Automobiles News

1934: Victim of the Great Depression, the final Franklin rolls off the assembly line


Eight-seven years ago, the Great Depression claimed one Central New York’s most significant and successful businesses, as the final Franklin automobile rolled off the assembly line on the afternoon of April 3, 1934.

Almost forty years earlier, in 1893, Herbert H. Franklin, a life-long newspaper man, sold his hometown paper, the Coxsacie News and purchased the patents for the “Underwood Process,” which revolutionized die-casting. A year later, in 1894, H.H. Franklin, left Lisle and moved to Syracuse, where he founded the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company.

Franklin’s company became the vanguard of die-casting methods, including the use of light-weight aluminum.

In 1901, Franklin was introduced to the work of a young mechanical engineer, John Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a Cornell University graduate (Class of ’89) and the scion of one of Syracuse’s most prominent families (his grandfather John named Syracuse), became a well-known cyclist and he began working on air-cooled engines, incorporating them into bicycle designs.

By 1900, Wilkinson perfected a four-cylinder, air-cooled engine to be used in automobiles, the new transportation marvel of the age. According to some sources, H.H. Franklin took a ride in Wilkinson’s second test vehicle and was astonished by the machine and its young inventor.

Franklin and Alexander T. Brown, a local industrialist and prodigious inventor in his own right, recognized the tremendous business potential and they partnered to fund Wilkinson’s trail-blazing work in air-cooled automobiles. Early automobiles were plagued by the problem of split-radiators and cracked engine blocks.

By removing water from the cooling process, Wilkinson’s air-cooled motor would allow for more reliable, year-round driving. The market for such a vehicle was enormous and untapped.

By the fall of 1901, Wilkinson’s work on a marketable automobile was complete.

During his experimentation, Wilkinson could often be seen testing his invention on the hilly streets of Syracuse. In 1902, Franklin and Brown re-organized the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company to focus on the production of Wilkinson’s air-cooled automobile.

The wooden-framed “Type A” light roadster weighed 900 pounds and was powered by Wilkinson’s revolutionary four-cylinder motor. In June, S.G. Averell, purchased the roadster for $1200 (the average American worker made about thirteen dollars a week) and drove it from Syracuse to his home in New York City.

The company manufactured thirteen Type A’s that year. They sold them all. Motivated by this initial success, construction commenced on a massive factory complex on Geddes Street. It opened in 1903.

Led by the visionary John Wilkinson, Franklin’s engineers and designers were constantly innovating and their work pushed the industry forward. In 1905, Franklin introduced the industry’s first six-cylinder engine, developed in large part by Wilkinson. That same year, Wilkinson and another young automobile manufacturer, Henry Ford, founded the Society for Automotive Engineers. Ford is said to have traveled to Syracuse several times in these early years, inspired by the work being done in Syracuse.

Unsurprisingly, Franklin also led the way in utilizing aluminum in all aspects of production, which made their cars incredibly light and durable. Franklin and Brown’s business proposition proved to be very successful. A scant three years after founding the company,

Franklin churned out 1,100 cars in 1905 alone.

Franklin set the standard for speed, performance, durability, and fuel economy. The company astutely marketed their cars as such, frequently sponsoring “runabouts” and cross-country trips to demonstrate the superiority of their machines. In the summer of 1904, drivers, Lester Whitman and Clayton Carris, travelled from San Francisco to New York in their Model A Franklin in thirty-three days, obliterating the previous mark of sixty-one.

In 1906, a Franklin Model H set another world record, leaving from the ruins of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and making it to New York in a mere fifteen days! In 1913, the company boasted another world fuel economy record, an astounding 83.5 miles per gallon.

That same year, Franklin produced the first “closed” sedan, a revolution in automobile design. By the end of the 1910s, Franklin Automobiles were recognized by industry insiders and consumers alike as some of the finest cars being made anywhere in the world.

In the wake of the Great War and the onset of the “Roaring Twenties,” Franklin was poised for expansive growth. Under Wilkinson’s technological leadership, the company streamlined its designs. Wilkinson’s design ethos dictated that form follow function. This led to cars that were lighter and more powerful than nearly any of their competitors and they continued to dominate endurance runs, durability and fuel economy challenges.

But for all of the cross-county runabouts and endurance runs of the “Franklin Camel” in Death Valley and Yosemite, Franklin’s were elegant machines, marketed to the era’s growing upper-middle class and others with means, and they were selling very well. In 1920, Franklin sold a record 10,500 cars.

Franklin’s became one of the best-selling luxury cars of the era, competing with Packard and Cadillac. Yet, at the height of Franklin’s popularity in the mid-1920s, internal disagreements foreshadowed the end. John Wilkinson left the company in late 1924, upset with H.H. Franklin for inexplicably being left out of a major redesign decision. At the urging of several major dealers, H.H. Franklin wanted the car that bore his name to look more conventional. Wilkinson wanted no part of it.

After Wilkinson’s departure, Franklin turned to two well-known and respected designers, J. Frank de Causee, and, later, Ray Dietrich. The company introduced a variety of new body styles and continued to innovate. In 1928, Franklin capitalized on Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight, a feat accomplished using an air-cooled engine, by offering a new “Airman” line. T

he company’s advertising featured Lindbergh, who was given an Airman sedan, which he drove for years. The public’s growing obsession with air travel led to an entirely new marketing campaign touting the “airplane” feel and power of a Franklin. In fact, in 1929, a small sidecraft Franklin engine was installed in an airplane, which took off and flew successfully.

At its peak in 1929, Franklin was the largest employer in the area, with some 3,500 employees; the same year, the famous driver “Cannon Ball” Baker set another world record, when he drove his sixty-five horsepower Franklin from New York to Los Angeles and back in just sixty-nine hours!

Franklin’s became one of the best-selling luxury cars of the era, competing with Packard and Cadillac. Known and respected the world over for their exquisite design and impeccable performance, Franklin looked poised for future success and longevity. Yet, this was not to be.

Buoyed by growing sales and bright prospects, H.H. Franklin had taken a massive loan to expand the Syracuse factory.

The stock market crash on October 29, 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression were financial blows that the company never recovered from. Saddled with crippling debt and unsold inventory in the face of low consumer demand, the company limped along until that final day in April, 1934, after more than three decades in business.

The tragic irony was that Franklin put out some of its finest automobiles in these dark years, including the magnificent Series 17 V-12, which company engineers had been developing since 1928. This curvy behemoth was capable of producing 150 horsepower and going eighty-five mph.

Amelia Earhart bought one in 1932. She loved it. Just five years later, Franklin and Amelia would both be gone.


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