Deere’s short-lived involvement in autos

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Deere-Clark car

Elmer J. Baker Jr. (1889-1964), a longtime commentator on the farm implement scene, wrote of the short-lived Deere-Clark car in a 1962 issue of Implement & Tractor magazine.

In mentioning the Deere car, we are not alluding to the Velie. The Velies were John Deere kin and made buggies in Moline until the advent of the motor age caused them to switch to automobiles. Lots of John Deere dealers bought them, sold them and used them.

But the Deere car was something different. We never heard much about it and never saw or rode in one but once. We don’t know who committed the company to it nor who dropped it like a hot potato, but we know why. We doubt if anyone else now alive does.

The particular Deere car of our acquaintance was a four-passenger run-about, very sporty looking. The seat backs were quite low, and, buggy-style, there were no side entrance doors. You just stepped up and in.

This Deere car was owned by a Chicago newspaper man named Elton Lauer, who, in 1908, was appointed president of the Chicago Civil Service Commission. Lauer was a tough disciplinarian and cleaned up much of the graft and corruption in the police force. But one time his discipline failed and it was right in his own family.

His little daughter liked to sit in the Deere’s front seat, normally her mother’s place. One Sunday she begged leave to sit in front beside her daddy, permission was granted and Mrs. Lauer sat behind. They were on an improved road; it was gravel and not just dirt. Like almost all such roads it weaved and waved up and down, and occasionally there was quite a thump or bump. There were no recoil shock absorbers then.

It was the rule that when the little girl was riding beside the driver, she must keep perfectly quiet so as not to distract him. She had always done so, but on this occasion, she suddenly exclaimed: “Daddy!” Mr. Lauer frowned and said: “You know the rule.”

“Yes, but Daddy, Mama is not here.” Mr. Lauer’s turn of his head and his jamming on of the brakes at the same time was automatic. His wife was not in the back seat. The road was winding and they had just passed a bend a short distance behind.

Mr. Lauer got the car turned around and started back. Maybe a furlong from the bend, there was Mrs. Lauer sitting disconsolately in the middle of the road, crying.

When they got to her, she said that the car had hit a bump, she was tossed into the air and when she came down the car was not there. She landed sitting in the roadway. A careful check showed nothing broken, and she was helped back into the Deere car … in front. Later investigation disclosed bruises but no serious injury.

From this episode maybe one can figure out why the Deere folk discontinued production of the neat, racy, low-seat-back Deere car.

Deere and cars

Long before tractors were a gleam in the eye of farm machinery giant Deere & Company, Charles Deere, the firm’s president, and son of John Deere himself took a flier in the automobile business.

A man named W.E. Clark had a manufacturing company in Moline during the 1890s and built a one-cylinder, air-cooled auto-buggy in 1897. By 1901, the car was improved and a four horsepower runabout was sold to a doctor in Rock Island.

Blackhawk

No more cars were built until 1903 when the Clark Manufacturing Co. finally began producing an automobile. Named the Blackhawk, the new car was air-cooled, had tiller steering and a planetary transmission, and was available in either a single-cylinder engine model at $750, or a two-cylinder version costing $850.

Only 50 Blackhawks were built before production was halted for unknown reasons.

Deere-Clark

Clark didn’t give up and searched for capital to begin again and in 1906, after an injection of $10,000 from Charles Deere, he introduced the Deere-Clark, “A car designed to satisfy.”

Deere’s investment was apparently his own money, as there’s no evidence Deere & Company was involved with Deere-Clark, nor were the cars ever sold by Deere dealers.

A factory was built in Moline and Charles Deere himself is said to have driven the first car in July, and plans were made for 100 cars to be built during the rest of 1906, but only about half that many were actually made.

The car had a four-cylinder, 30 horsepower, water-cooled engine, a selective gear transmission, disc clutch and shaft drive.

The 1906 Deere-Clark was available as a five-passenger touring model costing $2,850, or as a limousine for $3,500.

For 1907, a Type A “Gentleman’s Roadster” was added to the lineup in addition to the Type B touring car and the limousine.

The roadster cost $2,500, was low slung and sporty looking, and is said to have been painted red. It had the usual two front seats, along with a smaller seat behind (this is probably the one Elmer Baker wrote of).

By mid-1907, Deere-Clark was dealing with a machinist’s strike and several lawsuits, and financing dried up.

There were possibly as many as 200 cars built before Deere-Clark declared bankruptcy in September 1907 and its assets were bought for $37,500 by Charles H. Pope, although Charles Deere must have retained an interest.

Midland

Pope reorganized the firm into the Midland Motor Car Co. A picture of the 1908 Midland Model G-9 roadster, which was called “The Motoring Sensation of 1908” looks identical to the preceding Deere car and 200 of them were made that year.

Production grew each year until 1911, when Pope retired and the Deere estate assumed control (Charles Deere had died Oct. 29, 1907).

Midland production in 1912 totaled 613 cars, with 671 built in 1913, but there was trouble in the office.

It seems Pope had been a little shady. Payroll discrepancies, bank overdrafts, and altered and missing records were discovered, and almost 50 new cars had disappeared without a trace.

Unfortunately, by the time all this was discovered, C.H. Pope had gone to his heavenly reward, and none of the missing money was recovered. Said to be the largest bankruptcy in Illinois up to that time, the Midland Motor Car Co. was liquidated and all assets sold.

And that was the end of the Deere involvement with automobiles.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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