Dreams of grandeur flowed through the mind of Benjamin Briscoe, but challenges were like felled trees in his line of advance.
For example, his first big dream was to offer competition against the fledgling General Motors which William C. Durant formed in 1908. Briscoe gained a partnership with J.D. Maxwell who had an early Oldsmobile connection and thought he could do one better over his former employment. Soon the new conglomerate was titled United States Motor Co. and included the Maxwell brand as its cornerstone. The Brush automobile was part of the blend, but when that concern hit a marketing reef that all but tore its bottom out, Mr. Maxwell and Mr. Briscoe parted company. It was then that a second dream filled the thoughts of Briscoe.
That saw light for 1914. The Maxwell automobile went on to success with around 60,000 units on the road. Briscoe believed his name was just as good and his reputation, although tarnished, was not destroyed. He toyed with a cyclecar brand named Argo, but when that short fad weakened, he sidestepped into a full-size yet moderately priced car line named after who else but himself. His backing somewhat tenuous at that point, he secured financial support from the Swifts of Chicago who were wealthy and highly successful with their meat packing business. The deed was done and the dreamed-of Briscoe automobile debuted at the January 1914 New York Auto Show.
The car had little to brag about under quick analysis. It was a four-cylinder car of L-head engine design delivering 33 hp, which was respectable. It was a typical light car, but demand was on the rise for such offerings so there was strong hope for the Briscoe Motor Corp. Yet, there was a problem with the early cars. They displayed a single headlamp embedded in the radiator design. Not a bad idea, really, until officials found that some states upheld legislation that demanded two headlamps. In effect, the Briscoe had its market limited.
When war broke out in Europe toward the end of 1914, it seemed that Briscoe’s luck may have bloomed. Cars were in demand domestically, even militarily, and select defense production eased toward making tanks, armaments and equipage for other nations and/or the United States which, it soon became clear, was slow in keeping up to date with military equipment and advances.
The company’s head office said this to prospective dealers in 1918: “You know that the big dealers handling cars above $1,000 are now figuring on taking on a low-priced line. You appreciate that possibly you cannot sell a lot of one and two thousand dollar cars right now — BUT YOU CAN SELL BRISCOES AT $725….The time has arrived when a dealer must realize his present position in the automobile world depends upon meeting this PRESENT DEMAND. Not the demands of last year, but the buying demands of TODAY.”
To entice new dealers to sign on, the story was told of one Briscoe franchise “in territory which was not even considered promising,” sold his entire one-year quota in 10 weeks. Sales for the recent October was an increase of 25 percent over September. That location was not alone in success. Briscoe sales increased 133 percent in a five-month period up to that point. “We believe this to be the biggest increase of any motor car company” during that same period.
Headlamps were mounted as John Q. Public (and officials) expected, which increased the market potential. So did an apprehension that car production may slow due to the pending problems in Europe and (by 1918) of the American involvement “over there.”
Gasoline pricing was a challenge, too, which Briscoe met head on with its economical “Half-Million-Dollar-Motor” that it advertised. The motor “was designed and built in Paris to operate economically at a time when fuel in France was 50 cents a gallon! If gasoline here cost twice what it does today, the man of moderate means could continue to run and operate a Briscoe — and Briscoe dealers would keep right on selling them. Twenty-five to thirty miles per gallon of gasoline can be expected by Briscoe owners.”
Word leaked and circulated that there was an air-cooled French-designed motor in the offing. With a modest 24 hp, it carried less potential as did the 33 hp motor, yet there was less weight to haul around since no conventional cooling system was anticipated.
Prices on some conventional models were hardly low when you consider a five-passenger sedan selling new for $1,885 in 1920 and 1921, an increase from the five-passenger touring price of $685 in 1917.
Production for Briscoe cars (and even trucks) was respectable for the era. The high production mark was reported at 10,237 vehicles for 1919 compared to the low of 4,175 in 1921. You guessed it. The slow slip was happening as Mr. Briscoe watched another dream fade by the month.
Mr. Briscoe sought other dreams as he headed west and handed management reins to Clarence A. Earl. That person had his dream, too, and basically marketed remaining parts under his own surname. As for Mr. Briscoe, he pursued new dreams in exploration of oil and precious metals.
Dreams. Everyone needs at least one!
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