How the Great Depression gave birth to the eccentric 1933 Continental Flyer
Antique car buffs know that the Continental Motors Company, based in Muskegon, Michigan, made engines for industrial, automotive, and aeronautical applications way back in the 1930s. What few may know is that, for a few years in the middle of the Great Depression, this company famous for its engines (particularly its powerful, reliable “Red Seal” motors) actually produced its own car models—three of them.
Continental Motors Company got its start in 1902. Gasoline engines were all the rage in portable pumps, generators, and welding equipment compared to their cumbersome steam counterparts. As heavy industry evolved in the United States, growing ever larger, so did the auto industry.
When Henry Ford sidelined the Selden Patent and won the case in 1911, the stranglehold restraining the auto industry lifted. Auto manufacturing boomed, opening the door to hundreds of boutique manufacturers.
New entries into the market would pick and choose from a variety of manufacturers’ chassis, suspension, brakes and steering, adding their own body designs that were often manufactured by others. In reality, most of the start-ups were assemblers; they didn’t manufacture any of the parts. Catalogues were compiled telling what components were used on other cars and are now prized as cross-referencing guides for parts hunts.
Continental initially was an engine manufacturer; it offered a two-cylinder used in early cars and grew to make engines for some great automobiles. The 1930 Ruxton, arguably America’s first front-wheel-drive car, used an inline-eight, L-head motor that was mounted backwards and coupled directly to the transaxle. The transaxle’s design was unique and had two gears before the differential and two gears ahead of it, moving the engine about a foot closer to the front of the car—a design advantage over the glorious Cord offering.
Because the Ruxton’s engine was mounted amidship, most of the entire firewall was removable from inside the cab to give access to the “back” of the engine. This allowed you to get to the timing gears and the accessory drive. That drive powered the generator and water pump, and it provided rotation for the distributor. The gearset drove the camshaft with lobes 180-degrees off from the standard cam, allowing the valvetrain to make the engine run backwards, like the second engine on a two-screw boat. (If both screws on a boat turned in the same direction, the boat would “pull;” The counter-rotating screw stabilizes the boat.)
By 1931, however, the Great Depression was in full and terrible swing. The DeVaux Company went bankrupt because of an outstanding debt to Continental: $500,000 in 1931 dollars for privately labeled “Hall” engines used in all DeVaux cars. In bankruptcy, DeVaux offered its headquarters, plant, and several-hundred nearly-completed cars with no engines—plus an inventory of parts sufficient to build many more. The DeVaux plant was physically attached to the Hayes Body plant by an overhead conveyor for direct shipments.
Continental bought the plant and its inventory and set about to do something it swore it never would: build cars to compete with their customers’. Typically, that’s not a great business model. Continental forgave half of the debt, paid $40,000 for the headquarters, and plant and got the entire inventory in exchange for the rest of the debt. The “built” cars were fitted with new Continental engines, and the balance of the cars were produced under the “Continental-DeVaux” banner.
When the plant was taken over, Continental built a new relationship with Hayes to produce a fast-track 1933 “Continental” on an all-new platform. Hayes Body employed stylist Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky up until 1930, when he went to Packard. He may not have penned these designs, but his fingerprints, so to speak, are all over them.
Continental decided to go big or go home and commissioned the design of three new cars; the 101-inch wheelbase, 45-hp Beacon; the 107-inch wheelbase, 65-hp Flyer; and its luxury offering; the 114-inch wheelbase, 85-hp Ace, with leather interior standard. The car pictured in the photographs is my 1933 Flyer. It has the presence of a big car in miniature. (The original owner was six-foot-nine, an absolute giant for that era; he had to fabricate some seat brackets to allow for his height.)
One of the notable design points is the wheel stance. The tires fit about as far outboard as possible without the tires spraying the side of the car. Most cars of the era had tires recessed into the wheel well much further.
I’m told that this is the first U.S. car to have the wiper motor below its fixed windshield. Previously, wiper motors were attached to the top of the windshield frame so that the windshield could be opened for ventilation at the bottom. The Flyer’s stylish grill shape was seen on more expensive cars, but this is an inexpensive stamping that’s chromed and then painted to look like the chrome was a separate casting. The body by Hayes is all steel, still fairly rare for the period. The only wood components in the car are the floorboards (literally) made of an early plywood. In the WWII scrap-steel drives, these were worth more in scrap than other cars due to the higher steel content, making them very rare today. However, it wasn’t terribly expensive; only $535, about the price of a contemporary Model A.
Even after committing to manufacturing its own cars, Continental shied from competing with its customers; so it decided to market the car directly to the consumer through gas station owners across the U.S. If you owned a gas station and bought a Continental car as a demonstrator, you would become a parts and service dealer; otherwise, a consumer could order parts directly but at higher shipping fees. You could buy the car at a discount and re-sell to a local buyer. The system worked, to a degree, as many parts were still available into the 1950s.
The Continental Flyer is a mechanical marvel. It has “Steeldraulics” brakes like those used on Auburns. Mechanical advantage is supplied by simple levers pulling on thick, shielded cables that activate a mechanism that spreads apart a “C-shaped” continuous brake shoe with no pivot point, rubbing up against the inside of a stamped sheet-metal brake drum. Yes, sheet metal. That was the first time I saw that, but the Ruxton I mechanically restored had giant drums stamped of sheet steel, also.
The rear suspension is equally fascinating. It uses quarter-elliptical springs paired on both sides, sprung in opposition to each other with stacked leaf-ends clamped to the chassis. The eyelets of the springs are attached to the solid rear axle by a fitting that allows the upper and lower spring mounts to move enough so that road surface flaws aren’t passed to the body. This significantly reduces sprung weight. (I’m told this configuration was used on racecars and some European offerings, but not U.S. production cars—that I know of.)
Another oddity in the suspension is the transverse spring’s mounting. It attaches to the frame in a conventional manner, but one end of the leaf spring has a conventional shackle with the other end secured directly to the solid axle. The original theory was that the widest-possible stance, a rear axle with more independent movement, and an single front-axle mounting point would create perfection in stability. It’s an automotive three-legged stool. The system does add a significant degree of comfort when the body barely moves with road undulations. It has no “buggy-roll” common to transverse-sprung period cars.
Continental exported left-hand-drive cars to Europe and New Zealand but shipped running right-hand-drive chassis—complete with grill stamping, hood and fenders mounted to the chassis, and everything attached but the passenger compartment—to Australia. (The Aussies had outrageous tariffs doubling the price of importing completed cars.) Australia began producing bodies to fit the low-priced, tax-exempt chassis. All major ports of entry had plants that took cars as they rolled off the boats and fit new bodies of their own design. Therefore, body styles were offered in Australia that were not offered in the U.S.
The Flyer’s top-of-the-line brother, the Ace, was a stand-alone model. The Beacon was seven inches shorter than the Flyer, but both bodies were the same size. The Flyer’s longer hood accommodated the inline-six (the Beacon features a more compact four-cylinder) and the remaining difference in length was taken up by the Flyer’s chassis.
Continental made about 4500 cars for 1933, the most popular being the low-priced Beacon model. For 1934 it cancelled the Flyer and Ace and only offered a face-lifted Beacon, called the car “Red Seal” to capitalize on its well-known engine branding. Continental pulled out of the business of building cars when the new offering failed in its marketplace. This would be Continental’s last foray into vehicle manufacturing until owning Divco, but that’s another story.
The 1933 Continental Flyer pictured is the only known example that’s roadworthy in the Western Hemisphere. The original owner put 33,000 miles on it in 33 years. This picture was taken the day the second owner bought it in 1966. We bought it in 2010 from the second owner’s family with just 50,000 miles on it. I was inspired by Jonathan Klinger who vowed to drive his Model A as a daily driver in northern Michigan for a full year—and did. All I did was give ours a mechanical restoration and drive it 200+ miles across Michigan on all the Indian trails-turned-highways and byways that zigzag across I-94 between Detroit and Chicago. Life is different at 45 mph. The only downside was we cruised across Michigan during what is known as the world’s largest garage sale… which fell along our exact route. It was a true test of the brakes and our patience. Remind me to never do that again.