Financial and management problems plague auto manufacturing in Lenawee

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles on automobile manufacturing in the early 20th century Adrian.

Last week I introduced the Murray car, the first car made by Church Manufacturing Co. to Adrian. Before I move on to Church’s next venture into car manufacturing, I want to say more about the company and one of the men behind it, Walter Clement.

During the early years of the 20th century, the fledgling auto industry saw an explosion of new automakers with over 2,000 (some say over 3,000) such companies in the United States.

Car shops, bike shops, mechanics, farmers and – according to one source – even an undertaker started producing cars. Many of these companies and individual entrepreneurs saw a potential “golden goose” but lacked the skills and knowledge to succeed in the automotive industry. Most would end in failure, so investors were understandably cautious.

To complicate matters, many investors were unconvinced that the “horseless carriage” was anything more than a passing fad. After all, many of the cars produced were “fliververs” which very closely resembled contemporary cars. The risk for investors was high.

Church Manufacturing Co., a local producer of woven wire fences, had an advantage because it had also been producing very good, reliable gasoline engines since the 1890s. It seemed almost natural for them to expand into automobile production. Moreover, Walter Clement, Church’s best man, knew the gasoline engine better than many of his competitors. At the start of the flights, the Murray car was pretty much the best and most reliable car on the market. With a price tag of $600, it was even preferred by many reviewers over the $650 Olds Mobile.

Clément understood manufacturing. He helped organize the Page Woven Wire Fence Co. in 1889; he also held a master’s degree in marketing and public relations. Clement has been credited with creating the Page Fence “zoo” (the topic of this column May 11, 2021) and a primary force behind the Page Fence Giants baseball team. Additionally, Walter Clement was good at writing eye-catching advertisements.

The car industry was young and most cars on the market had their own flaws. When the Murray car was tested for rural mail delivery by the local postmaster, a few of these shortcomings became apparent.

First, due to its single-cylinder engine and direct chain drive, the car was limited to two speeds – 25 mph or zero. There was no “in-between”.

Second, while it performed well in mail delivery tests, it lacked the durability needed for such daily use. After all, it wasn’t originally designed to be a utility vehicle.

Walter Clement set to work to overcome these issues by developing a series of improvements that would essentially become an all-new design. In the meantime, the production and sale of the Murray car continued. Sales were actually very good. Orders were piling up at the factory and cars were being shipped all over the country.

Manufacturing was under the control of the car’s inventor, Willis G. Murray, and was woefully inefficient; this was the main bottleneck in order fulfillment, leading to a parting of ways between Clement and Murray.

When Walter Clement took over production in late 1902, he set himself the goal of improving manufacturing efficiency. Clement has policies in place regarding employee lunch breaks, late arrivals, and employee socializing during working hours. Docking and severance pay was used to enforce the new efficiency rules. He even made employees financially responsible for their own mistakes on the job.

Production has increased. Moral? Not really. The Murray’s days were numbered and it was no longer produced at the end of 1903.

Nevertheless, the company was still plagued by a lack of capital. Clement hoped to attract investors with his new improved car named “Lenawee”.

The Lenawee had a “planetary” transmission with gears, cogs and a clutch allowing the car to be driven at variable speeds. It also had a significantly stronger frame system and a forward-facing rear seat. The car could accommodate four adults. The Murray design steering rod was dropped and replaced with a steering wheel.

The first prototype was released on May 1, 1903, followed by a second in November. A test track had been built and the second prototype had quickly covered around 2,500 miles.

The Lenawee car design was a technical success and cost $1,200. Despite Walter Clement’s efforts to sustain and expand automobile manufacturing in Adrian, the industry’s volatility and lack of interested investors left the company with insufficient capital to continue manufacturing cars. After producing only a dozen Lenawee cars, Church Manufacturing Co. returned to its roots and focused on producing woven wire fences until the late 1920s.

Bob Wessel is Vice President of the Lenawee Historical Society and can be reached at [email protected].

Geraldine L. Melton