Motoring Memories: Velie, 1908   1929 motoring memories
1928 Velie. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The Velie (vee-lee) car is now almost forgotten, but in its heyday it was well regarded for its mechanical attributes – and its historical roots could be traced back to the invention of the groundbreaking (pun intended) mould-board plough.

In the 1830s a young Vermont blacksmith named John Deere heard about the rich land and vast farming areas in the Midwest. He became restless with the confines of New England, and in 1836 the 32 year-old blacksmith joined other New Englanders heading to the open spaces and deep earth of Illinois. He set up a smithy in Grand Detour.

Deere soon noted that the cast iron plows that farmers brought from New England were too fragile for the denser Midwestern soil which constantly clogged them up. Determined to alleviate this, Deere fashioned a mould-board plough out of a steel mill-saw blade, using a log to form the curved shape of the mould-board. He successfully created a highly polished plough that was “self scouring,” sturdy enough to cope with the Midwestern earth and whose contour turned it over in neat furrows.

Deere’s plow was an immediate success, and he began manufacturing them. By the mid-1840s his business was turning out more than 1,000 a year. In 1868 he incorporated Deere and Company in Moline, Illinois.

John Deere had a large family, and in 1860 one of his daughters, Emma, married Stephen Velie, a foundry worker who had relocated from New York. He soon joined Deere and Company. Emma and Stephen had three sons, two of whom joined the company. Willard, the youngest, after Yale University and a detour to Montana, also came aboard.

But John Deere’s grandson Willard was an independent minded man, and in 1902 he founded the Velie Carriage Co. to build buggies, carriages and wagons, while retaining an association with Deere. The new business was successful, and in 1908 Willard entered the automobile business.

The Velie Motor Vehicle Co.’s first car was completed late in the year using components like engines, transmissions and axles from outside manufacturers. Velie’s policy was to set a modest price, and plan for high turnover. By the end of 1909 over 1,000 Velies had been sold.

In 1911 Velie began making its own four-cylinder engine, and many of its other components, although it would sometimes use outside engine suppliers. It also started building trucks.

Velies were entered in many hill climbs and races with considerable success, including finishing 17th out of 46 entrants in the first Indianapolis 500 mile race in 1911. The Velie averaged 105 km/h (65.4 mph), compared with the winning Marmon’s 120 (74.6).

Velie continued to add technical advancements. An electric starter and Bosch dual ignition came in 1913, and a six-cylinder, side-valve Continental engine in 1914. In 1916 Velie went to sixes exclusively.

Velie contributed its manufacturing expertise to the First World War effort, particularly with its well regarded Velie trucks. In spite of some material shortages, Velie car production continued at a reduced pace during the war.

Velie had offered a full line of models, but in 1922 it decided to concentrate on the 2,921 mm (115 in.) wheelbase Model 58 powered by an overhead valve, inline six manufactured by Velie. It was a robust engine, made even better with full pressure lubrication the following year.

While 1920 sales had reached over 9,000, Velie’s highest ever, this was somewhat of an aberration. Their usual annual production rate was around 5,000, which Velie proclaimed to be satisfactory, as it wished to stress quality over quantity.

The next big Velie change came in the 1925 models which got four-wheel hydraulic brakes and balloon tires, advanced features for the time. The arrival of a low priced closed coach model was right in tune with the rapid decline of open cars.

In 1927 Velie entered the aircraft business by purchasing a new, small, aircraft manufacturer in Bettendorf, Iowa, moving it to Moline, and naming it Mono Aircraft Inc. Their Monocoupe was an instant success, and Velie boasted that it and Ford were the only American automobile manufacturers that also made airplanes.

For 1928 Velie augmented its six-cylinder Models 6-66 and 6-77 with a new Model 8-88 powered by a Continental straight-eight engine. For a lower profile it used a worm-drive rear axle. Things seemed to be going well for Velie until disaster struck when Willard Velie died suddenly in October, 1928. His son, also named Willard, tried to carry on the car and airplane business, but found it too demanding. He decided to abandon cars and concentrate on airplanes, including a new four-seater.

Then tragedy struck Velie again when the younger Willard died in March, 1929. Without a Velie at the helm, the company spirit was lost. The remains of the car business, and the airplane operation, were sold and the Velie plant was acquired by Deere and Company.

The car whose heritage traced back to a Vermont smithy was gone, but Moline-based Deere and Company, spawned by the mould-board plough, carried on to become one of the world’s largest manufacturers of farm implements and other products.