Motor City Maryland State's carmakers left their mark on early auto industry

August 30, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

It had the lines of a Bugatti race car, solid brass trim, disk wheels and a spare tire that fit smartly in a fender well.

If you owned one of these cars -- a 1922 Dagmar Sport Victoria -- you owned one of the hottest cars on the road.

The Dagmar wasn't a flashy import or a Detroit special; it was a car made in Hagerstown by a company better known for its production of pipe organs.

In the first quarter century of the U.S. auto industry, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next month -- building a car was far different than today.

It was more of a cottage industry in those early days with smaller factories staffed by workers who formerly served as blacksmiths, wheelwrights or laborers more accustomed to building horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and machines for the canning industry.

Maryland's sizable, if not thriving, auto industry was clustered in Baltimore, Hagerstown and Hyattsville, and with a bit of luck a number of these companies could have given Henry Ford a run for his money.

Take the case of the Maryland, a car built by the Sinclair Scott Co. at a factory at Wells and Patapsco streets in Baltimore. It had a reputation for being the "solidest of the extra solid cars" of its day.

It cost about $2,750, or about $70,000 in today's dollars.

That was nearly six times the average factory worker's annual wage. For that price, the buyer of a Maryland got standard equipment not found on some competitors: a top dust cover, three oil lamps, gas tank, speedometer, jack, full set of tools, a tire repair kit and thick leather upholstery.

Mr. Ford was so impressed with the Maryland when it saw it at the Baltimore Auto Show in 1906 that he asked its maker, John and Edwin Rife, to merge their Baltimore plant with his.

It was an insulting offer. More than 50 years later John Rife's son, John W. Rife, recalled those events in an article he wrote for The Sunday Sun.

"My father and uncle were outspoken men and my father spoke for both of them. 'Mr. Ford,' he said, 'people don't want to buy a piece of junk; they want to buy an automobile.' "

At that time, the Ford, or "tin lizzie," as the car was commonly called, was selling at well under $1,000 and didn't match the Maryland's quality.

Like a lot of the other automakers of their time, Sinclair Scott expanded into car production from its primary business of producing canning house machinery. It's pea-hulling machine was known worldwide.

The company turned out between 200 and 300 Marylands from 1904 to 1910, but never turned it into a profitable business.

Mr. Ford could have turned to a number of other Maryland companies if he had so desired. Factories around the state were turning out a wide variety of vehicles.

There was the chain-driven Crawford, a three-seater known at the "Gentleman's Roadster," Pope-Tribune, Martin, Spoerer, Moller, Calvert, Lord Baltimore, Luxor, Crouch, Aristocrat, Astor, Blue Light, Twentieth Century and Paramount.

Some were steam-powered and others ran off of electricity, something that engineers still are trying to perfect nearly a century later.

One of the more interesting approaches was taken by Carter Motor Car Co. in Hyattsville. In 1907 it introduced the first Carter Twin-Engine.. Beneath the rounded hood were two four-cylinder, horsepower motors. The driver could run on one engine or shift to both if more power was needed on a hill.

The concept, which doubled a motorist's chances of making it back from a trip into town, said a lot about reliability of cars at the time. It might have been a good idea, but the price, $5,000, was well beyond the reach of the average consumer.

"It's hard to say exactly how many car companies there were in Maryland," says William H. Miller, 81, a retired Westinghouse design draftsman who serves as historian of the Chesapeake Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America. "Records are sketchy and in some cases they were small companies that made a few cars."

Mr. Miller says most Maryland companies, like those in other states, got into the business because of the fascination of their owners with the new horseless carriage developed by the Duryea brothers -- Charles and Frank -- that hit the streets of Springfield, Mass., in September 1893.

But building cars was not nearly as easy as they expected, and by the time General Motors Corp. opened its big new factory of the future on Broening Highway in 1935, Mr. Miller said, most of the early trailblazers were gone.

In most cases they were done in by their inability to produce a car affordable to the mass population and the financial setbacks of the Great Depression.

As he names off some early models, Mr. Miller, who lives in Linthicum, pauses, caught by the lure of a particular model.

"The Dagmar, now that was sort of a strange-looking car," he recalls. "It was very square. The only thing round on it was the wheels. Even the fenders were straight. It had a Continental six-cylinder engine, which was very popular in those days."

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