Alexander Winton was a pioneer in development of the American auto industry. He is credited with pushing Henry Ford into the automotive limelight. And he made international media headlines with his attempt to complete the first transcontinental trip by automobile.
Winton was born in 1860 in Grangemouth, Scotland. At the age of 19, he immigrated to New York City. Before accepting a position as superintendent at an iron factory in Cleveland, Ohio, he worked as an engineer apprentice on an ocean steamship for several years .
As it so happened, Cleveland was at the heart of what would soon become a tsunami of national interest in bicycles in the 1880s. Seeing opportunity in the national mania, Winton capitalized on the rapidly expanding market by founding the Winton Bicycle Company in 1891 with his brother-in-law as a partner.
Winton and his partner had a head for business and so the company profited almost as soon as the doors were opened. But as with many successful businessmen of the era, Winton found himself increasingly drawn to motorized vehicles. Winton filled every available minute with study and the reading of everything he could find on the subject and began developing his own engine designs. Soon his company was producing bicycles as well as motorized bicycles.
Then in 1896, Winton unveiled his first “motor wagon” to the press. The following year he incorporated the Winton Motor Carriage Company. He introduced the cars with great fanfare and media focus with a drive through town to the Glenville Track where he was clocked at a then astounding 33.64 miles per hour. By 1898 he was selling cars and perfecting as well as promoting them through racing.
As a bit of historic trivia, one of Winton’s most notable racing losses came against Henry Ford. Ford’s success put him in the automotive spotlight and eased his ability to find needed investors for the establishment of the Henry Ford Motor Company. There is another Henry Ford connection. Leo Melanowski, Winton’s trusted chief engineer, had proposed hiring Ford as a mechanic. Winton, however, felt that Ford lacked the temperament needed to take orders or focus on bringing a project to completion.
In 1902, Winton built the first of three custom race cars, all named the Bullet. Bullet No. 1 was the first car to win a sanctioned race at Daytona Beach, Florida. Bullet No. 2, one of the first eight-cylinder automobiles, was built for the Gordon Bennett Cup in Ireland in 1903. As a result of mechanical issues, this car did not complete the race. However, after being brought back to the United States and repaired, Barney Oldfield drove it to a near-record of 80 miles per hour at Daytona. Before retiring from racing Winton built a Bullet 3. Oldfield toured the country with that car and launched an award-winning racing career that would span decades.
Aside from racing, Winton used practical application as a promotional platform. In 1897, Winton and William Hatcher, shop superintendent, drove from Cleveland to New York City with tremendous national press coverage. In 1899 he made a second trip with Charles Shanks, a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter as a passenger and sales soared with 100 vehicles finding buyers by the end of the year.
Not all the customers were satisfied. James Ward Packard purchased a vehicle in 1898 and broke down several times on the way home. In a heated argument with Winton, Packard was told that if he thought he could build a better automobile he should do so. And so, Packard accepted the challenge. The now legendary Packard Automobile Company was born.
In 1901, Winton set his sights on an unprecedented adventure that would also ensure international media focus on his automobiles. With Charles Shanks of Scientific American on board to cover the odyssey, Winton proposed a coast to coast drive, the first by automobile. The ill-fated venture left San Francisco with great promise but ended abruptly on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Shanks wrote, “That the expedition failed is no fault of the machine Mr. Winton used, nor was it due to absence of grit or determination on the part of the operator. Neither was the failure due to roads. The utter absence of roads was the direct and only cause.”
Dr. H Nelson Jackson triumphed where Winton had failed and became the first person to drive an automobile from coast to coast in 1903. As Jackson was driving a Winton, the company benefitted mightily from the endeavor. Sales soared to 850 cars in 1903, and 1,100 by 1907.
Winton quickly developed a reputation for inventiveness and generosity. Over the course of his career he would develop and patent more than one hundred items related to automobiles, engines, and bicycles. Indicative of his character, he offered his safety related patents for free to interested manufacturers.
Winton continued building cars through 1924 with innovations like a steering wheel in 1901, shaft drive, external and internal brakes on the same brake drum, and the first American diesel engine in 1913. The post WWI economic recession struck the auto industry hard and even pioneering companies such as Winton were not spared. Sales plummeted and in 1922, Winton issued a statement that the company was “financially embarrassed.” In 1923 there was a stillborn initiative to merge Winton with Haynes and Dorris. Then on February 11, 1924, Winton closed the automobile company and initiated liquidation.
However, he continued operation of a subsidiary company, the Winton Gas Engine & Manufacturing Company, that manufactured marine and diesel engines. The company prospered into the early years of the Great Depression before being sold to General Motors.
In the pantheon of automotive pioneers Winton is in good company, as he is but one of many that has been relegated to obscurity. Still, one can’t help but ponder what the world would be like today if Winton hadn’t added a motor to a bicycle, selected a steering wheel rather than the traditional tiller or perfected the diesel engine.
Written by Jim Hinckley of jimhinckleysamerica.com