The forgotten father of America’s automobile industry

benjamin briscoe right jonathan maxwell left 1906 ormond daytona races N Lazarnick NAHC DPL

His name graces not a single vehicle from Ford, Chrysler, or General Motors, but if one person can be said to have started the domestic American automobile industry, a strong case could be made for Benjamin Briscoe. He provided the startup funds for the original car companies that, in time, became the basis for two of the Big Three automakers, and he almost took control of the third. Yet, despite his seminal role in the auto industry, Benjamin Briscoe’s name is unknown to most car enthusiasts today.

Briscoe’s father and grandfather were both railroad mechanics and inventors. His father started a successful company, Michigan Nut and Bolt, that produced fasteners for equipment using a machine of his own design. Benjamin inherited his father’s technical creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. At eighteen, the younger Briscoe used his life savings of $472 to start Benjamin Briscoe and Company, which specialized in metal stamping and made consumer goods such as trash barrels, buckets, sprinkling cans, and bathtubs. He then sold that business to the American Can Company so he could form a new enterprise, Detroit Galvanizing and Sheet Metal Works, to exploit a machine he had invented for making corrugated pipe. His product range soon expanded to include sheet-metal parts for stoves and ranges.

Though Detroit today is known as the Motor City, at the turn of the 20th century, Detroit was the United States’ center of stove manufacturing. The supply chain for making stoves included sheet metal parts as well as castings and other foundry products, all elements that proved useful to Detroit’s automotive pioneers.

In 1900, Briscoe’s younger brother Frank graduated from the University of Michigan and joined the firm, which they reorganized as the Briscoe Manufacturing Company. Two years later, Briscoe was approached by Ransom E. Olds to manufacture an improved cooling system for the original curved-dash Oldsmobile. Oldsmobile’s chief engineer Jonathan Maxwell had designed the new radiator, but due to a 1901 fire that destroyed Olds’ factory in Detroit, Oldsmobile could not make the parts in-house because the company’s resources were devoted to rebuilding the Detroit plant and starting construction on a new facility in Lansing.

Briscoe agreed to make 4400 radiators, but a year earlier his firm had its own crisis of survival. The Detroit bank where Briscoe Manufacturing’s funds were deposited had failed and the firm was facing bankruptcy. In desperate need of operating capital and able only to find a small loan locally, Ben Briscoe took a train to New York City. Not only did Briscoe brashly talk his way into a meeting with financiers at J.P. Morgan and Company, he returned to Detroit with $100,000. That funding allowed his company to make radiators, fenders, and gas tanks for Oldsmobile, and also established a relationship with the Morgan firm that would help Briscoe in his automotive ventures.

Benjamin Briscoe in 1909
Wikimedia

Making those car parts for Oldsmobile infected Briscoe with automobile fever. He later related, “When a man becomes infected with the automobile germ, it was as though he had a disease. It had to run its course.”

Before the two of them got involved with motorcars, Briscoe had become acquainted with David Dunbar Buick, another Detroit automotive pioneer. Briscoe, as mentioned, was in the sheet-metal business, and Buick was a successful maker of plumbing fixtures, with 13 patents to his credit. Briscoe supplied Buick with thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies (at a time when thousands represented serious buying power). Business took off when Buick perfected a method for bonding porcelain to metal, capitalizing on demand for kitchen sinks, bathtubs, and toilets just as Americans transitioned from privies and outhouses to indoor plumbing. In 1899, Buick and his partner sold their plumbing supply firm for $100,000, and Buick used his share of the proceeds to start building motorcars.

Buick used a business plan common among the scores of entrepreneurs then trying to start car companies: build a successful demonstration model (a production prototype, in today’s parlance) and then use that model to raise funds to start production. By late 1902, though, he had run out of funds and extended all of his credit from suppliers like Briscoe Manufacturing. Buick had made some motorcars, but his shaky financing kept him from making that key demonstration model.

By then, Briscoe had become a bit of an automobile enthusiast. When Buick confessed to Briscoe he could not pay the $650 he owed him, Briscoe agreed to forgive the loan—and to pay off Buick’s other debts and loan him an additional $650 to finish the demonstration model. According to that deal, Briscoe would then own the completed automobile, though Buick could use it to raise additional funds to start manufacturing. Buick completed the demonstration motorcar in the spring of 1903 but pleaded with Briscoe for more financing.

Around the same time, Briscoe had a meeting with Jonathan Maxwell, who had since left Oldsmobile, to get his perspective on Buick’s venture. Maxwell checked out Buick’s new motorcar but must not have been impressed; he tried to convince Briscoe to start a new car company under his and Maxwell’s own management.

In the meantime, however, there was still Buick’s debt and Briscoe’s desire to have a car of his own. Briscoe agreed to loan Buick an additional $1500 if he reorganized the company, with the total debt of about $3500 secured by Buick stock, which itself was backed by David Buick’s intellectual property. Briscoe would get the first car of Buick’s own design (he’d made an earlier car with Walter Marr, perhaps the most influential of Detroit’s early motor men), and if he wasn’t paid back or bought out, he’d own the entire nascent Buick Motor Company.

That same summer, Briscoe started financially backing Maxwell’s motorcar development, and by the end of 1903, the two would organize the Maxwell-Briscoe Company. Buick was still adapting his novel “valve-in-head” overhead-valve stationary engine for automotive use. That engine would eventually make Buick a success, but at the time Briscoe was not convinced. When he returned from a trip to Europe and found out that the principals of the Flint Wagon Works were looking to get into the automobile business, Briscoe engineered the sale of Buick Motor Company. Less than a year later, William Durant would take control of Buick, making it the foundation of General Motors.

In 1904, Maxwell-Briscoe sold just 10 cars. Two years later it was the fifth-largest car company in the United States, with three factories and sales totaling 2450 automobiles. Those factories, in Tarrytown, New York; Pawtucket, Rhode Island; and Chicago, had limited capacity, so Maxwell-Briscoe built a large, new factory in New Castle, Indiana (which ended up producing cars and car parts for over a century). The company embraced new forms of marketing, including working with the then-young motion picture industry; participating in the early tours and endurance runs; racing; and sponsoring Alice Ramsey’s 1909 transcontinental road trip with three female companions. By 1909, Maxwell-Briscoe was the third largest car company in America, selling 9400 automobiles in that year alone.

alice ramsey maxwell spooner and wells
National Automotive History Collection Detroit Public Library
Alice Ramsey, Maxwell Spooner and Wells

Despite the promise of the young automobile industry, the early 20th century was not an easy time to start a manufacturing business. Banks were not regulated nor deposits insured and, as mentioned above, a bank failure could wipe out its depositors. Financial panics were not uncommon. Briscoe knew how precarious things could be. In 1909, he tried to merge Maxwell-Briscoe with Durant’s General Motors, but Durant broke off the talks because he was too overextended from buying Cadillac to raise the necessary cash.

Briscoe then tried to buy Ford Motor Company. Yes, just as Henry Ford was introducing the Model T, he essentially gave Benjamin Briscoe an option to buy FoMoCo for $8 million. Briscoe had even arranged financing from the backers of the failed Electric Vehicle Company who wanted to get back into the automobile business, this time with gasoline power. Unfortunately, the era’s financial chaos intruded with a decline in the stock market that caused the backers to withdraw.

Maxwell-Briscoe did end up merging, as it turned out, becoming the linchpin of the United States Motor Company, which also included Columbia, Alden-Sampson, the Dayton Motor Car Company, the Gray Motor Company, and Brush Runabout, which was run by Frank Briscoe. As it turned out, though, Columbia was in poor shape and Dayton, which made the Stoddard-Dayton automobile, was a money pit. By 1912, creditors took over U.S. Motor and Ben Briscoe left the company.

Maxwell survived under the management of former Ford associate Walter Flanders. By 1920, however, Maxwell was in trouble again. This time the financial backers picked former Buick president and then-general manager of Willys-Overland, Walter P. Chrysler, to save the company. Chrysler, perhaps the most competent automobile executive ever, was wanted so badly that the financiers allowed him to keep his job at Willy-Overland, running both companies at the same time. Chrysler used Maxwell to develop a new car, the first Chrysler-branded automobile, even before launching the Chrysler Corporation. By the late 1920s, Chrysler bought the Dodge Brothers company from John and Horace Dodge’s widows and started the low-priced Plymouth brand, creating the third member of Detroit's “Big Three.”

After leaving Maxwell, Briscoe would try to revive his automotive career, first riding the cycle-car boom with the $295 Argo until Henry Ford cut the price of the Model T in 1916 enough to make cycle-cars irrelevant. He then founded the Briscoe Motor Corporation, with a factory in Jackson, Michigan, eventually making it one of the 20 largest car companies in the United States. However, in 1921, when the country was experiencing a deep recession, Briscoe’s infection with the car germ had apparently run its course. He sold his interest in Briscoe Motor Corporation and permanently left the automobile industry. He started a Canadian company refining crude oil with a process he invented, and mined gold and other minerals in Colorado. Briscoe eventually retired to a 3000-acre estate in Florida where he experimented with tung trees.

Buick, which became General Motors, and Maxwell, which became Chrysler, would likely have never existed without Benjamin Briscoe’s backing. He can very well be credited with founding two of the Big Three, even apart from almost owning Ford. Few individuals have made a more lasting impact on the automobile industry, but who today remembers Benjamin Briscoe?