Thursday, May. 23, 2019

San Rafael's Hopes for an Automobile Factory

By Robert L. Harrison · January 08, 2019

1901 Buffalo Runabout; tiller-driven. Though the vehicle depicted here is electric -and manufactured by a different automobile company- it would be similar to the runabout produced by the California Automobile Co. in 1901.   <span>&copy; Buffalo Auto & Bi Glo Co. </span>

1901 Buffalo Runabout; tiller-driven. Though the vehicle depicted here is electric -and manufactured by a different automobile company- it would be similar to the runabout produced by the California Automobile Co. in 1901.


Land transportation in the 19th century was limited to railroads, the horse, with or without a carriage, and walking.  As the 20th century dawned the “horseless carriage”, a new transportation mode, was emerging.   Though many felt the car to be just a passing fashion, Thomas Alva Edison in the article “Carriages For All” published in the June 24, 1897 Marin Journal, was quoted as saying “The automobile is bound to be in general use before long.”

 Edison explained further “….there are three different kinds of power to consider – gas, petroleum and electricity.  Electricity should be the cheapest. The most successful automobiles made thus far are those in which electric motors are used.  They can go 25 miles or more without being recharged, at a rate of ten miles an hour.  I expect the horse to disappear almost entirely…”  

 Today with electric cars now gaining acceptance, Edison may have been premature by about 100 years with his prediction for the best way to power automobiles.  Yet he was absolutely correct in his prediction that the car would become the most popular mode of transportation. 

 In 1900, San Rafael attempted to join the automobile wave of the future.  The California Automobile Company was seeking a North Bay site for its factory.  The San Rafael Board of Trade proposed to advance the interests of San Rafael and secure the factory.  As an enticement the Board offered the company a clear deed for seven acres of land.   It also highlighted other inducements including cheap freight rates, proximity to the city, fine climate, good roads and excellent water facilities.  The Marin Journal supported the Board noting in its December 27, 1900 issue, “It is a good move. A united organized effort can accomplish much good for our city.”

 Marin County was not the only North Bay location explored by the Company.   According to the Press Democrat on December 19, 1900, “B. L. Ryder, vice president of the California Automobile Company is at Petaluma seeing what that city will offer his company to establish a big factory there for the manufacture of automobiles.”   The Sausalito News reported on December 29, 1900, “… certain parties are anxious to establish one [automobile factory] on this side of the bay.  A better place than Sausalito for such an institution could not be found.” 

 At the January 15, 1901 meeting of the San Rafael Board of Trade, B. L. Ryder explained the company’s factory would be located in San Rafael with their offices at 222 Sansome Street in San Francisco.  The Marin Journal of January 17, 1901 quoted Ryder, “He stated that the company looked upon San Rafael as a favorable location on account of cheap freight rates and proximity to the city.” 

 Ryder also noted that the company would employ 50 to 150 high class mechanics to produce all parts except tires and ball bearings.  The machine would be propelled by gasoline, but steam or electric would be made if wanted.  The new factory would include a “speed and exhibition tract” around the factory where the machines could be tested and purchasers taught how to operate them.

 Ryder went on to explain that the company preferred to buy its own land provided its stock was purchased by local citizens to the amount of $10,000 ($270,000 in 2018 dollars).  Construction of the factory would begin within 30 days after the stock was fully subscribed and the funds deposited in a local bank.  The Board expressed great optimism that the stock would be fully subscribed within a week.

 By early February the stock subscription was secured at nearly the amount required.  However, on February 23rd the Marin County Tocsin reported, “A week ago the prospect of the establishment of the Automobile Factory in San Rafael was growing beautifully dimmer and nearing the vanishing point.  Today, the prospects are as nearly assured as can be said of anything not yet an accomplished fact.”  The Tocsin concluded, “In view of this situation, the California Automobile Company will open offices in San Rafael next week and make preparations to begin business”.

 The newspaper’s conclusion proved entirely wrong.  Just two weeks later on March 9, 1901, the Tocsin noted, “The automobile people have decided on San Francisco for a factory.”   There was no explanation given for the company’s reversal.  The funds collected in San Rafael to support a local factory were returned and automobiles were never built in Marin County.

 The California Automobile Company factory was at 346 McAllister Street in San Francisco.  By late March the company advertised in the San Francisco Call, “5 Per Cent Interest on Your Money! Do you want to Make Money? Do you want to double your capital?  Do you want a safe investment secured by bonds? The California Automobile Company pays 5 per cent interest on its bonds.”  The advertisement outlined company’s resources listing them as $150,000 in buildings, machinery, patents and orders.  It assured would be backers it was a “Safe Investment---Good Security!”

 In the May 12, 1901 San Francisco Call the company advertised, “Automobiles….We Build to Order….Gasoline, Steam and Parts….Guaranteed for One Year….Delivered on Telephone Order-Tel. Jessie 366….Monthly Payment Plan.”  The company’s main car was a runabout that ranged in price from $500 to $3,000 ($13,500 to $81,000 in 2018 dollars).  The car was tiller driven with an air-cooled gasoline engine. 

 On May 12, 1902, after just over one year in business, a fire destroyed the company’s factory as well as all its machinery, a disaster that marked the end of the California Automobile Company.

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