Locomobiles & Trumbulls – Locally built Automobiles from 100-plus Years Ago

Part Four of the Historical Society of Easton’s Series on transportation in Easton. Our Easton in the Service Series will continue in July.

My first memories of the Locomobile are of a rather large black touring car that sat backed into a garage on Old Redding Road just a few hundred feet south of the late Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II’s home in Weston. Weekend drives through Easton, Weston & Redding with my father in his Jaguar XK-140 were some of my favorite memories of being a ten-year-old kid. I remember dad pointing out the old Locomobile one Saturday morning and telling me it had been manufactured in Bridgeport. Up to that point in my short life I had assumed all American made automobiles had come from Detroit.

My grandfather was a great storyteller – aren’t all grandfathers? After learning the cars were built in Bridgeport, I remember my grandfather telling us about the Locomobiles that used to roar past the family homestead on Flat Rock Road. It seemed that all Locomobiles chassis were extensively test driven prior to the installation of the body to the frame. Since the factory was located at the foot of Main Street at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, one of the routes was for some of the cars being tested to run up Park Avenue, through part of Trumbull, and into Easton where they would turn up Flat Rock Road for a test of power and handling on the steep and twisting incline. Once reaching Sport Hill Road, the cars turned left and proceeded race across the ridge before twisting their way down the winding hill where their brakes received a good workout. This route was often run in reverse, perhaps simply to make each test driver’s day more interesting.

The “testing crew” at the Locomobile factory in Bridgeport. All vehicles bore the identical license plate “M-3”. Car chassis were extensively road tested for mechanical excellence prior to installation of the body.

Easton was likely a great place to bring the cars up to speed as the town had no official police force to enforce the state’s mandated maximum speed limit of 15 mph in the country. According to Gramps the Loco’s were traveling far in excess of that. Connecticut was the first state in the union to pass a law limiting vehicle speed in May of 1901.

It is interesting to note that each and every factory owned Locomobile bore the exact same license plate – M-3. Each Connecticut manufacturer of automobiles had its own number, but the plates used were not distinguishable from each other. Any complaints lodged about excess speed or reckless driving would be aimed only at the company and not at any individual test driver since there was no way to identify an individual automobile.

While the first Locomobiles were small electric automobiles built in Watertown, Massachusetts, by 1900 the company had purchased a 40-acre parcel of land that was adjacent to Seaside Park where it would build a new plant in 1901. By 1902, the company had produced and sold a total of 5,200 steam powered automobiles, but with the limitations of steam as a power source, sales began to dwindle, and the company needed to change directions.

Samuel Todd Davis and Andrew L. Riker made a decision that changed the declining fortunes of the Locomobile Company in January of 1902 when Riker was tasked to develop the company’s first gasoline powered car. Within only eleven months, in November of 1902, the first four-cylinder gasoline powered Locomobile, a Model C was completed with Andrew Riker driving it from the Bridgeport factory to deliver it to a customer in New York City. The price tag was reputed to be around $4,000, not at all a small sum of money at the turn of the century.

Riker was also responsible for developing and refining Locomobiles as racing machines. The company spent $18,000 in 1904 just to build one high horsepower engine that would be destined to propel Locomobile’s “Old Sixteen” to become the first American machine to win in international competition. Riker’s involvement with the Bridgeport Automobile Club also led to the local Memorial Day hill climbs being held on Sport Hill in Easton between 1902 and 1909. The final race in 1910 was moved to Snake Hill on Burr Street.

Prototype of the first Locomobile race car at Seaside Park in Bridgeport taken in 1905. Andrew L. Riker spent $18,000 of the company’s money deigning and building the engine alone.

Davis and Riker soon decided their gasoline powered automobiles should be the best of the best. Locomobile would stress quality rather than quantity. Initial production was limited to only four vehicles per day. Unlike many manufacturers of the day who outsourced their cast steel, aluminum, and bronze parts, Locomobile created their own molds and forged their own parts right in their Bridgeport factory. Locomobiles were sold through eight large city distributors that employed sales staffs that sat down with each customer to basically design an automobile just for them. Besides Bridgeport, branches were located in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland. Branch offices could appoint individual dealers to represent the product if they so chose.

In order to facilitate sales and convince potential customers that Locomobiles were worth every penny of their high purchase price, the company produced an elaborate book about the cars on an annual basis. In it there were stories and high-quality photographs about Locomobiles that had traveled to far reaching places throughout the world. Detailed descriptions of how the cars were produced in Bridgeport were also given. The entire book from 1912 can be viewed here: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015076014748&view=1up&seq=16

1912 Locomobile Torpedo Six photographed at Milford’s Memorial Stone Bridge. High quality photographs such as this adorned Locomobile’s annual book about the automobile. The 1912 book was a total of 224 pages in length.

Once an order was placed, a team of six highly qualified mechanics at the factory gathered the required parts and then built each car to order. It was with a sense of pride that the lead mechanic on each machine stamped his initials on the main bearing caps as the team hand-assembled every engine. After completing a running chassis, each car was then thoroughly tested and driven for several miles. When every mechanical detail was deemed perfect, the chassis would be driven to either the Bridgeport Body Works or the Blue Ribbon Body Company to have its custom ordered body built and installed. Locomobile never actually built their own bodies, one of the few details that was never mentioned in the company’s elaborate annual book. Quality leather hides and Tiffany and Company silver fittings were used to create a luxurious interior in each automobile.

Interior of Locomobile plant in Bridgeport in 1910 shows vehicles in various stages of assembly awaiting to begin the next step towards completion.

Locomobile’s primary American competition at the time would have been the 3 “P’s” – Pierce- Arrow, Peerless, and Packard. All were considered luxury name plates, but Locomobile was the most expensive. By 1909, except for a handful of prestigious European brands, only the exquisite American made Lozier automobile sold for more money than the Locomobile. Locomobile model prices began at $3,500 and ranged upward to the mid-$6,000 range for standard equipped vehicles. Customized bodies and interiors could easily add a few thousand more to the final cost.

Famed and wealthy buyers such as Andrew Carnegie and Charlie Chaplin took
pride in owning a custom built Locomobile. Budding automotive entrepreneurs like Walter P. Chrysler bought a Locomobile just so that they could disassemble it, examine the quality of the parts and the way the vehicle was constructed so that they could learn the proper way to build a quality automobile. The Locomobile was dubbed the “Best Built Car in America,” a moniker that proved true for the brand for several years. Even years later when brass era cars began to become collectable, adding a Locomobile to your collection was a desirable goal. Metropolitan Opera tenor James Melton who resided on Steep Hill Road in Weston could often be seen driving his 1907 Locomobile around Easton in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Melton’s Loco’ bore his initialized license plate “JMEL.”

Singer James Melton, a resident of Weston, in his 1907 Locomobile. Photo taken in 1946.

As sales for its expensive automobile line struggled after 1910, the company turned its attention to building a rugged line of trucks. The trucks were named for Riker, so as not to tarnish the Locomobile image and reputation for building high-priced luxury vehicles. During World War I, the company sold its Riker truck to the British army in such numbers that it ended up supplying more vehicles to the war effort than any other American company. In addition to a regular line of heavy-duty transport trucks, Riker also produced a few special purpose trucks like the mobile kitchen unit shown below, while Locomobile produced hundreds of WWI ambulances.

Riker specialty truck produced for use in WWI. A mobile kitchen. Photo taken at Seaside Park in Bridgeport.
1918. Riker trucks lined up at Seaside Park waiting to be driven by soldiers to NYC where they would be loaded onto ships and sent overseas.
1917. Soldiers training at Seaside Park using a Locomobile ambulance.

The Locomobile was not the only automobile to be built in Bridgeport prior to WWI.

On the other end of the price and size spectrum was the American Cylcecar Company. Their first car was designed in Detroit in 1912 by Harry J. Stoops and called The American. It was powered by a side valve inline four-cylinder engine with an 86.4 cubic inch displacement that developed about 18 horsepower. The first units had a friction disc transmission with power to the rear wheels provided by a chain.

But before the first car was ever built, the company was sold to a Bridgeport, Connecticut family who also owned the Connecticut Electric Manufacturing Company on Connecticut Avenue. They changed the name of the new automobile to Trumbull.

If you are like me, you probably think the new car was named for the town just to the north of Bridgeport, and like me, you would be mistaken. The car derived its new name from the three brothers who owned the company: Alexander H., Isaac B., and Frank S.Trumbull. A fourth brother, John Harper Trumbull was elected as the 70th governor of the State of Connecticut in 1925 and served for six years. Governor Trumbull piloted his own plane and became known as “The Flying Governor.”

Connecticut Governor John H. Trumbull in 1928

Cyclecars were popular in Europe where the existing streets within most towns and cities were extremely narrow. They provided adequate gasoline powered transportation at a low cost. In America, cars that small had limited appeal. With a wheelbase of only 80 inches, the Trumbull was the smallest American cyclecar made, making it too tiny to carry any more a driver and a single passenger – neither of whom could be very tall nor very heavy. Fitting two adults side by side in the miniscule machine was a challenge that few American buyers were willing to take on despite it’s meager $425 price tag.

It is estimated that about 2,000 Trumbull’s were built between 1913 and early 1915 when operations were forced to cease. Most of the company’s production – about 1,500 units in all – had been exported to Europe and Australia. Isaac Trumbull was on his way to Europe in May of 1915 to consummate a deal that would have resulted in the sale and exportation of another 300 units. He, along with a shipment of twenty of his tiny cyclecars, was aboard the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7th. The company ceased operations shortly thereafter and never reopened.

At the end of it’s short run, the Trumbull was available in two regular production models – the original roadster and a two-passenger sedan. In addition, the company produced at least a handful of tiny trucks with van style bodies and offered another model known as the “Speedster.” By 1915, the vehicles had acquired a 3-speed transmission and were supposedly capable of reaching a top speed of fifty mph – a somewhat dubious claim unless it was on a downhill run! It was advertised as “America’s First Fully Equipped Light Car”!

1915 Sales brochure for the American Cyclecar Company showing the speedster model for $395.
1914 Trumbull Cyclecar van
1915 Trumbull Coupe. One of two known to survive. Note the position of the spare tire. The car could only be entered from the right side. the 9M license plate is a reproduction of the manufacturer’s Connecticut plate from 1915.

Lest anyone think that such a tiny machine couldn’t stand the test of time, examine the photograph below. It is of a 1915 Trumbull that was still in daily use in Rhode Island nearly twenty years later in 1934. Among its competition, the Trumbull enjoyed the reputation of being a reliable and sturdy little vehicle.

This 1915 Trumbull sedan photographed in 1934 was still running and appears to be in very good condition

To the best of my knowledge, only two of the sedans still exist today. An interesting concept to raise and lower the side glass in the doors was a cloth strap that was attached to the outer edge of the bottom of the window, then run under the glass, and secured on the inside of the door panel by a flat button that twisted and locked the strap in place near to top of the panel when the window was down. When the strap was unlocked and pulled downward, the glass rose to the closed position and the strap was then secured at the bottom of the door panel on a separate pin. Certainly, an inexpensive way to get the task done!

Note the fabric strap under the window opening. Unfasten it from the door and pull it downwards to raise the window glass before fastening the strap to the lower pin post.
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