1913 Scripps-Booth Bi-Autogo
1913 Scripps-Booth Bi-Autogo. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Although the natural configuration for cars is to have four wheels, aberrations have occasionally occurred, such as the three wheelers that have come and gone through history. Such unusual vehicles have ranged from the famous three-wheeled English Morgan “trike,” to the eight-wheeled Octo-Auto conceived by Milton Reeves of Columbus, Indiana.

And, believe it or not, there even was a two-wheeled “car,” although as the ambivalence of its name implies, it should perhaps be more properly classified as a motorcycle. Whatever it is, the Scripps-Booth Bi-Autogo was one of the most unusual vehicles ever created, and it had enough car and motorcycle features to blur the distinction.

It was the brain-child of James Scripps-Booth of Detroit, a scion of the Scripps newspaper family. He was born in 1888, and although he wasn’t much of a scholar, he had an innate intelligence which he turned to automobiles. He dropped out of school in Grade 10 and would later put his artistic abilities to work designing automobile sales brochures.

Young James taught himself about automobile basics by disassembling he family Winton. Fortunately for him there was enough money around to allow him to indulge his interest in building a vehicle that was really different.

He set to work designing his imaginative car in about 1908, and engaged a Detroit machine shop to build it. Being strongly influenced by the V8 he had seen in a De Dion car in Paris, the first company to offer a series-produced V8 in 1910, he decided to use that type of engine.

With a bore and stroke of 82.5 by 127 mm (3.25 by 5.0 in.), Scripps-Booth’s engine displaced 5.4 litres (332 cu in.) and produced 45 horsepower. Said to be the first V8 built in Detroit, it was a huge powerplant for what was essentially a motorcycle.

This was just before the appearance of the first electric starter on the 1912 Cadillac, so the big Scripps-Booth V8 was started by compressed air contained in two tanks pressurized by an engine-mounted compressor. If this failed, a crank on the side of the engine turned the crankshaft through a bevel gear.

Power reached the rear wheel through a four-speed transmission and fully enclosed chain drive. Scripps-Booth invented a quick-change mechanism that allowed the rear wheel to be removed for a tire change in as little as 12 minutes.

Since the driver would find it impossible to keep the heavy Bi-Autogo vertical when stationary, Scripps-Booth attached training wheel type stabilizer wheels on each side of the passenger compartment.

These could be retracted using a lever in the cockpit at a speed of 32 km/h (20 mph), and the vehicle would remain upright through the usual balancing action.

To cool the engine Scripps-Booth fashioned a heat exchanger out of some 137 metres (450 feet) of half-inch diameter copper tubing. This “radiator” wrapped over the hood at the front and swooped in an arc down and back to the cowl. The coolant was circulated by a water pump driven by a dual-purpose gear from the engine; the gear was also used for cranking the engine by hand.

The Scripps-Booth two-wheeler weighed an estimated 1450 kg (3200 lb), and this was carried on large 37 by 5-1/2 inch wheels. The machine could accommodate three people; the driver sat in the middle in front, with two passengers side-by-side behind. If two people were aboard, the rear passenger had to sit in the middle for balance.

The Bi-Autogo had a steering wheel, but in this era before power steering, the inventor apparently didn’t anticipate the strength that would be required to turn it. As with motorcycles, considerable caster was designed into the front wheel. With the road contact point of the wheel 114 mm (4.5 in.) behind where the steering axis met the ground, the front end of the machine was lowered by up to 12 mm (1/2 in.) when the wheel was steered to change direction.

The problem was that when it came time to return the wheel to the straight-ahead position, the driver had to, in effect, lift the front end of the vehicle and its heavy V8 engine.

The Bi-Autogo was completed in 1913. A top speed of 121 km/h (75 mph) was claimed and, with its ample power, it could probably reach that. Although the inventor drove it on several test runs, he soon realized the folly of the design.

Scripps-Booth abandoned the Bi-Autogo and moved on to four-wheel cars, small cycle-cars first, then cars of conventionaldesign. The Scrips-Booth Co. was bought by General Motors in 1918 during the second of GM founder Billy Durant’s acquisition binges. It became largely an amalgam of other GM cars, and was discontinued in 1922.

James Scripps-Booth’s Bi-Autogo remains a tiny, outre footnote in automotive history, part motorcycle and part car, but neither one nor the other.

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