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Merger Mania: Pope builds and empire

Pope practically coined the phrase 'Merger Mania' in the United States.

If you think General Motors was the first major effort to combine car brands under one corporate structure, think again. Pope is the name that, practically speaking, put the “merger mania” ball rolling in the U.S. domestic car industry.

The man with the idea and the financial wherewithal to make the dream a reality was Albert A. Pope, crowned with the title of colonel and active in industry following the Civil War. The idea formed in a joint effort with a sewing machine maker quickly re-directed in 1877 toward the making of bicycles. In 1880, Pope’s ideas matured as he took over that facility and manifested the Pope Manufacturing Co. of Hartford, Conn., centering his production desires on the newfangled bicycle. Self-propelled by leg power, the “bike” became a sensation and launched the trend for personalized transport as never before. Freed from the time and effort to hitch a horse to a buggy, the bike allowed an individual (and soon two on the same bike) to wander around the streets and roads of any realistic Neverland anyone could imagine. But there was more.

Pope was a businessman centered on mass production. This notion needed to be fed by factory output.

Pope practically monopolized the mass production of bikes when he formed a consolidated effort of as many as 45 bicycle makers, each of which shared in his idea of mastering the market. But there was even more on the horizon. Pope hired Hiram P. Maxim to mastermind electric transport, which seemed the trendy thing to do in 1897 as America embraced the dream of widespread electric-powered illumination. America was soon being lit at night thanks to two names: Edison and Westinghouse, dyed-in-the wool opponents. Col. Pope must have watched their bouts widely bouncing in the media. Electricity spelled the future.

Col Pope’s name for the bike was Columbia, and when he centered his focus on the rising automobile market by 1899, he shifted that name to the four-wheeled, motorized effort he advanced with the purchase of the Electric Vehicle Co. His ideas merged with that company and with those of Maxim. This resulted in the making of thousands of electric taxis to serve in heavily populated northeastern cities. As a side note, the Columbia Electric Co. soon obtained the Selden Patent rights and would use that legal power for a time to dominate a financial hold on the production of automobiles.

Electric car sales faced a risky future as gasoline-powered competition offered faster speeds at lower prices with higher profits for makers. Thus, Col. Pope hedged his future bets on industrialization by diversifying the production sites of several brand names of gas cars, each bearing the moniker of the production site from which it derived. The Pope-Hartford was made in the Colonel’s favored Connecticut city, which was becoming his central office site. His 1904 Pope-Hartford Model A Runabout was priced a shade above $1000 and its companion Model B Tonneau was to be had for $1200. Simple machines they were, running on a 78-in. wheelbase with a single-cylinder engine delivering a 10 mph maximum — hardly worth bragging about.

Topping the lineup was the Pope-Toledo made in that Ohio city as the entire operation’s massive high-priced undertaking. The 1904 launch was offered in two- and four-cylinder versions (14 and 24 hp with wheelbases of 76 and 94 in., respectively) with prices ranging from $2000 to $3500. That same year, the Pope-Tribune saw light in Hagerstown, Md., with models priced as low as $650. Also in 1904, aiming to dominate the car market, Col. Pope did not forget his earlier effort with electrics. He offered the 1904 Pope-Waverly made in Indianapolis initially in 10 models ranging in price from $850 to $2250 with wheelbases from 61 to 87 in.

Did all this have an influence on the eventual founder of General Motors? It is likely. William C. Durant had been involved in saving the financially stressed Flint Wagon Works in that Michigan city, home of the Buick. By 1903, Durant’s venture became known as the Durant-Dort Carriage Co. According to contemporaries, Durant was brimming with ambition as he used Buick as his entry into motor history.

According to historians, it is widely accepted that the first great wave of industrial merger took place from 1897 to 1907, thus following the 1883 depression. Those were horizontal mergers involving petroleum, mining, metal production and transportation. U.S. Steel and Carnegie Steel merged in that period. The Pope operation rose during that span, albeit the rise soon would be curtailed and then decline following Col. Pope’s death in 1909 at age 66.

Regardless, Merger Mania had taken hold of the nation.

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