Our Towns

Flashback to Auto Industry Here in Its Early Days

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There’s no doubt that the Wick family found success in the steel industry. But the early industrialists almost made their way into a second business that’s had just as large an impact on the Mahoning Valley: automobiles.

In 1902, Henry and Hugh B. Wick commissioned a prototype car, dubbed “The Blue Goose. Considered to be one of the most expensive cars in the country at the time – it’s reported to have cost $15,000 or just shy of $500,000 today – the bright blue car featured a 30-horsepower engine and a top speed of 40 miles per hour.

“It was an enormous car, very well appointed. The Wicks were a wealthy family and at that time, cars were thought of as things for upper middle class and rich people,” said author Vince Guerreri at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Bites & Bits of History lunch last week. “They shopped it around but never put it into production. It was sold to Stearns, a Cleveland manufacturer and it’s whereabouts are unknown.”

According to the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County, the Cleveland automaker bought the car for $765 in 1904.

But that wasn’t the first foray into the automotive industry in the Youngstown area. A few years earlier, in 1895, Dr. Carlos Booth combined materials from  Fredonia Carriage and Manufacturing Co., based at the corner of Market and Front streets downtown, and Pierce-Crouch Engine Co. in New Brighton, Pa., to build the first car in Youngstown.

“They just put the engine into the carriage and he used to get around and make house calls,” Guerreri said.

In 1906, The Vindicator reported in an article titled “Doctor C.C. Booth and his pioneer auto”  that Booth stopped using the car because it “made a commotion among the horses.”

Beyond just necessity, the automotive industry in the area was also born out of entrepreneurial spirit. After purchasing a car from Winton Motor Carriage Co. in Cleveland, James Packard drove it back to Youngstown. Except, he didn’t make it all the way back before it broke down.

“He had a lot of problems with it,” Guerreri said. “He corresponded with the company at length to the point they got annoyed and essentially said, ‘If you think can build a better car, why don’t you?’ ”

Vince Guerreri shares his insights at the Tyler History Center.

Thus was born Packard Motor Car Co. in 1899. Initially, the company built cars at the plant Packard and his brother owned – Packard Electric – but eventually relocated the car-building operation out of the area in 1902.

“The problem they ran into was a lack of space to expand their operations and a lack of capital,” Guerreri said. “They took on other investors and the company ultimately moved to Detroit, which even then was the center of the auto industry.”

That wouldn’t the last connection between Detroit and the Mahoning Valley. Of course, the General Motors Lordstown Complex opened in 1965, initially producing four Chevrolet models: the Caprice, Bel Air, Biscayne and Impala. But one particular model made its way into one of the most popular TV shows of the 21st century.

In 2013, “Mad Men” featured an episode where advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce mentions working on a secret project for General Motors, the XP-897.

“t was the Chevy Vega, which was one of the great flops in American auto history. They made the Vega in Lordstown and it was beset by many, many problems,” Guerreri said.

“There were problems with labor relations when they were making it because the assembly line had to move so quickly. There was eventually a wildcat strike,” he continued. “They made 2 million of them. Motor Trend named it the Car of the Year in its first year and they later said they want to take that one back because it’s a lemon for all-time.”

Pictured above: Henry and Hugh B. Wick commissioned the building of an upscale car in 1902. Dubbed “The Blue Goose,” it cost $15,000 to build at the time. Photo courtesy Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.

Flashback is sponsored by Hickey Metal Fabricating, Salem. To see videos in this series, CLICK HERE.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.