1951 Kaiser Golden Dragon. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
In the early decades of the Twentieth Century many ambitious entrepreneurs were able to start car companies. Entry was fairly easy for a talented blacksmith, carriage maker or bicycle builder with mechanical skills. The investment was relatively small, and cars could sometimes be pre-sold before they were built, giving the budding builder some working capital. There were hundreds of would-be Henry Fords, but most soon disappeared, sometimes after building only one car.
It was possible to enter the car manufacturing business because in addition to the parts the builders could make themselves, there were many suppliers of components such as bearings, brakes, transmissions and steering gears. Such vehicles came to be known as “assembled” cars.
The engine is the heart of a car, and was the automotive pioneer’s biggest challenge. Designing and building an engine was, and is, expensive and exacting work requiring specialized equipment and skill. Fortunately there were engine companies with names like Hercules, Lycoming, Duesenberg, Weidley and Wisconsin that sprang up to supply them.
The most successful of these proprietary engine builders was Continental Motor Corporation, of Muskegon, Michigan, producer of the Continental “Red Seal” engine named for the distinctive red badge on the block. Although there were other suppliers, Continental built powerplants, the majority with six cylinders, for the majority of American manufacturers who did not make their own.
Continental’s story began in 1903 when Ross Judson, a young engineer, was able to borrow enough money from his sister and brother-in-law A.W.Tobin to found an engine manufacturing company in Chicago. Partners Judson and Tobin called their new enterprise the Autocar Equipment Co., and managed to display an engine at the 1903 Chicago auto show. They collected enough orders to support the construction of a new plant in Muskegon. A few years later Continental also built a 45-horsepower aircraft engine.
Before long, they learned that a truck manufacturer in Pennsylvania was already building vehicles under the Autocar name, and the company was renamed Continental Motor Corp.
Orders for engines began to flow in from car manufacturers like Studebaker and Chalmers. Studebaker placed an order for 1,000. Then in about 1910 the recently formed Detroit-based Hudson Motor Co., ordered 10,000 engines. The young Continental company was on its way.
Continental’s approach was to design and build engines, usually side-valve types, that were rugged, reliable and uncomplicated. They started out with two cylinders, then concentrated on fours, expanded to a six in 1911 and eventually an eight. Hudson sold so many Continental sixes in its 1913 model 54 that it claimed to be the world’s largest builder of six-cylinder cars. This prompted Continental to open a Detroit Plant.
In the teen years, Continental’s designs proliferated into a large number of engines, not just for specific orders but to develop a catalogue of off-the-shelf power. Its salesmen showed them to prospective customers, and if Continental didn’t have a stock engine exactly as the purchaser wanted, it would modify one of its designs to suit. In fact they built so many different bore and stroke combinations that it became confusing even for the salesmen.
The 1920s were Continental’s boom years as they supplied engines to over 100 companies, including Durant, Reo, Willys, Auburn, Peerless, Graham, Ruxton and Checker, plus many smaller firms now long forgotten.
Then came the 1930s when many auto manufacturers disappeared under the economic crush of the Depression, taking much of Continental’s car business with them. To counter this, it diversified into diesel, aircraft, truck and industrial engines. It also marketed its own Continental car based on the short-lived deVaux. Alas it was short-lived for Continental too, being produced only in 1933 and ’34. It proved to be an expensive experiment.
Of the automobile customers that remained from the ’30s, Continental supplied engines to Graham-Paige Motors of Detroit until 1941 and the Checker Cab Co., later Checker Motors Corp., of Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1930s, and would go through to the ’60s.
With much of its car engine business gone, Continental was in financial trouble, but with the advent of the Second World War it shifted into more aircraft and truck engines, both gasoline and diesel. It also built engines for such industrial applications as agricultural machinery and construction equipment. After the war it would provide engines for the popular Cessna 150 and Beechcraft Bonanza airplanes, among others.
In 1945 when the new Kaiser-Frazer car company was organized, it used Continental side-valve 3.7-litre (226 cu in.) six-cylinder engines. When Continental couldn’t supply the number required, K-F began producing some of them itself.
Continental became part of Teledyne Technologies, Inc., in the 1960s and became Teledyne Continental Motors. It is still a prominent manufacturer of aircraft engines.