Full History Cole Motor Car Company Indianapolis Indiana

By Howard R. DeLancy J.J. Cole, of Indianapolis, was one of the small group of entrepreneurs who successfully passed from carriage manufacture to automobile assembly. His initial success in the new field derived from technical competence, style consciousness, and marketing ability. These three attributes were not, however, subsequently exercised with equal and consistent effectiveness, and Cole, the talented individualist, did not survive the era of integration and combination in the 1920's. His firm passed from the scene, not as a bankrupt but as a typical founder-dominated organization that seemingly spent its energies in surviving one major transition and was unwilling or unable to face up to another.

In an automobile factory in the city of Indianapolis, in the year 1920, preparations were being made for the 1921 model. There were no designers nor a multitude of technicians, no drawing boards, no dozens of designs and hundreds of details from which to choose; the only evidence of the new model rested in the comer of the factory. It was the unpainted body of a prior model and several barrels of molder's clay. Working with the clay, building a curve here, adding a sweeping line there, blending his knowledge of cars and people, two hands and one mind worked until a radically new effect was obtained. That effect was "The Touch of Tomorrow." The 1921 model was the Cole Eight, and the man working the clay was Joseph J. Cole, founder and president of the Cole Motor Car Company.

Joseph J. Cole, the man who was to become one of Indiana's leading automobile manufacturers, was born on March 23, 1869, on a from new the small settlement of Waterloo, Indiana As a youngster J. J. Cole disliked farming and upon graduating from high school at the age of 16 enrolled in the Richmond Business College, where he completed a one-year course. From there he embarked upon a career in the carriage and buggy industry, first being employed by the Parry Manufacturing Company of Indianapolis and later working for the Moon Brothers Carriage Company of St. Louis. During his tenure with these two firms, he gained experience in all phases of the carriage manufacturing industry. However, his greatest success came as a salesman, and because of the large sales commissions he was able to earn he had saved $25,000 by the time he was 35 years old. In November, 1904, at the age of 35, he purchased a one-half interest in the up-and-coming Gates-Osborne Carriage Company of Indianapolis.

The Gates-Osborne Carriage Company had been organized in Indianapolis in 1902 and the small carriage factory had prospered during the first two years of operation under the guidance of T. M. Osborne, president of the company. J. J. Cole became the company's second president in November, 1904, and in December of the following year the name of the company was changed to the Cole Carriage Company. Under Cole's leadership, the operations of the company were expanded. By 1907, 49 different models of carriages and driving wagons were being manufactured.

During a business slump in the latter part of 1907, J. J. Cole began to give serious thought to building an automobile. In this, of course, he was not unique; Studebaker, Durant-Dort, Overland, and Moon automobiles all were products of one-time carriage manufacturers. To assist him in developing a model that his carriage factory might assemble, Cole hired Charles S. Crawford, a graduate engineer.

The first Cole automobile was built in the barn of one of Mr. Coles neighbors, the man being a good mechanic as well as a good neighbor. The first model was shown to the board of directors in October, 1908. It was a high-wheeled, solid-the model designed in a functional manner to accommodate the driving conditions of the day. It was later described in the Cole catalog as being "particularly desirable in sections of the country where necessary to ford creeks in absence of a bridge."

The Automobile Department of the Cole Carriage Company assembled and sold 170 of the 14-horsepower automobiles in the next seven months. How sooner had the company started to assemble the solid-tire automobile than plans for the second model began to be formed.


The second model was completed in June, 1909, and the directors and all who saw it were so impressed that the automobile was given prime consideration from that day on. It was apparent that J. J. Cole possessed ability in body design - an ability that eventually led to the slogan, "There's a touch of tomorrow in all Cole does today."

This second model of the Cole automobile, known as the "Cole Flyer," had no resemblance to the solid-tire model. But things were happening to the automobile all over the country; it was the year that automobile production was to go over the 100,000 mark for the first time. Old Dobbin was to be replaced by the Horseless Carriage.

In the summer of 1909, while the rest of the industry was going all out to meet the demand for automobiles, the directors of the Cole Carriage Company were making plans for the production of the Cole Flyer. A livery stable was rented for assembly space, and the Cole Motor Car Company was incorporated in Indianapolis on June 22, 1909, as a subsidiary of the carriage company.

J. J. Cole soon discovered that operating an automobile company and a carriage company on a $75,000 capitalization was a large undertaking, especially when two separate manufacturing locations were maintained. As a result, the Motor Car Company got off to a slow start, producing only six cars during the month of September. At this point, however, still mother party became interested in the Cole Flyer. This was Harvey S. Firestone, president of the Fire-stone The and Rubber Company. He supplied the funds necessary to step up assembly operations to 30 cars in October, 42 cars in November, and 33 cars in December. The loan was soon repaid.

The amount of this loan is not known, but probably was not large since it was common practice at the time for an automobile assembler to manage his operations in such a way that he could put together and sell his automobiles in time to meet suppliers requests for payment for the components that went into the machine. A reasonable estimate would he that the Firestone loan was between $5,030 and $10,000.

At this point, J. J. Cole was determined to pursue the automobile business as a full-time venture. Plans were made to divert the assets of the Carriage Company to the Motor Car Company. This transition took approximately seven months, during which time only 268 carriages were manufactured. It is of interest to note that this transition from the carriage to the automobile was timed ideally, for, as later figures disclosed, the year 1909 marked the turning point for the carriage industry. In each year thereafter, the value of the products produced by the carriage manufacturers declined - 1909 being the peak year for the industry.

The launching of a new automobile in the year 1910 was not the task that we know today. Many new makes were being introduced each year and the reputation of the older makes was not as well entrenched as one might expect. The public was still looking for a better automobile, and J. J. Cole was determined to let them know that the Cole Flyer was worthy of consideration. The "Flyer" was built for "long, fast road Journeys." It carried 25 gallons of gasoline and 10 gallons of oil. In addition to such features as an ash frame and a sheet steel body, the Flyer also boasted a four. cylinder, 30-horsepower Northway motor. It was one of the first, if not the first, to offer demountable rims as standard equipment. The Flyer weighed 1,900 pounds and sold for $1,500.

In 1910 the mechanical fitness of an automobile was the thing; the public was easily moved by feats of speed and endurance, and to this end the efforts of the Cole Motor Car Company were directed. The Cole Flyer lived up to its name on the race track. It became very popular as a stock racing car and was entered in a great many stock car races during the 1910 season.

The first race driver employed by the Cole factory was Bill Endicott. To his intimate friends he became known as "Farmer Bill"; to his many race fans he became known as "Wild Bill." In 1910 the name of Endicott and the Cole Flyer became synonymous. It all started on April 8, 1910, in Los Angeles, the scene of a ten-day racing session for stock cars of all classes.

On the first day of the race the fans were thrilled by the daring of "Wild Bill" as he brought the Cole Flyer in for ahead of the nearest contender to who the ten-mile race. And little wonder, he had set a world's record for cars of the Cole's class when he had driven the Flyer around the small oval at an average speed of 66.3 miles per hour. On the second day of the meet, "Wild Bill" was the victor in the fifty-mile race, and on the last day of the meet, he broke his own world's record when he won the ten-mile dash with an average speed of 68.5 miles per hour. The some Cole Flyer, piloted by "Wild Bill," took most of the honors at the stock car races in Atlanta, Georgia. However, the greatest triumph of all came at the Brighton Beach track in New York where the Cole team, headed by Endicott, brought the Cole Flyer through a 24-hour endurance contest. The Flyer as the only car selling for $1,500 that completed the 24-hour endurance, and the Flyer did it twice.

During the same season, W. A. Johnson demonstrated that the Flyer was just as economical as it was fast. The Cole that Johnson drove won the Economy Run in Chicago by averaging 23.8 miles per gallon, 2.26 miles per gallon better than the second-place Hudson.

The many records set by the Cole Flyer served as a wonderful store of ammunition for the Cole selling force. Nevertheless, J. J. Cole was not content to let the program of launching a new car fall entirely upon its track record. The program was implemented in many other ways. There was a Cole balloon, a gas bag of no small proportions; a Cole baseball team; Cole cigars; a Cole Boosters Club. J. J. Cole also employed H. C. Bradfield, an Associated Press reporter, to handle publicity for the new company. Bradfield's knowledge of the art of gathering news, combined with his personal contacts with newspapermen and celebrities, made him a natural candidate for the job. From the day that Cole hired him, the Cole Motor Car Company received much better than average treatment from the press.

The climax to this era of frenzied Cole boosting came when J. J. Cole decided to take to the air. The airplane was new, public interest in aviation was keen, and J. J. Cole was quick to grasp the opportunity. The opportunity was a 150,000 contest sponsored by the New, York American, the prize being offered to the first man that could fly from coast to coast by October 10, 1911.

The Cole Motor Car Company purchased a Wright Biplane, fitted it with a Cole automobile engine, and obtained the services of Robert G. Fowler, a young Los Angeles aviator. The Cole Flyer, piloted by Fowler, started the coast-to-coast trip from San Francisco on September 12, 1911, but Fowler found it next to impossible to get over the mountains in his trek to the East. Some ten other contestants started the journey but only two of them, Fowler in the Cole Flyer and Galbraith Rogers in a plane sponsored by Armour and Company, persisted in their efforts to cross the continent. The prize went unclaimed on October 10, 1911, but some-time later, after rebuilding his plane four times enroute, Rogers became the first man to make the trip. Fowler and the Cole Flyer were second to complete the coast-to-coast trip, but only after spending better than four months at the task.

No one will ever know just how many people stood in the roads, on hills, at the landing fields, and read the papers, following the flights of lingers and Fowler. The sponsoring companies received untold pages of publicity and Cole dealers had a heyday in every town Fowler visited, flew over, or came near. Caravans of Cole boosters were formed and often followed Fowler from city to city.

Launching the Cole automobile had been a program of great importance to the subsequent success of the Cole Motor Car Company. That program was a success from the very start.