profitable.” -Etheridge, Tom. “Cleaning Off Desk for Weekend-Those Automobiles of Yesteryear.” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), December 15, 1973.
One of company founder Hamilton Carhartt’s more short-lived projects, the Carhartt Automobile Corporation, was incorporated in the spring of 1910. The company was led by Hamilton Carhartt, Jr. who served as vice president and general manager. He gave up his position within the Hamilton Carhartt Overall Company to lead the endeavor. The company invested $1,000,000 in to this new enterprise.
“’We shall sell our car for $2,250,’ says Mr. Carhartt, Jr., ‘but it will be identical as to quality with those selling for $3,000 and upwards. We intend to do just as we have always done in our other business, make high quality our aim and put out a car that we will never be ashamed to see on the street. With our five thousand agents scattered all over the country and the reputation we have made in the past, it can be readily seen what an excellent market we have for our car.’” “Carhartt Ready August 1.” Detroit Free Press, May 8, 1910
The company manufactured a line of 1911 automobiles that were either 25 or 35 horse power. The 1911 25 hp vehicle came in two models, touring and roadster. The 35 hp vehicle offered more options to choose from, with six different models. The 1912 automobiles were more limited, but more advanced, offering a 30 or 50 horsepower engine. Both were only available in three model types.
The company’s executive offices and factory were located in Detroit, though salesmen and salesrooms were set up all over the country to showcase the new Carhartt automobile. A private exhibition was held to showcase the new automobiles at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
One important visitor to the hotel showroom was Hamilton Carhartt, Jr., who dropped in secretly to listen to a sales pitch being given. He let the salesman finish his pitch and then announced his presence, staying to talk to salesmen and staff. A New York Times article reports: “Mr. Carhartt’s interest however halted just short of a purchase.”
Like many other Carhartt products, the car was offered to Carhartt buyers as a sort of raffle prize during the 1912 election between Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt, and the current president, Republican William Howard Taft. Shops offered the chance to win the vehicle by purchasing Carhartt clothing and correctly guessing the number of popular votes the winning candidate would receive.
While the car gained a lot of attention, it also created a lot of problems for the Carhartt family. A patent infringement lawsuit was filed against the automobile company only two months after its debut in June 1910. Further, only one year after its creation, a U.S. District Court record indicated the company was in fact bankrupt and that its assets would be auctioned off. The company closed in 1912.
Hamilton Carhartt invested in the company as an opportunity to change with the times. However, it only took two years for him to realize that he should go back to what he knows best—overalls. By giving up the automobile business the Carhartt family devoted their time and energy back in to their clothing manufacturing business. A business that still exists due to their determination and commitment to making quality clothing for the working man and woman.