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Chrysler - Maxwell   Part 1: 1903-1916

By John Bentley

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

The first popular, quantity-produced car to use shaft drive instead of chains, this Chrysler forerunner challenged all comers.

The story of the Maxwell car--which 20 years after its inception became the sensational Chrysler--is one of determination, constant endeavor and well-earned success, Back in 1903, Jonathan Dixon Maxwell and Benjamin Briscoe designed, built and tested a little car which ran so well that they decided to put it into production. Both Maxwell and Briscoe were outstanding personalities and pioneers in the automotive business. It was Maxwell, for example, who in 1894 joined the Apperson brothers in helping Elwood Haynes build the first Haynes auto buggy--which later evolved into a famous car.

Anyway, in 1904 the partners Jonathan and Benjamin incorporated their firm as the Maxwell-Briscoe Company and pro­duced their first two models during the fall of that year. Both were two-cylinder cars, but one had an eight hp engine while the other rated 15 hp. The engines of both had a bore and stroke of equal dimensions, de­signed to limit piston speed; quite a pro­gressive idea for those days, since it wasn’t until years later that de­signers became actively conscious of the direct influence of this factor on engine life and efficiency. The cylinders of the smaller engine were four inches by four, and of the larger, five by five.

Prices were $750 and $1,550 respectively and the cars found a ready sale. By August, 1905, in fact, 532 Maxwells were built and delivered from the factory at Tarrytown, New York. While on the subject of progressive features, the Maxwell was the first popular, quantity-produced car to use shaft drive in place of the usual chains. It also was one of the earliest to employ the principle of thermo-siphon cooling.

Encouraged by their success, Maxwell and Briscoe entered their product in the Glidden Tour, where it tied with a Pierce-Arrow for premier award. It was then en­tered in just about every competitive event that was going. The following year, a Max­well won the Deming Trophy in the Glidden Tour and the partners were busy building two special cars for the Vanderbilt Cup. Unfortunately, though both showed promise in the early stages, neither turned out to be a success.

In November of 1906, the factory moved to Newcastle, Indiana, although the Tarry-town plant was retained.

The first four-cylinder Maxwell was produced in 1907. It was a machine similar in basic design to its predecessors, but more powerful and still moderately priced at $1,500. This was followed by a much larger car with a four-cylinder engine of 30-40 hp, known as the Model D and priced at $3,000. Very probably, the search for power in the Vanderbilt Cup models in­spired the design of this model, but the price caused some raising of eyebrows.

There already was plenty of well-estab­lished competition in the luxury bracket and the Model D Maxwell could make little headway against such contenders as Apperson, Thomas Flyer, Northern, Locomo­bile, Pierce-Arrow, Marmon and others. However, the original two-cylinder cars of eight and 15 hp were retained--the former as the RS or RL Runabout (with divided or undivided seat), selling for $825; and the latter as the Model HB Light Touring Car priced at $1,450. These continued to find a ready market.

Next came the 1908 Model D, a four-cylinder, 24 hp touring car that weighed 2,100 pounds, cost $1,750 and had a good sale. The change of rules in the 1908 Glidden Tour angered the partners, who alleged that the new regulations favored the cost­lier autos. The Maxwell Company there­fore issued a sharp challenge to the winner of that year’s Glidden Tour, and plastered the challenge in a dozen contemporary ads. “Come out and fight,” Maxwell and Briscoe said, in effect, “but under 1907 Glidden rules which will put the Maxwell on equal footing with the highest priced and most powerful cars made. We challenge you to a race from New York to San Francisco, with no quarter asked or given!”

The challenge went unanswered, and that same year a proposed merger between Maxwell and Buick failed to materialize--for the good reason that Buick became a part of the infant giant, General Motors. This seemed to cause the partners little worry. Benjamin Briscoe now became president of the company.

By August, 1909, more than 9,000 Max­well cars had been sold. That same year, a Model LD, 14 hp runabout appeared, priced at $825. The following year, Briscoe re­tired to organize the United States Motor Company, which was formed in combina­tion with several other firms.

By 1912, the United States Motor Com­pany had failed and Benjamin Briscoe went off to France with a couple of engineers to study European design.

In 1913, the Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company, Incorporated, was organized to succeed United States Motors and produc­tion continued as before. That year the first six-cylinder Maxwell made its ap­pearance and was priced at $2,350.

The firm now sold its Tarrytown, New York, plant and moved to Detroit. For two years running thereafter, it achieved a generally forgotten success in the gruel­ing 500-Mile Indianapolis Memorial Day race. In 1914, a four-cylinder, 445-cubic-inch Maxwell, driven by William Carlson, finished ninth at an average of 70.97 mph, and in 1915 a 298-cubic-inch Maxwell occupied the same position at 78.96 mph, handled by Carlson and Hughes. Pretty good going for a firm with almost no previous racing experience. Meantime, in 1914 at Corona track, California, the great Barney Oldfield drove a Maxwell to second spot in a 301-mile grind, which he covered non-stop.

In 1916, the firm leased part of the Chal­mers plant in Detroit. Nine years later, Walter P. Chrysler appeared on the scene.
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