ALPENA – During the first two decades of the 1900s, automakers grew across the United States like a cornfield in August.
In Minneapolis, there was the Brasie Motor Truck Co. Buffalo offered the Thomas Flyer. Indianapolis developed the Cole Motor Car Co. In Wisconsin was the Milwaukee Automobile Co. And, in Kansas City, the Beggs Motor Car Co.
In most cases, these car and truck manufacturers and hundreds of others were short-lived.
In Michigan’s northeast portion of the Lower Peninsula, a glimmer of automobile manufacturing became a reality beginning in 1910 with the Alpena Motor Car Co. The company produced the Alpena Flyer.
AMCC’s articles of incorporation were filed on June 15, 1910. The following July 11, ground was broken at 150 Elm St. for the manufacturing complex. It was adjacent to the current Besser Concrete Manufacturing World Headquarters campus.
Daniel Hanover was named president of the SMAC, with a board of directors made up of Alpena residents.
Later in 1910, the company acquired manufacturing and related equipment from the defunct Wolverine Motor Car Co., based in Mt. Clemens.
Before the factory was completed, a prototype Alpena Flyer was built in William C. French’s machine shop.
When the manufacturing complex opened, AMCC anticipated annual production of 2,500 vehicles, employing up to 250 people.
The management of the SMAC manufactured various models of automobiles. In 1912, the range of vehicles varied from the Model J, a four-door passenger car with seating for four passengers, the Model F, a passenger car with seating for five, and the Model G, a roadster with seating for two. The F model was given a wider rear seat.
Prices would range from $1,450 to $1,600.
Each automobile would only appear in a dark royal blue color and would be powered by a four-cylinder Northway engine producing between 35 and 40 horsepower.
A sales brochure stated that the Alpena Flyer could reach speeds of up to 60 mph.
The transmission would offer three forward gears and one reverse. The curb weight of the largest automobile was 2,250 pounds.
The vehicles would all be right-hand drive, which was common at the time, along with some electric lights, three oil side lights, two gas headlights, and auto-start.
SMAC management has devoted considerable effort to publicity. The Michigan Historical Society’s Chronicle magazine, in a 1983 edition, said the company’s theme was “best value for money”, “the pinnacle of mechanical engineering”, and “so simple that a child can make it work”.
To appeal to the rural automobile-buying public, the AMCC declared, “It’s cheaper than a horse at all times” and “It’s the simplest car on Earth.”
News articles from the Besser Museum for northeast Michigan noted that the Alpena Flyer appeared at many car shows, including New York City and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The New York show featured the Alpena Flyer as one of the top 10 in the world.
In 1912, AMCC was facing a major patent infringement lawsuit. They were being sued by the North American Vehicle Co. for illegal use of a three-point suspension design. Press accounts indicated that AMCC had reached a $450,000 settlement for not receiving the right to use this design.
This settlement caused a huge cash flow challenge, and in February 1914 AMCC declared bankruptcy. News reports revealed that some manufacturing equipment and assets had been auctioned off to a Canadian company.
Later revelations indicated that AMCC was struggling to produce vehicles to meet consumer demand. Records showed that only 450 to 500 vehicles were produced between 1910 and 1914. AMCC employees numbered only 75.
A single Alpena Flyer has been located in Washington State by Alpena resident Ron Winter, former general manager of Omni Metalcraft.
In an Alpena News account in 2014, Winter said: “I took possession of the badly deteriorated car. I took everything apart, cleaned every part and sketched everything.
The News account added that it was a stripped-down car, with bushel baskets filled with various parts.
The Flyer’s multi-year renovation was led by Restorations Unlimited 2 Inc. of Cary, Illinois.
The sole surviving Alpena Flyer, donated by Winter, is now on display at the Besser Museum in Alpena.
In an account for Alpena News, Chris Witulski, the museum’s executive director, commented on the preparation for the vehicle’s acceptance: “It is such an honor to be able to exhibit this part of Alpena’s unique history. We could never have done it without the generosity of Ron Winter.
Witulski recently commented that after Ron Winter passed away, his son, Brian, graciously expressed his father’s wish that the Alpena Flyer continue to be displayed at the Besser Museum.
THE COMPANY THAT BROOKED LIFE TO THE FLYER
Forty-five minutes northwest of Chicago is Restoration Unlimited 2 Inc. (RU2inc). The 3,500 square foot facility is owned by Ralph Morey, whose company over the past 51 years has refurbished hundreds of vehicles.
Through a read in Hemmings automotive magazine, Alpena resident Ron Winter learned about the remodeling company. RU2inc began reviving the 1911 Alpena Flyer that Winter previously located in Washington State.
Morey transported the vehicle from Alpena to Cary, where he began a 42-month process to reassemble the only surviving Alpena Flyer.
According to Morey, a rolling body was delivered to RU2inc with the engine, radiator, differential, cowl and air cowl intact. The frame was accompanied by containers of various parts, many of which offered no relation to the vehicle. To Morey’s amazement, the tires, wrapped in canvas, still held a level of air.
Winter provided RU2inc with a variety of photos, advertisements, sales brochures and related documents explaining how an assembled Alpena Flyer would appear.
Morey said the majority of the restoration was able to be done and fabricated by his company. This included fenders, aprons, seats and many other aspects. He commented: “Some mechanical and finishing items were outsourced to other companies who had specific expertise.”
Morey added: “It was perhaps the most complex restoration his company had ever undertaken.
An interesting aspect was that the steering of the Alpena Flyer was on the right side. According to Chris Ritter of the Antique Automobile Club of America Library and Research Center, “It is my understanding that the cars were originally right-hand drive so the driver could exit the vehicle onto the curb, instead of the road, where there could be traffic.”
During the restoration process, Morey commented that Winter had a well-defined vision of how the Alpena Flyer should finally appear. He began, “A great example was mixing the right colors to bring out the original royal blue, bright and dark.”
Reflecting on the cost of undertaking this restoration, which took place more than a dozen years ago, Morey said it was then factored in at nearly $275,000.
When the project was complete, Morey and his staff fired up the 35 horsepower engine and took it for a quick drive.
The operational Alpena Flyer was transported by motor carrier to Plymouth, Michigan for a brief presentation. Then to Alpena, where the vehicle is proudly displayed with an accompanying visual history at the Besser Museum of Northeast Michigan.
Jeffrey D. Brasie is a retired healthcare CEO who frequently writes landmark feature articles and editorials. He is a former resident of Alpena and resides in suburban Detroit.