August 30, 2014

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Don’t think everything built in Lorain with four wheels was a Ford

LORAIN – It was 1918. The Great War (World War I) had ended spurring a wide open, feel-good era that produced lots of ambitious, well-heeled businessmen all looking to hit the big time.

“Everyone was feeling mellow, it was the flapper era,” Robert Kayle said. “There were lots of guys who wanted to get their name on a radiator.”

Kayle will offer a look into the early history of automaking in Lorain during the 1920s at a presentation at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Carriage Barn at Mill Hollow in the Vermilion River Reservation of the Lorain County Metro Parks, 51211 North Ridge Road.

This heady mix of available money and unbridled, sky’s-the-limit optimism produced a bumper crop of home-grown automobile companies, including Lorain’s Carroll Automobile Co., which has the distinction of producing the Carroll, the only car to be manufactured in Lorain that wasn’t a product of Detroit, such as the Galaxie, Falcon, Gran Torino, Thunderbird and Econoline van, all of which were produced at the Ford Motor Co.’s Baumhart Road plant between 1958 and 2005.

A longtime Lorain Realtor-appraiser, Kayle will detail the short-lived history of this largely unknown luxury automobile during Wednesday’s meeting of the Brownhelm Historical Society.

“Most people except some of the really old-timers have never heard of it,” Kayle said.

Built between 1920 and 1922 in a building at Washington Avenue and 12th Street in downtown Lorain that once housed the Hoffman Heating Co. and a bronze foundry, the Carroll was the brainchild of Cleveland entrepreureur Charles F. Carroll.

Stylish and well-built, the car was desirable, but just too pricey.  “Dusenbergs (regarded as the Cadillacs of the era) were selling for $4,000, and the Carroll was selling for $3,895,” Kayle said. “When the Model T came out, it was $700.”

A sedan styled like an open touring car, the Carroll sported a rakish green leather roof known as a California top, a six-cylinder 55 horsepower Buda engine, a 128-inch wheelbase and an aluminum chassis, which meant it wouldn’t rust like steel.

“Very few cars were made of aluminum back then,” Kayle said. “Speed was a big thing in that time. You got it by reducing weight.”

Owner of a Lakewood law firm and Cleveland ad agency, the determined Carroll came to Lorain with money. Kayle said where that money came from will be disclosed during his presentation.

“I’m saving a few things,” he said.

The Carroll was typical of most home-grown cars in that the designs and chassis were locally produced. Engines, transmissions and other key components were purchased from a series of outside firms acting as sub-contractors. Despite its brief lifespan, the Carroll was advertised as having three different engines.

“Manufacturers would start to build these cars and then their credit (with suppliers and engine makers) would run out,” Kayle said. “They’d just go find another company and run with them until their credit ran out again.”

When all was said and done, only about 200 Carrolls came off the assembly line before the vehicle met the same fate as scores of other small car makers, including the bulk of 82 automobile manufacturers based in Cleveland from the late 1890s to the early 1930s. Some lasted a year or two, while more successful companies like Peerless and Winton managed to hang around for 20 to 30 years.

Competition, unrealistic expectations and pricetags were the undoing of most, including the Carroll.

“Most of these companies got started before a major recession in the ’20s that ended in the crash of 1929 – which led to the Great Depression,” Kayle said.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146  or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.