The formative years of the American auto industry is a rich tapestry of innovative visionaries, eccentrics, ambitious entrepreneurs, and pioneers. With the passing of years, many men and their accomplishments have faded into obscurity and become less than historic footnotes. Benjamin Briscoe is but one example.
On June 28, 1945, the Detroit Free Press, New York Times and other leading newspapers throughout the world noted the death of Benjamin Briscoe. “BENJAMIN BRISCOE, President of First Maxwell Company, Financier That Launched David Buick’s Automotive Endeavors and Founder of United States Motor Company Dies.” So, who was Benjamin Briscoe, “the founder of the domestic American automobile industry” and the man behind numerous pioneering automobile manufacturers?
Briscoe was born in 1867 to a family of successful entrepreneurs and inventors. His grandfather was a railroad mechanic that was attributed with numerous innovations, and his father was the founder of Michigan Nut and Bolt, a company that produced an array of products using custom and specialty machines of his design. At age eighteen, Benjamin Briscoe using his own money established Benjamin Briscoe & Company that used metal stamping to manufacture buckets, barrels, a variety of cans, laundry tubs and even bathtubs. And that led to an association with David Dunbar Buick that would later prove pivotal to the development of a pioneering automotive endeavor.
With moderate success Buick had been involved in an array of diverse projects before turning to the manufacture of plumbing supplies. And then he sharpened his focus on the innovative manufacture of plumbing fixtures with more than a dozen patents to his credit, but profit remained elusive until Briscoe began supplying a wide array of related stamped metal supplies on credit under limited license. Buick’s fortune was established when he perfected and patented a successful process for affixing porcelain to metal, expanded his endeavors, and began manufacturing toilets, sinks, bathtubs and related goods.
Shortly after entering into the arrangement with Buick, Briscoe sold his business for a tidy profit and established the Detroit Galvanizing and Sheet Metal Works, and using a machine of his invention, began manufacturing corrugated pipe as well as sheet metal components for stoves, ranges and furnaces. In 1900, Briscoe’s brother Frank joined the company that was then reorganized as the Briscoe Manufacturing Company, and the product line was expanded to include cast iron radiators and copper units used to facilitate the cooling of industrial engines. It was the later which led to a contracted project for Ransom E. Olds.
First, however, Briscoe had to overcome a major hurdle. The Detroit bank used by Briscoe had failed which in turn left Briscoe’s company facing bankruptcy. Undaunted by this potential disaster Briscoe brazenly, without introduction or endorsement, traveled to New York City, and talked his way into a meeting at J.P. Morgan and Company that included J.P. Morgan himself. His sales acumen was made manifest with a commitment of a $100,000 investment in his company.
The arrangement with Olds was rooted in disaster. R.E. Olds chief engineer Jonathan Maxwell had perfected an improved cooling system for the Oldsmobile. However, a devastating factory fire in 1901 had decimated the company forcing Olds to seek an outside supplier for a radiator and so he approached Briscoe to negotiate the purchase of 4,500 radiators. Briscoe quickly closed the deal but, in the process also negotiated for the manufacture of gas tanks as well.
In 1899, David Buick answered the Siren’s call that was the infant auto industry, sold the plumbing supply company and turned his attentions to the development of a valve in head engine, the first step in what he envisioned would become an automobile manufacturing company. By late 1902, Buick had exhausted his funds and yet his prototype being built in partnership with Walter Marr was not ready for display. As a result, there was little hope of attracting investors. Fortuitously Buick turned to Briscoe who agreed to forgive an outstanding loan, to pay off Buick’s other outstanding debts, and to provide the funds needed to finish the prototype. As per their agreement, Briscoe would become the owner of the completed vehicle, but Buick would use it to solicit for investors to initiate manufacturing.
Briscoe would eventually loan Buick an additional $1500. To protect his investment this arrangement included the stipulation that if the loan were not repaid within twelve months, Briscoe would become the sole owner of Buick Motor Company.
As Buick focused on development of the fledgling automobile company, Briscoe met with Jonathan Maxwell, the former Olds engineer that was now planning to launch a company of his own and asked that he evaluate Buick’s project. Sensing an opportunity Maxwell noted the various flaws in the Buick design and presented Briscoe with a business plan for the establishment of a company to manufacture Maxwell’s automobile.
This partnership would lead to the building of two automotive empires, one of which would become the foundation for Chrysler. It would also lead to the establishment of two companies that forever transformed the international auto industry, the founding of an automobile company with a quirky claim to fame, and Briscoe’s diversification into an array of endeavors that would underpin many aspects of the infant auto industry.
Written by Jim Hinckley of www.jimhinckleysamerica.com