1913 American Underslung. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
In the first decade of the 20th century automobiles began looking less like carriages and more like cars. They lost their high buggy wheels and tiller steering apparatus. Engines found a place in front of the driver. With improved roads and smaller wheels, automakers began building lower cars, and some companies carried the trend much further than others. One of these was the American Motor Car Company, established in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1906.
American showed its first cars, the conventionally sprung Touring and the “underslung” Roadster, in 1906 as 1907 models. Although the company produced both conventional and underslung models, it was the underslung design that would be the company’s lasting legacy.
The underslung design was widely credited to Harry C. Stutz, a practical engineer who later established a company producing cars bearing his own name. But although Stutz designed the conventional chassis Touring for the American Motor Car Co., and was with the company when the underslung Roadster was conceived, the roadster’s father really seems to have been American’s chief engineer, Fred I. Tone.
To make the car as low as possible, Tone in effect turned the conventional chassis upside down. Instead of placing the frame above the axles as others did, he put the frame below the axles, with the semi-elliptic leaf springs mounted above them.
This made the underslung car rakishly low for its day. To preserve ground clearance, huge 40-inch wheels were used, and the engine was mounted on its own raised sub-frame. When the first dashing underslung Roadster arrived late in 1906 its front fenders were about level with the top of the hood.
The company extolled the safety virtues of the underslung design, emphasizing its stability and resistance to roll-over. With a centre of gravity just above axle height, sales literature claimed that the car could be tilted up to 55 degrees without rolling over. Compared with about 45 degrees for conventionally suspended competitive models it was an impressive feature.
The underslung was powered by a huge 6.4-litre (392.7 cu in.) four-cylinder engine rated at 40 horsepower by the formula of the Association of Licensed Automobile manufacturers, not the brake horsepower method that was becoming more popular. For 1908 an additional enlarged 50 brake horsepower (44.1 ALAM) engine of 7.8 litres (476.2 cu in.) was made available.
There was a strong publicity incentive in those days for cars to demonstrate their speed and durability in competition. In 1908, American Motor Car entered one of its larger-engined underslung Roadsters in the Savannah Challenge Cup Race held in Savannah, Georgia, an American racing Mecca of the era.
Alas, a low centre of gravity alone wasn’t enough. A car also needed prodigious power to compete with the monsters of the day. The underslung simply lacked the muscle, and it qualified slowest, and finished last. But this didn’t dissuade the company from offering a 1909 roadster based on the 1908 race entry, and unabashedly calling it the Speedster.
At about this time the two-passenger underslung models were joined by a four-passenger underslung named the Traveler. Of the many open and closed models that the company produced, such as the Gadabout and Wayfarer, the Traveler would be the star of the line-up.
For 1910 the engine was given pressurized lubrication, and a bigger engine with an enlarged cylinder bore was added with horsepower increased from 50 to 60. More improvements were made for 1911, but by this time it was becoming apparent that the company was in financial trouble. It was reorganized and the name changed to American Motors Co.
A decision was made in 1912 to switch all models over to the most distinguishing features the company had, the underslung chassis. To capitalize on this, the cars became officially known as American Underslungs. The Traveler also got a six cylinder engine.
A proliferation of models issued forth under the new company but this couldn’t overcome the fact that the enterprise was over-extended and inefficient. For example, its relatively small production was divided among three factories.
For 1913, the year in which Fred Tone left to pursue other automotive interests, Underslungs were available with electric starters and lights, which had been introduced by Cadillac just a year before.
In an attempt to stave off the inevitable, some 1914 Underslung models were introduced in April, 1913, and were very handsome cars indeed. Unfortunately receivership arrived in November, 1913, and another interesting and innovative car left the scene.
The reasons for the Underslung’s demise seem linked to questionable management practices, and a concentration on high quality, expensive models, except for the smaller 1912 Scout roadster, when the marketplace was moving to cheaper utilitarian cars like the Model T Ford. That, unfortunately, would be the epitaph for many of the grand old marques.
The American Underslung was an intriguing design, but its one outstanding feature, its unorthodox low-slung suspension, wasn’t enough to save it.