The Tale of George B. Selden

George B. Selden is one of the most interesting men in the early days of the automobile. He was an inventor and lawyer and he made one the the most fantastic business moves in history. And it didn’t work out.

George Selden driving an automobile in 1905

George Selden driving an automobile in 1905

Selden was born in Clarkson, New York in 1846, so by the time automobiles came around, he was a seasoned lawyer and Civil War veteran. Selden saw his first internal combustion engine in 1876. It wasn’t a practical machine and was quite large. So he went to work making a smaller, more usable version – and did, in 1878 – eight years before Karl Benz introduced his Patent Motorwagen.

He applied for a patent in 1879 but not just for his useful internal combustion engine, but also for its use in a four-wheeled car. The patent was finally granted in 1895 – about the time America’s auto industry began to take off.

Selden sold his patent to the Electric Vehicle Company (who were building electric vehicles and therefore exempt from any patent-infringement on Selden’s internal combustion engine but who could, with the patent in hand, theoretically exclude other gasoline-powered manufacturers from springing up) for a royalty of $15 per car and a minimum annual payment of $5,000.

But there were already other car manufacturers building cars. Some of them came together and formed the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM) in 1902. The group was headed by Alexander Winton, owner of the largest internal combustion-producing automobile company in the United States at the time. The Electric Vehicle Company was suing a number of companies for patent-infringement, so Winton joined with Cadillac, Packard, Locomobile, Knox, Peerless, and others to fight the lawsuits.

And it worked. In exchange for fighting the suits, Selden granted those companies favorable rates – a 1.25% royalty on all cars produced. And they became his enforcers. In order to get a Selden license, you had to get into the ALAM. And ALAM members wanted to protect their business, so they weren’t very welcoming. In fact, when Henry Ford applied to a license, he was denied at the request of Oldsmobile’s member to the organization.

But we all know Henry Ford was never to be denied. So he built his cars anyway. ALAM threatened Ford’s buyers with lawsuits. Selden filed suit against Ford. Ford said, essentially, “Screw you” to everybody and went about his day.

Selden didn’t actually start building his own cars until 1906, in the midst of the legal battle with Ford. Ford argued that his engine was based on the Otto engine (which it was) and not the Brayton engine, of which Selden based his patent on. The court eventually sided with Ford and ruled that the patent was unenforceable. So the automobile industry exploded and Selden was no longer earning a cent. His funds dried up and so did his company. He died in 1922.

Imagine for a second if the court had ruled differently. The Ford name would probably still be well known, but the Selden fortune would be one of the largest in the U.S. Yes, his patent would have expired eventually (but with enough money and influence, there are all sorts of dubious channels that can be gone down to extend a patent), but for a long while, George Selden would have been making good money on every car sold in the U.S. But instead, it is just an interesting footnote in the history of the automobile. So it goes.

For a very in-depth version of this story, check out this awesome site.

Car Guy History: Henry Leland

If I’m posting this, it’s probably because auction houses haven’t gotten their most current upcoming auction catalogs online – that or I decided to feature this for the fun of it. I thought I’d dig back into the history of the automobile – a topic I really love – and find some interesting tales to tell. This is the first of those…

Henry Leland

Henry Leland

Henry Martyn Leland, born February 16, 1843, is best known for founding both Cadillac and Lincoln. But before we get to how he made a career off of Henry Ford (and became one of his main antagonists), we’ll throw in a little back story. In 1870, he opened a machine shop that would later supply engines to Oldsmobile (his first taste of the automobile industry). He had previously worked for Colt (firearms) – both of these gave him insight into the use of interchangeable parts – something successful early automotive pioneers championed heavily.

Trivia tidbit: he also invented electric barber clippers.

So here’s part one of how Henry Leland made a career off of Henry Ford: Cadillac. What does Henry Ford have to do with Cadillac? Well, he inadvertently founded it. Backtrack: in 1899, Henry Ford founded the Detroit Automobile Company with the backing of the mayor of Detroit, a senator, and William Murphy – father of Walter M. Murphy, who would later be a successful coachbuilder in Pasadena, California.

The Detroit Automobile Company built about 20 cars and went bankrupt and was dissolved in January 1901. In November of that same year, after Henry Ford had some minor racing success, he was able to convince some men (including William Murphy, again) to back him. Thus, from the remnants of the Detroit Automobile Company, the Henry Ford Company was founded. The following spring, Ford got into an argument with his backers. They gave him $900, the rights to his name, and showed him the door.

1900 Detroit Delivery Truck

1900 Detroit Delivery Truck. the first car built by a henry ford-owned company.

Ford founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903 and we all know how that went. But the Henry Ford Company still had to be dissolved. Henry Leland was brought in to appraise the tooling and factory so it could be liquidated. Leland appraised everything and then offered his unsolicited advice: don’t liquidate – start a new company. He then offered them the idea to build a car using an engine he had developed for Oldsmobile. William Murphy said “Okay!” and quickly renamed the Henry Ford Company “Cadillac.”

1903 Cadillac Model A

1903 Cadillac Model A. built by leland-owned cadillac using the leland-desgned single-cylinder engine he developed for oldsmobile.

Cadillac was building cars by the end of 1902, before Henry Ford got his “Third Time’s A Charm” thing going. In 1905, Leland merged his machine shop into Cadillac. He also introduced interchangeable parts. In 1909, Leland sold Cadillac to General Motors for $4.5 million and remained a GM executive until 1917. That’s how Leland made his first fortune off of Henry Ford.

Now for Round 2: In 1917, World War I was in full swing. GM was still in the control of its founder, William Durant (who deserves his own Fun History Lesson). Durant was a pacifist and did not want to make anything for the military. Cadillac had been asked by the government to build Liberty aircraft engines. Durant refused. So Leland walked out.

And what did he do? He took the $10 million contract from the government and founded the Lincoln Motor Company with his son. He named it “Lincoln” after his hero, Abraham Lincoln – the man he voted for in 1864 (okay, so Leland made his second fortune off of the government, and not necessarily Henry Ford). When the war ended, Leland retooled the factory to build luxury cars. By 1922, the retooling had taken its toll and Lincoln was out of money – but their factory was worth about $16 million.

1922 Lincoln L-Series Touring

1922 Lincoln L-Series Touring. The L-Series was designed by lincoln under Leland ownership and remained in production long after he left.

Henry Ford sent in a bid of $5 million to buy Lincoln, which was rejected by a judge. He upped it to $8 million – the only bidder on the insolvent company. Ford was still bitter at Leland for his success with Cadillac and wanted to pay as little as possible for Lincoln – just to demoralize the Lelands. The $8 million mostly went to pay of creditors, but Leland (and his son, Wilfred) remained as employees – not to run the company as originally promised by Ford, but to get it to a point where it wouldn’t go bankrupt again – i.e. throw quality out the door to save costs, which was, quite possibly, Leland’s most-loathed thing about the then-current automobile industry. A couple months later, an executive acting on Henry Ford’s authority, showed up to force Wilfred to resign. When Henry Leland realized Henry Ford was directly responsible for this, he, again, walked out as well.

Remarkably, both companies founded by Henry Leland still survive 100 years later – and I’m pretty sure he’s the only person to hold that distinction. Sure, he didn’t make a fortune from Henry Ford the second time around, but he did force Ford (out of spite) to spend $12 million (there was additional $4 million tax bill tacked on). Henry Leland had to be one of Henry Ford’s biggest adversaries for a majority of his career. And for that, he should be considered an automotive hero (let’s be honest, for all of Ford’s successes, he wasn’t exactly a saint).

In any case, Henry Leland (and his son, Wilfred) were engineers. They held quality above all things. And they were among the last of their kind. The companies they founded were transferred into the hands of penny-pinchers who wanted to build the most for the least. During Leland’s reign, Cadillac become known as “The Standard of the World” and there was a reason for that. Henry Leland is one of my automotive heroes – if for nothing else, than being a thorn in Henry Ford’s side for over 20 years.