1923 Kissel Gold Bug
1923 Kissel Gold Bug. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

There have been many colourful names over the car’s 100-plus years of history. Monikers like Apperson Jack-Rabbit, Stutz Bearcat, Jordan Playboy, Mercer Raceabout and Plymouth Road Runner were all aimed at emphasizing speed, toughness or romance.

Another was the Kissel Gold Bug. The Kissel brothers, manufactured farm implements and stationary engines in the town of Hartford, Wisconsin. They decided to get into the automobile business in 1906, and established the Kissel Motor Co., offering their first car for sale as a 1907 model. The conventional four-cylinder, 35-horsepower model was called the Kissel Kar, and the firm was somewhat unusual in that it soon was making almost all of the components for its cars, including the engines.

A six-cylinder model was added in 1909, electric starting in 1913, and even a short-lived Double Six V-12 in 1917.

Kissel also produced a model called the All-Year, with a removable hardtop fitted with glass windows and curtains. It turned the drafty Kissel touring or roadster into a snug closed car. Kissel also claimed that it was the first to use indirect instrument panel illumination.

But although they were well made and enjoyed a good reputation, none of the Kissel models could really be called sporty. That began to change in 1917 under the influence of one Conover T. Silver, the New York Kissel distributor.

Mr. Silver convinced the Kissels to build something a little more sporting, especially when others, such as Marmon with its Model 34, were getting into the sports touring market. With his encouragement, the Kissel Kar Silver Special Speedster, named after Mr. Silver, made its appearance in 1918.

Although other colours were offered, “Kissel chrome yellow” quickly became so popular that it was soon made the standard colour. Thus the Kissel Gold Bug was born. Gold Bug seems to have been a nickname rather than an official factory designation, but official or not, it stuck. The word Kar was dropped from the name immediately following the First World War, as anything that sounded Germanic wasn’t popular at that time.

The Gold Bug was indeed a sporty roadster. A hood that ran straight from radiator to windshield, shiny nickel trim, cut-down doors and wire wheels all added their special flair. An unusual feature was the “seat-in-a-drawer” fitted on the side of the body just behind the door. A pull-out drawer contained a fold-up seat, looking something like an outrigger rumble seat. In 1924 this was replaced by a conventional rumble seat.

The Kissel also had an early version of the tilt steering wheel. Called the “fat man” wheel, it had two parallel offset spokes running from rim to rim. These fitted into tracks attached to the steering column, and when the catches were released, the wheel would glide out of the way for easier entry and exit.

With its dashing lines and brilliant yellow paint, the Gold Bug soon became a favourite with celebrities. Such diverse personalities as aviatrix Amelia Earhart, boxer Jack Dempsey, entertainer Al Jolson and auto racer Ralph De Palma drove Kissels.

The Kissel appeared in many movies, but its silver screen immortality would be best served when it was driven by Tyrone Power in The Eddie Duchin Story.

Although Kissel survived the severe post-First World War recession, it was damaged. Despite the company’s faltering fortunes, the Gold Bug continued in its glamorous ways. For 1921, cycle fenders were added, cowl-mounted spare tires fitted, and steps replaced the running boards. Golf club racks would be added later.

Never a large producer, sales had to depend on the quality and custom-built appearance of its cars. It sold 2,123 vehicles in 1923, a number that declined to 803 in 1924.

A straight-eight engine was introduced in 1925, and Kissel started moving away from its proprietary powerplants by buying its cylinder blocks from engine maker Lycoming. Kissel still added its own quality touches, however, with such items as aluminum heads and pistons and a finely balanced crankshaft.

The last Gold Bug was made in 1927 when Kissel was fading fast. It was replaced by the magnificent White Eagle Speedster, but few were built.

A disastrous deal with a high-flying automotive entrepreneur by the name of Archie Andrews to assemble Ruxton front-wheel drive cars, plus the impact of the Depression, sent the company into receivership late in 1930 after it had built only a few ’31 models.

The Gold Bug was never as fast as competitive sportsters like Stutz and Mercer. Its style and grace, and its brilliant yellow paint, were its endearing qualities. Officially christened or not, it was the Gold Bug for which Kissel is best remembered.

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