Napoleon Motors: Gone but not forgotten

Advertising for a 1918 Napoleon touring car from the Traverse City Motor Car Company

It was a marriage of convenience. A failed one, as it turned out.

A century ago, in 1916, Traverse City, Michigan, suffered the loss of its largest employer, a wood product producer. It needed a new company to step up. A small automaker in Napoleon, Ohio, raised its hand and offered a solution. But was it the right one?

As America’s automotive industry continued to grow in the early 1900s, the chance for Traverse City to climb aboard and bring the Napoleon Motor Car Company to northern Michigan seemed like a golden opportunity. And it was. But you’ve probably never even heard of a Napoleon car, let alone seen one, so you can guess how it turned out.

Perhaps desperation played a role in Traverse City’s decision to get into the auto business. Maybe it was just a case of poor timing. Probably both. But that’s the trouble with hindsight. It isn’t available until after the fact.

A 1920 ad in Motor Age magazine featuring the Napoleon Truck, “Conqueror of the Highway”
A 1920 ad in Motor Age magazine featuring the Napoleon Truck, “Conqueror of the Highway”
courtesy of Jeff Peek

The Domino effect

Traverse City, now a thriving resort community and popular year-round tourist destination, is located on Lake Michigan about 240 miles northwest of Detroit. (It also happens to be the home of Hagerty headquarters.) Known for its natural beauty, the “Queen City of the North” traces its roots to 1847, when wide-eyed prospective lumbermen Harry Boardman and his son, Horace, sought their fortune in the area’s densely wooded forests. With inland roads few and far between, the hardwoods’ proximity to water—and, in turn, easy access to Chicago-bound ships—made the area even more attractive. The sheltered, southern-most shore of Grand Traverse Bay was the perfect access point, and the Boardmans went to work.

In time, Harry Boardman’s dream indeed came to fruition, but he cashed out after only four years. In 1851, Boardman relinquished his mill to Chicago businessmen Perry Hannah, Albert Tracy Lay, and James Morgan, who invested heavily in the industry and changed Traverse City’s future. Hannah took up permanent residence to run the operation (which included the enormous Hannah and Lay Mercantile, cornerstone of the city), and he is forever known as the father of Traverse City. A statue of Hannah stands on the corner of his old neighborhood, a short walk from his palatial home.

Northern Michigan’s precious hardwoods spawned other businesses like the Oval Wood Dish Company, which produced a variety of wood products from maple, beech, oak, and birch—things like bowls, rolling pins, clothespins, and thin disposable packaging used in grocery stores and butcher shops. The company, which moved to Traverse City from nearby Mancelona in 1892, grew to spur on the city’s largest industry, with a work force of 500 in management, production, and sales, and another 150 harvesting trees. According to Lawrence Wakefield’s 1988 book, Queen City of the North, the Oval Wood Dish Company cut approximately 21 million board feet of timber in 24 years. Then the wood supply began to run out, and the company left, shuttering its Traverse City operations and moving to timber-rich Tupper Lake, New York, in 1916.

The city was in dire straits.

The auto industry offers hope

A 1920 sales brochure from New York’s American Motors Incorporated—no, not that American Motors—for Napoleon Trucks
A 1920 sales brochure from New York’s American Motors Incorporated—no, not that American Motors—for Napoleon Trucks
courtesy of Jeff Peek
Napoleon truck specs
Napoleon truck specs
Courtesy of Jeff Peek

After hearing about the Napoleon Motor Car Company from the brother of a local physician, Traverse City residents gathered at the Chamber of Commerce early in 1917 and, according to Wakefield, “decided that an auto plant was just the thing to boost the area’s ailing economy.” Napoleon was having some difficulties of its own, not because business was bad but because it was too good. The automaker had neither the space nor the capital to fill its orders, and Traverse City promised both. A deal came together within a couple of weeks, and a story in the June 14, 1917 issue of The Automobile announced the pending sale.

To finalize the agreement, the Traverse City community needed to raise $75,000 in start-up capital. On June 16, the newly formed Traverse City Motor Car Company began selling $10 shares of stock, a price that would allow almost everyone in Traverse City to get in on the ground floor of what was sure to become a financial windfall.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle newspaper carried advertisements urging participation. One headline read, in hard-to-miss capital letters, “THESE PEOPLE WANT AN AUTO FACTORY IN TRAVERSE—HOW ABOUT YOU?” And as the capital fund deadline neared, the paper printed a letter signed by Mrs. J. Brown that read, “Nearly everyone in Traverse City has been loyal to our country. We have bought Liberty Bonds and we have aided the Red Cross. Now let us be loyal to our city by buying stock in the new auto company. Don’t be a slacker in your hometown! I am only a poor widow woman, but I love Traverse City and want to see it grow and prosper.”

Mrs. Brown’s neighbors heeded the call, and in August, The Automobile announced that equipment and other property had been transferred, sufficient stock had been sold, and production would soon begin.

Napoleon personnel pose with a recreational vehicle specially built for sales manager Stanley Rae, second from left
Napoleon personnel pose with a recreational vehicle specially built for sales manager Stanley Rae, second from left
Lawrence Wakefield, Queen City of the North

A dream becomes reality

Taking up residence in buildings once occupied by a flooring company, the Traverse City Motor Car Company began producing Napoleon-badged cars in November 1917. Three models were offered: a four-passenger roadster, a larger six-passenger model, and a more powerful, six-cylinder, six-passenger touring car. A truck soon joined to the Napoleon lineup, and it became the company’s best seller. In fact, car production was halted in 1920 so workers could focus exclusively on the construction of one- and 1 1/2-ton trucks. To reflect the change, the Traverse City Motor Car Company changed its name to the Napoleon Motors Company.

Rise and fall

Although the automaker’s original goal was to complete a staggering “10 cars per day,” according to Wakefield, it built 95 cars and 25 trucks in 1918, and another 125 cars and 125 trucks in 1919. Just as it appeared that Napoleon was hitting its stride by producing an average of five trucks per day in 1920, a recession hit in February 1921 and the money soon ran out. After sitting idle for two years and attempting a comeback in 1923, Napoleon eventually filed for bankruptcy.

Some 3,000 stockholders—mostly local—lost every cent they had invested. According to Wakefield, in The Way it Was: Stories from the Grand Traverse Region, one of the automaker’s largest investors was Julius Steinberg, owner of Steinberg Brothers general store and the City Opera House. When the market started to slip, he offered to redeem $10 Napoleon stock certificates for $10 worth of merchandise. So many people took him up on the offer that he too went bankrupt in 1926. “Other investors included a group of well-known Traverse City sportsmen,” Wakefield wrote, “who papered their hunting and fishing shack on the Boardman River with worthless Napoleon stock certificates.”

It was a sad ending to a hopeful and ambitious venture that officially began 100 years ago this month. Today, a Napoleon car or truck is an incredibly rare find. In fact, the burned-out remains of a 1919 truck that northern Michigan auto enthusiast Dennis Kuhn found in Colorado and restored in 1996 (now owned by Hagerty) may be the only Napoleon in existence.

1919 Napoleon truck in front of Hagerty headquarters
1919 Napoleon truck in front of Hagerty headquarters
Hagerty