Who would you include if asked to compose a list of the 10 men most responsible for the development of the American automobile industry? Louis Chevrolet? David Buick? Henry Ford? Ralph Teetor? Charles Kettering? Would your list include A.W. Tobin and Ross Judson?
Today, most of these men are less than an obscure footnote to automotive history. Still, the business Tobin and Judson created was the very cornerstone for a staggering number of famous and forgotten automobile manufacturers. It was also a foundational element in the development of the fledgling American aeronautical industry.
The story begins in 1901 when Judson, a gifted engineering student, examined a Mercedes L-head four-cylinder engine and noticed a number of flaws. Possessed of an unshakeable confidence, he was immediately convinced that he could resolve these issues. He was also of the belief that he could improve that engine.
In 1902, almost immediately after graduation from the Armour Institute of Technology, Judson drafted a sales pitch that he presented to Tobin, his brother-in-law and an investment capitalist. His enthusiasm carried the day and Judson soon had a partner in Tobin, a $2,000 investment of capital from this partner, a hayloft converted that was quickly converted into a machine shop in Chicago, and establishment of a company named Autocar.
Judson’s first engine and an eye-catching display debuted at the1903 Chicago Automobile Show. Judson and Tobin had high expectations from this endeavor. Still, the inundation of orders must have left them stunned.
To fill these initial orders Autocar invested for expansion of manufacturing facilities. By 1904, Judson and Tobin found themselves in the enviable position of needing to find a location suitable for dramatic expansion. Incentives provided by Muskegon, Michigan, resulted in the relocation of Autocar operations and the construction of a state-of-the-art, 16,000-square-foot factory in that city in 1905.
The following year was a period of equally dramatic changes. Studebaker, one of the company’s most prominent customers, increased its annual order from 100 engines to 1,000. But it was also a period of challenges. The discovery that a company in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, had used the name Autocar since 1899 revealed in a lawsuit led to reorganization under the Continental name.
Undaunted Tobin and Judson continued to diversify the company. A division to manufacture stationary engines was launched. The work force was increased increased from 25 to almost 600 employees. It was also during this period that the company developed an aircraft engine production-and-development division. This would become a subsidiary, Continental Aircraft Engine, in 1929, with the 170hp A-70 radial engine the foundation.
In late 1910, the company received an order for 10,000 engines from a newly founded automobile manufacturing company, Hudson. by a new manufacturing concern, Hudson. Aside from this order the company was providing engines to several other manufacturers. To meet the demand the production facilities were again expanded. In addition, a factory was established in Detroit. Two years later, Walter Frederick, a former engineer for the truck manufacturing concern Autocar, assumed Judson’s position as chief engineer.
Under his supervision, the company expanded the engineering department. And a new program was launched for the development of engines for catalog sales to automobile manufacturers, companies in need of stationary industrial engines, aircraft firms, and tractor manufacturers. If a client requested engine specifications not listed in the catalog, staff engineers modified existing models accordingly.
The next twenty years were golden for Continental. Automobiles manufactured by Apperson and Case, Crawford and Jordan, Ace and Vellie, Durant and Erskine, and dozens of other companies ran on Continental engines. Numerous companies that manufactured trucks exclusively including Corbitt, Federal, Schacht, Selden, Sterling, and Reo used their powerplants as well.
The 1920s was another pivotal period for the company. W.R. Angell, a member of the company’s board of directors, finalized an agreement with William Durant to supply engines for his new line of automobiles – Durant, Star, and Flint. Tentative merger negotiations initiated between Continental and three manufacturers that utilized that company’s products – Peerless, Moon, and Jordan – were stillborn.
The 1930s began with Judson’s retirement and the rise of Angell to the presidency of the company. His expansion of the diesel truck, aircraft, and agricultural engine divisions of the company kept it afloat during the tumultuous days of the Great Depression. But his decision to initiate the launch of a Continental-manufactured automobile and the purchase of a truck manufacturer nearly sank it.
The short-lived Continental Beacon, Flyer, and Ace, were, in actuality, little more than new emblems placed on the equally unsuccessful De Vaux. The acquisition of Divco in 1932 proved another unwise, costly venture.
The richly diverse legacy of independent thinking Ross and Judson did not end with the Great Depression or the heady days of the post-war era. Continental engines powered the grandfather of the Jeep, the Bantam Reconnaissance and Command Car prototype, as well as the iconic Checker taxi through early 1964. Nor did it end with the cessation of engine manufacturing as Continental lived on in corporate reincarnation as Ryan Aeronautical, and Teledyne Continental Motors.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America