November 2: The “Best Built Car in America” Hits the Road

 

On this day in 1902, the Locomobile Company of America delivered its first four-cylinder, gasoline-powered car, designed by engineer and former racecar driver Andrew Riker, who personally drove the $4,000 car from Bridgeport, Connecticut to New York City to present it to its new owner.

Since its founding in 1899, the Locomobile Company, whose headquarters and main factory were located in Bridgeport, had established a national reputation as a manufacturer of affordable steam-powered vehicles. But steam-powered car engines were slow to start, difficult to operate, and notoriously fickle machines. Pressed by a desire to move away from steam engines and a steep increase in competition from other turn-of-the-century auto manufacturers, the Locomobile Company decided to reinvent itself as a producer of high-quality, luxury gas-powered vehicles.

This Library of Congress photo shows President Harding’s $9,000 Locomobile, with the Presidential Seal emblazoned on its side.

Locomobiles quickly became one of the hottest commodities for the most conspicuous consumers of the early 20th century. Featuring famously meticulous and reliable craftsmanship and sporting high-quality leather, bronze, and silver fittings (some of which were made by New York’s Tiffany & Co.), prices for the top Locomobile models soared to incredible heights, with some costing more than two or three times the price of an average single-family house. President Warren G. Harding purchased a 1921 model Locomobile during the first year of his presidency that cost $9,000 — an amount equal to over $125,000 in today’s dollars.

The Locomobile Company reigned supreme in the niche category of luxury American cars for decades, bolstered by celebrity owners (like the President of the United States) and highly publicized racecar victories like the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup — the first international racing victory using an American-made car. For years, the company proudly used the motto, “The Best Built Car in America.” Unfortunately, the 1929 stock market crash wiped out the Locomobile’s target audience — wealthy American consumers — virtually overnight, and the already-struggling company folded before year’s end. Today, well-built and opulent Locomobiles remain some of the most sought-after collector cars from the early 20th century: Connecticut-built automotive icons of a bygone era.

Further Reading

Eric Lehman, “The Locomobile Company of America,” Bridgeport Historical Society

The History of the Best Built Car in America,” Locomobile Society of America

First Four-cylinder, Gas-powered Locomobile Hits the Road,” history.com

Then and Now: The Locomobile Factory in Bridgeport,” Vanderbilt Cup Races blog