Monday, July 31, 2017

The Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Corners, Michigan, July 31, 2017--Part 6: Franklin

H.H. Franklin began building cars in Syracuse, New York, in 1902, but began as a manufacturing in the die-casting business in 1893 and his H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company was to produce the cars that were then marketed by a subsidiary firm, the Franklin Automobile Company, which was established in 1906.  Franklin cars were always air-cooled from the very beginning and featured many technically advanced features. These included the use of lightweight materials--Franklin was once the world's largest user of aluminum--, full-pressure lubrication, automatic spark control, an electric choke, and full elliptical springs.  Until 1928 Franklins used a flexible wooden frame for shock absorption.  The company abandoned four cylinder engines already by 1914 and cars from that time on were all sixes. A luxury marque, styling was generally conservative although coachbuilders did produce custom cars for the company as well.  In spite of its forward thinking and high quality, Franklin was another company that succumbed to the Great Depression, failing in 1934 with all of H.H. Franklin's other enterprises.  

Ralph Hamlin, ready to race in his Franklin, c. 1908
The Gilmore Museum has a special wing devoted to these interesting cars, made up to look like the dealership of Ralph Hamlin in California.  In 1905 Hamlin became the Southern California distributor for Franklin.  Beginning from one location in Los Angeles, his empire grew to include showrooms in Pasadena, Glendale, Hollywood and San Diego and he was the most successful Franklin dealer of all, selling 500-800 cars annually through showmanship, racing, and shrewd dealing.  Hamlin continued to work in the car business after Franklin's demise and passed away in 1974, aged 93.

Franklin air-cooled engines on display
Franklin only produced cars with air-cooled engines.  Following bankruptcy of the company, the engine manufacturing element was salvaged and became Aircooled Motors by 1937, still in Syracuse.  It still used the Franklin name for the motors and was very successful producing engines for helicopters and aircraft during World War II.  The company was purchased by Preston Tucker in 1947 with the view to manufacturing engines for the Tucker 48 automobile and all aircraft contracts were cancelled.  As Aircooled Motors was a major manufacturer of aircraft engines postwar, the failure of the Tucker car project nearly bankrupted the motor firm but it continued to operate, still owned by the Tucker family, until 1961.  The company, now known as the Franklin Engine Company, was purchased in 1975 and relocated to Poland, where production ceased in 2002.

1905 Franklin Type A Runabout
Early Franklins like this one used a transverse-mounted 12 hp four cylinder engine and two-speed transmission with chain drive to the rear wheels.  The cars already featured aluminum body panels and aluminum crankcases, as well as the wooden frame rails for which the marque would be noted.

All Franklins: 1905 Type A Runabout (left), 1907 Type D Runabout (centre), 1916 Sport Phaeton (right)

1907 Franklin Type D Runabout

By 1907 Franklins had inline engines and three speed transmissions.  The company offered three models: a smaller four cylinder car, the Type G, the larger four cylinder D, and the six cylinder H.  All were designed with a flexible three-ply ash wood frame, aluminum crankcase, transmission, hood and body.  Bodies were constructed of aluminum and steel angle iron.   This Runabout weighed 1,760 lbs and cost $2,795, with 2,400 being built.  Mounted on 36" wheels, the Franklins were noted for their smooth ride and with their light weight tire wear was so reduced that Franklins carried no spare tire--something hard to believe in that era.  It was expected that a tire on a Franklin would last 20,000 miles!

1909 Franklin Model D Touring
The 28 hp Model D weighed only 2,200 lbs due to its aluminum and wood construction and so combined the agility of a smaller car with the comfort of a larger one.  This car would have been priced at $2,800 and featured a 221 cu. in. four cylinder engine.  2,412 Model Ds were built.  In 1911 the distinctive barrel engine housing would change to a Renault-like front end, and then in 1921 to a less peculiar "horse collar."

1919 Franklin Sport Phaeton
Powered by a 32 hp six cylinder engine, this Series 9 Sport Phaeton would have cost $2,450, less than a Packard or Cadillac but more than most Buicks.  

1919 Franklin Series 9B Brougham
(Creative Commons: F.D. Richards)
As early as 1912, Franklin was promoting closed cars in its catalogue, with a range that include Berlines, Coupes, Sedans and Broughams.  This car, formerly with the Harrah Collection in Reno, Nevada. is largely unrestored and has less than 6,000 miles on the odometer.  Franklins were true luxury cars and had felted wool interiors, peweter fittings and even a built in air compressor for refilling a tire.  The factory price of this car was $3,300.

1923 Franklin Series 10-B Chassis and Engine
According to the H.H. Franklin Club: "By moving the cooling fan from the back of the engine to the front, Franklin boosted cooling efficiency, allowing for more power output. The Series 10, built from 1922-1925 would be the last pure design of John Wilkinson – chief designer since the beginning. Note the lack of radius rods or torque arms on the suspension, allowing for complete flexibility of the axles and springs. The wooden frame is also unencumbered by cross bracing, allowing for the flexibility that resulted in the "Franklin Ride". Franklin produced nearly all components in-house, including transmission, carburetor & steering gear."

1925 Franklin Series 11 Sport Runabout
There was an internal war of sorts that happened at Franklin as the chief designer, John Wilkinson, who had brought the idea of the air-cooled car to H.H. Franklin, was an engineer through and through and was unwilling to change the cars merely for fashion.  The result was resistance from dealers, led primarily by Ralph Hamlin, to the somewhat odd front end design of the Franklins, which they felt was hurting sales.  In 1924 Wilkinson retired and the path was cleared for a Parisian designer, J. Frank deCausse, to become the head of design for the company.  The result was the groundbreaking Series 11 cars, whose design language was so successful it was retained unchanged for the four subsequent model years.  The handsome shell for the non-existent radiator might have horrified John Wilkinson, but his engineering concepts of speed, light weight, and economy were continued in the new cars.

This handsome runabout featured a "boattail" rear deck design.  The car's 32 hp six cylinder engine propelled the car to a top speed of 55 mph.  1925 saw a total of 8,600 cars produced by Franklin.

1930 Franklin Series 147 Speedster
This car boasts custom coachwork designed by Raymond Dietrich and built by Dietrich Inc. in Detroit.  Introduced in the summer of 1929, it was meant to liven up the top-of-the-line offering from Franklin and cost $3,375.  A Convertible Speedster was added to the line in 1930 and 1931.  Famous aviators liked Franklins and their air-cooled engines and superior technology.  Charles Lindbergh enjoyed his 1930 Speedster, while Frank Hawks had a 1931 model.

1930 Franklin Series 147 Pirate Touring
The sudden death of J. Frank deCausse in 1928 resulted in Franklin retraining Raymond Dietrich to design the cars.  The Pirate body styles featured an extremely rigid body structure and concealed running boards, a first for the industry.  The car has a second fixed windshield for the rear passengers and the Pirate was available as a 5 passenger touring car, as this one is, or a 7 passenger phaeton.  The factory hood ornament reflects the aviation link with Franklin and resembles Charles Lindbergh's famous "Spirit of St. Louis."  Around 200 examples of this model were built in 1930-31.

1931 Franklin Deluxe 153 Pirate Sedan Concept Car
This unique vehicle was shown at the 1931 New York Automobile Salon by a coachbuilder from Amesbury, Massachusetts, the Walker Body Company.  It was the last custom body done by Walker before the Great Depression caused the company to end its coachbuilding work.  The car, with its hidden running boards and radical rear section, is considered to be a forerunner of the Streamline movement that would shortly rule automotive design.  The car did sell at the New York show for $8.750, the cost of 20 new Ford Model As!  It eventually came into the hands of Bill Harrah and was part of his collection of Franklins in Reno for some years.

1930 Franklin Series 147 Speedster (foreground), 1932 Franklin Supercharged Twelve Series 17 Sedan (background)

1932 Franklin Supercharged Twelve Series 17 Sedan
Oddly, the worst years of the Great Depression saw the emergence of magnificent multi-cylinder cars from luxury manufacturers such as the V16s of Cadillac and Marmon, and V12s from Lincoln.  As the H.H. Franklin Club notes: "With the multi-cylinder horsepower/luxury race in full swing, Franklin was not about miss an opportunity to show what air-cooling could do. The result was the astonishing 150 horsepower, forced induction, 12-cylinder air cooled automobile engine. Intended for Franklin's flexible, lightweight chassis, bank-appointed management instead built an entirely new car with ultimate luxury in mind. African Mahogany interior trim, Aircraft style gauges, dash operated adjustable shock absorbers and 90+mph performance with factory equipped two-speed differential were not enough to sell the $5,000 luxury car during the 'Great Depression'. With less than 200 hand-built V/12's sold over 3 years, they are highly sought-after today."  And such was the swan song of the fascinating and idiosyncratic Franklin Automobile Company.

Continue to Part 7 of the Gilmore Car Museum visit here.

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