March 26, 2013

News & Features

And to think we could all be driving Washingtons

The Virginian-Pilot

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Max Wolff, director of design for Lincoln, unveiled the 2013 Lincoln MKZ at the New York auto show last year. The Lincoln brand was launched in 1920 and purchased by Ford in 1922. (Sam VarnHagen / Ford)

As someone who grew up in a series of Lincoln automobiles, I am heartened at Ford Motor Company's belated attempt to revive this legendary luxury brand, even if it's odd that they use the former U.S. president in its advertising. And while there have been some remarkable Lincoln automobiles, you can't say the same for Washington, a name one associates with character and strength, but not for memorable cars.

It's no wonder.

From the start, companies named after the first president of the United States had trouble gaining traction.

Two companies based in Washington, D.C., one formed in 1899, the other in 1901, were able to raise financial backing but never produced a car.

A Chicago fellow named George Washington made a similar attempt in 1902. He built a car, but he shouldn't have bothered. He could have walked faster. The vehicle crawled at 1 mph, thanks to its 8-ton curb weight.

The president's name lay dormant until 1909, when the Carter Motor Corp., located northeast of the nation's capital, in Hyattsville, Md., revived the idea with the Washington A-1. The A-1 was offered in two body styles and had a 30-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. The model range expanded the following year with two Washington models, the A-2 with 35 horsepower and the B-1 with 45 horsepower.

Sounds promising, right?

Given the track record of corporate parent Carter, it seemed doomed to failure. After all, Carter's first car, the 1907 Carter Two-Engine, was a vehicle built with two separate engines, in case one failed.

In comparison, the Washington was strikingly normal, even if most of the factory workers building the car were college students. This Washington lasted until 1912, when Carter filed for bankruptcy.

Eight years later, two separate Ohio companies formed with the intention of building a car named for ol' George: one located in Cleveland, the other in Eaton, just west of Dayton.
The Cleveland company never built a car; the Eaton company did.

Once more, an automaker named for Washington struggled. Demand never materialized for the Washington Motor Co.'s six-cylinder, gasoline-powered passenger car. Production rarely surpassed five cars a week — the minimum needed to remain profitable.

By 1923, in a brilliant bit of outdated thinking, the company planned to introduce a steam-powered car to the lineup just as steam's popularity as an automotive power source was — ahem — losing steam. Somehow the company raised the cash needed to get the model into production, and it's rumored three were built.

A year later, the car advertised as "The Ideal of a Nation" faded from view when this company, like others named for our first president, went bankrupt.

Even if we can only drive a Lincoln on Washington's birthday and not the reverse, Lincoln almost went under, too.

The automaker was named after the president by company founder Henry Leland in 1920. Unfortunately, Leland put his son-in-law in charge of styling. Bad idea. By 1922, the Lincoln Motor Co. was in trouble. Henry Ford bought it for $8 million, and the Lincoln Motor Co. survives. Too bad a number of Washington Motor Companies do not.

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