The Rise And Fall Of A Brass Era Giant

The Chalmers automobile played so large a part in America’s automotive history that it’s a wonder many people have never even heard of it. Mr. Chalmers and his automobile company touched many manufacturers and historic figures.

Baseball players Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie in a Chalmers during their race for the 1910 batting title.

It’s hard to believe today, but at one time the electric cash register was one of the biggest growth industries in the world, and National Cash Register was a dynamic company that made many people wealthy. One person who benefited was Hugh Chalmers, Vice-President of National Cash Register, who in 1907 was earning the unbelievable salary of $72,000 a year. Anxious to possess his own company, Chalmers jumped at the chance to become a partner in the Thomas-Detroit Company, which built Thomas automobiles in Detroit under an agreement with the E.R. Thomas Motor Company of Buffalo, New York. This was the same company, by the way, whose Thomas Flyer would later win the now-legendary 1908 New York to Paris race.

To gain entry into the auto industry, Hugh Chalmers bought E.R. Thomas’s stake in Thomas-Detroit, which was renamed Chalmers-Detroit in July 1908. The other existing partners in the company included co-founders Howard Coffin and Roy D. Chapin, former Oldsmobile employees anxious to move up in the auto business.

Chalmers-Detroit cars sold in the $1,500— $2,800 range. When Coffin proposed an under-$1,000 car that he’d designed, Chalmers proved unenthusiastic. So, Chapin and Coffin convinced Detroit department store magnate J.L. Hudson to invest in their new car which, aptly enough, they named Hudson.

Since Chapin and Coffin wanted to go in one direction, and Chalmers another, it wasn’t hard to predict what happened next. Coffin and Chapin bought out Chalmers’ investment in Hudson, and Chalmers bought out Chapin and Coffin’s investment in Chalmers-Detroit. Chapin and Coffin’s Hudson Motor Car Company went on to great success.

Hugh Chalmers now had his own company. It had an outstanding reputation, having won several races in 1908-1909. In addition, Chalmers-Detroit cars were often owned by wealthy and prominent families, including the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. In 1910 Chalmers’ line of automobiles included six models in the Thirty (30-hp) series and three models in the Forty (40-hp) series. Prices ranged from $1,500 to $3,000.

In late 1910 the company was reorganized as the Chalmers Motor Car Company and the car’s name was shortened to Chalmers. That year, a Chalmers won the coveted Glidden Trophy. The brand grew in popularity, with sales climbing slowly, though steadily. But Hugh Chalmers wasn’t satisfied with that level of success. He proposed setting a goal of 60,000 units in annual sales and calculated that lowering prices across the board would bring that about. Chalmers also added the Model 6-30, a six-cylinder, 30-hp touring car offered at the bargain price of $1,050, lower than any Chalmers had ever sold prior.

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