Thank you Carl Fisher and James Allison

Written by on May 20, 2013 in Auto Indy - 8 Comments
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With the 2013 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race celebrating its 102nd anniversary, I believe Indianapolis residents owe a thank you to Speedway founders Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison.  Without their vision and entrepreneurial spirit, I don’t believe that our city would be anything like it is today.

Carl G. Fisher

Carl G. Fisher, Photo courtesy LHA/University of Michigan

Before the inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911, Indianapolis was a bucolic city with very little to distinguish it.  In 1909, when the founders built the track on a 320 acre parcel outside of the city limits, the Speedway was about five miles northwest of the city’s center.  The Speedway would eventually fulfill Carl Fisher’s stated goal of a proving ground “to establish American automobile supremacy.”  The result also helped grow the city’s manufacturing base.

James A. Allison

James A. Allison, Photo courtesy LHA/University of Michigan

The saga started when Fisher and Allison met during the bicycling craze of the early 1890’s as members of the Zig Zag Cycle Club.  Their camaraderie grew over the years when they discussed business ventures and other matters.  Fisher’s vision for grand ventures was first demonstrated when he and Allison obtained the rights to manufacture and market compressed acetylene headlight systems for automobiles in 1904.  This firm, known as Prest-O-Lite, would become the cornerstone for their many automotive ventures.  Today, an outgrowth of Prest-O-Lite is Praxair Surface Technologies, which employs more than 450 people at the Speedway Main Street site.

By 1911, Indianapolis claimed 11 operating automakers, with names like American Underslung, Cole, Empire, Ideal, Marion, Marmon, New Parry, National, Overland, Premier, and Waverley.  Starting with this concentration of manufacturers, which grew to include Duesenberg and Stutz, these firms attracted the supporting ancillary machine shops and businesses.  General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler went on to build operations in Indianapolis.

Allison built a new shop for the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company on Main Street in Speedway to prepare a fleet of race cars in late 1916.  This venture provided the genesis for the Allison Engineering Company.  When World War I erupted, Allison committed his shop resources to war production for crawler-type tractors, superchargers, and master models for the Liberty aircraft engines.  Allison Engineering Company Plant 1, was built on the west side of Main Street south of 13th Street.  The Allison empire spread south from this location.

In 1929, a year after Allison died, General Motors Corporation purchased the company.  Under General Motors, the operation produced aircraft engines, transmissions, precision bearings, and superchargers.  Its descendant companies, Allison Engine Company and Allison Transmission, are headquartered in Indianapolis.  Combined employment at these plants totaled over 11,000 people in the late 1980’s, making them one of the city’s largest employers.

These companies spawned a number of local machine shops to supply additional services to Allison operations.  Skilled machinists and tool makers moved to Indianapolis to work in these shops.  In fact, my father moved to Indianapolis in the mid-1930’s to work in various machine shops.  He retired with over 25 years at Allison.

Possibly this chain of events affecting my father can be attributed to Fisher and Allison,  So, thank you to Carl Fisher and James Allison for your grand vision with these manufacturing endeavors and for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which drew people to our great city for employment and enjoyment.  Every year we celebrate the world’s largest single-day sporting event because of their entrepreneurial spirit.

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About the Author

Dennis E. Horvath is a “genuine car nut” who writes books and blogs, and develops websites intended to energize and excite auto enthusiasts. He is the Web publisher of Cruise-IN.com: Celebrating Indiana automotive history. Additionally, he is the Web proprietor of AutoGiftGarage.com which features automotive gifts celebrating classic and collectible cars.

8 Comments on "Thank you Carl Fisher and James Allison"

  1. basil berchekas jr May 20, 2013 at 7:22 am · Reply

    Will continue to follow this one!

  2. Tom Davis May 20, 2013 at 9:28 am · Reply

    Here’s a nice picture of a monument to Carl in Miami Beach, another city that owes a great deal to both of these two men. http://www.flickr.com/photos/18778996@N00/8451941886/ I doubt if anybody who called Indianapolis home has had a greater impact on the American way of life than Carl, even if his name isn’t widely known these days.

  3. d mikels shea May 20, 2013 at 1:43 pm · Reply

    Dennis: You seem an expert on all things automotive so I would love to share some info as well as ask a question–came to mind reading your Allison,Fisher early automotive story.

    From too many years of too many auctions, antique shops, collecting, I have many strange items and among them a very large, clearly professionally posed photograph which is autographed “To the City of Indianapolis, (hardly legible) William Durand (I think.) It is in a wooden frame and all around the 4 sides of the large frame there are blue enamel and gold round medallions with the single logo letter “D”–identified as the logo for the old Durand automobile….BUT no other identification, dating etc. As a reporter I once covered old City Hall back to days of Tyndall and have a vague memory of “celebrity” photos in anteroom to Mayor’s Office–early on–but no remembrance when Alex Clark,Bates, Boswell etc occupied that office before move to present City-County Building.

    So I guess what I want to know is anybody out there in the know on the man, the photograph, his link to justify his photo “to City of Indianapolis.” Or find a collector interested?

    Second, I want to give you a lead to a wonderful story no one has ever written while the “last man” is still alive and possessed of an amazing archive of photos documenting the very first and then every “foreign import” dating from the early l950’s–here is the back story:

    My City Editor at then Indianapolis Times routinely assigned me to “features” with tongue-in-cheek twist. One day coming out of the car shortage which followed WW 2 and return of service men (getting new car involved waiting lists, long waits, under-table inducements as car industry revved up after war.)

    One day he called me “Mikels, go to this address…” (800 block N. Capitol as I recall–companies had closed down, like Haags’ and it was getting boarded up low end look). “Two nutty young guys are hanging crystal chandeliers with antique furniture and oriental rugs –they think they can sell foreign cars in the heart of the Motor Belt.” I went–and sure enough–the dingy vacant building (owned by Ball/Moxley family I think) was being turned into an elegantly furnished mansion-type sitting room and the 2 “nutty” young guys John Schaler 11 (now deceased) and Kent Emigh, alive and well in retirement in Mt.View Ca.
    were indeed the first “pioneers” setting out to peddle foreign imports–they had cornered Rolls Royce,Bentley, Mercedes, Jag, even Renault and couple others I had forgotten—because they thought there was a market here for luxury foreign cars…and boy were they right!

    The new location was their 3rd–first was an old South Side goat barn owned by “granny Habig”—almost hidden on S.Side but a local gentleman found it–went there and wrote a check in full to buy their first Rolls–his name was Eli Lilly. Later, after their move, another Lilly (JK) was surprised on his birthday when his family bought him an exact copy of newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth 2’s maroon coronation Rolls. (They let me preview it and write a story on it providing I kept name confidential–so the 2 nutty guys clearly were the pioneer founders of foreign cars in Indy. Kent has kept photos of every car with who bought it etc. In later years the 2 split–my husband would fly out and meet Kent helping drive foreign cars home===and our friendship has gone on from that first story.

    Kent brought his photos, scrapbooks meticulously kept and I have tried to urge him to create an archive at In. Historical Society–(as I tried also to get John to do but his records ended up with Lafayette attorney-car buff.) But it is a wonderful unwritten part of Indy’sauto history–his contact number if you wish.

    So I did the first story–and thus began a close friendship that lasted half a century and still goes on with Kent–who calls me monthly, returns yearly in a classic car in order to take me out and have his treasured breaded pork tenderloin (you can’t get ’em in CA.!) My friendship with John (who grew to be one of biggest Rolls dealers in nation before multiple problems) ended only when Iwrote his obituary for him during his terminal illness==more than a dozen drafts until it met his expectations and then he passed away.

    But back to the cars: Clearly, we became best friends, my returning air force husband bought his first and multiple Mercedes from Kent (after the 2 went separate ways.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland May 20, 2013 at 3:42 pm · Reply

      Kent Emigh is my brother-in-law. He married Susan Freeland, my husband’s sister, in 1961, here in Indianapolis. Susan was a Broad Ripple High School and Methodist Nursing School graduate. Kent and Sue’s only child, Michelle, was born in Indianapolis in 1963, before they packed up all of their belongings and moved to California. Kent, as well as Michelle and her family, all remained in the San Francisco Bay area. Sadly, Sue is no longer with us, but as noted by Donna, Kent is still very much alive at age 84. I’ve seen the scrapbook of which Donna speaks. He makes a pilgrimage to his Hoosier homeland nearly every year. Along with Donna, I’d be glad to help facilitate a meeting with Kent.

      • d mikels shea May 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm · Reply

        Sharon: Jump in and help me convince Kent (and perhaps also the In.Historical Society, that the meticulously documented local automotive history Kent has compiled is too precious not to be archived…I know Kent adores his daughter and grandchildren and sees it being preserved “in family”–as itshould be. But with copy machines, scanning, what a treasure to let “emigrate” to California when it preserves memorable and era-changing local history.

        I have wanted him to bring it back and let me set up “show and tell” in hopes that it might either found (if not already set up) or be added to the local history . He has photos not just of “cars” but of their delivery to noted names–cannot remember if it was his or John Shaler’s that showed JK/Lila getting one of the early Rolls—-I wish still that nice attorney (john Gambold or something along those lines) who acquired JShaler’s voluminous scrapbooks might either donate or share with historical society–John had my first story, newspaper clippings, which togethjer with Kent’s would be there l00 years from now documenting how foreign import cars became a part of our local scenery.

        How can we do it?

      • Janet Hall July 10, 2015 at 8:21 am · Reply

        Sharon: I was maid of honor for Susan at her wedding to Kent, and remember going to see newborn Michelle in the hospital. I lost touch with Sue about 30+ years ago and sorry to read about her death. I found this site when researching Rolls-Royce history for a friend. Glad to hear Kent is still going strong.

  4. Dennis E. Horvath May 22, 2013 at 9:31 pm · Reply

    Thank you, Basil, Tom, Donna, Sharon,

    My wife & I visited the Fisher monument in Miami in 2000. Not many people know the Fisher story in Miami.

    William C. Durant built the Durant at the Durant Motors, Inc. plant in Muncie from 1922-1928, after he left General Motors for the second time. This could be what you are thinking about.

    What a great story about John Schaler and Kent Emigh and their foreign car and Rolls Royce ventures. I hope you can encourage Kent to donate his materials to Indiana Historical Society. Their archives are a great resource for researchers.

    If I can help, please let me know.

    Dennis

    • basil berchekas jr May 23, 2013 at 9:18 am · Reply

      You’re welcome, Dennis. I saw the Fisher monument at Miami Beach years ago…very impressive. It’s amazing how one sometimes leaves one’s hometown, as it were, to gain fame they deserve in far off places…

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