Inspired by an English bicycle, the Nash began its career as a Rambler.
Behind the Nash automobile lies an unusual and romantic story. It encompasses three changes of name, half a century of steady progress and a tradition, the source of which lay a hundred years in the past.
In May, 1847, Alonzo Duretto Seaman of New York set up as a furniture-maker in the brand new city of Milwaukee. He delivered his wares in an ox-driven cart. Before dying in 1868, Seaman made a fortune. His two sons, William and Henry, carried on the business. William Seaman pioneered the idea of a phone booth and was awarded contracts by the Western Electric Company, adding further to his firm’s reputation.
In 1906, the original Seaman plant was destroyed by fire and was started anew on larger premises. With more space than they needed for their usual commitments, the brothers began to build automobile bodies for the makers of the Petrel friction-drive car. Soon, they had similar contracts with a dozen other manufacturers of cars, including the Rambler--one of the most popular runabouts of its day.
A flashback to the birth of the Rambler car, direct ancestor of the Nash, reveals that it was originally inspired by a bicycle. In 1879, English-born Thomas Buckland Jeffery offered for sale in the U.S. a bicycle assembled from parts made in England. Named the Rambler, it was an immediate success and led to the formation in 1881 of an enterprise named the G & J Manufacturing Company--whose partners were Thomas Jeffery and Philip Gormully.
In 1895, Thomas Jeffery and his son, Charles, witnessed the Times-Herald automobile race held in Chicago--the first event of this kind ever run in America. They saw J. Frank Duryea pilot the winning Duryea car at an average speed of 5.05 mph over the 52-mile course and decided to give up bicycles and manufacture automobiles instead.
Father, son and partner Gormully wasted no time. They sold out to the American Bicycle Company. Then they hand-built a prototype car, designed by Charles Jeffery.
Experiments on the new car continued at the Sterling Bicycle Plant, purchased by Thomas B. Jeffery and converted for the purpose. But the new company was not yet ready to market. In 1901, father and son built two test cars called Models A and B. These were followed by a C and a D (a runabout and a stanhope) which were the finalized and more conventional versions, aimed at a conservative public.
Now named the Rambler, the car was exhibited at the Chicago Coliseum Automobile Exposition in March, 1902. The two models were priced at $750 and $825 respectively. So great was the demand that 1,500 Ramblers were built and sold during that year. The Rambler had become the world’s second mass-produced automobile --a year later than the Olds Curved Dash, but a year ahead of the Ford.
Typical of satisfied Rambler customers was a Lima, Ohio, owner who wrote: “... It is a truly wonderful piece of mechanism. It starts immediately, runs like a jack rabbit and stops only at our will.”
Soon, the Thomas B. Jeffery Company began building larger cars and introduced a novel feature in a production auto--the spare wheel and tire, offered as optional extras. By 1905, the factory site in Kenosha, Wisconsin, occupied 14 acres with an additional 33 acres available for expansion and testing.
Thomas B. Jeffery died in March, 1910, after 35 years of valuable pioneer work in the automotive industry, but his heirs carried on the business.
The publicity highlight in the popular little Rambler’s life was a photo of President Taft sitting in one of the cars. By 1910, however, it had moved out of the low-price bracket for good. That year, a Rambler five-passenger limousine was marketed for $3,350 and was described in the catalog as having: “... 36 x 5 inch tires, the interior finished in Bedford cord, electrically lighted, mahogany ceiling and sides, speaking tube, mirror, clock, cigar case and broom holder...” There was an even more expensive model--the seven-passenger limousine which retailed at $3,750 and epitomized luxury. It was already a year since Seaman had become the first auto body builder to reinforce woodwork with steel, and now the Rambler demand for bodies was absorbing more and more of the Seaman Company’s activities.
With the coming of 1914, the Thomas B. Jeffery heirs decided to drop the name Rambler and perpetuate the family name in the automobile. Accordingly, when the Rambler Cross Country model went out of production at the close of 1913, a new model bearing the Jeffery emblem was introduced. This was a four-cylinder, sporty-looking roadster with wire wheels and a long hood. The public went for it with equal enthusiasm, knowing that even though the name had changed, the quality of the company’s products could be counted on to remain the same.
The Company’s activities by this time were not confined to pleasure cars. Jeffery had already been a year in the truck business, with a Rambler model. In 1914, came the first Jeffery delivery truck with a 1,500-pound payload. A one-ton truck was also introduced that year. These were followed by three-quarter and one-and-a-half ton trucks, and then by the famous Jeffery Quad truck--extensively used in World War I.
The Jeffery car, however, retained its new identity for but a brief spell. Nevertheless, it contributed one more historical “stepping stone.” A combined Jeffery-Chesterfield advertisement, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post during 1915, was the first ever accepted by a magazine to show, openly, a woman smoking a cigarette.
By 1916, with business about at peak, the Jeffery owners decided to retire from the industry. On July 13, 1916, the Kenosha Evening News carried a banner headline consisting of three terse words: JEFFERY PLANT SOLD. The buyer was Charles W. Nash, one of the great men of the automotive industry, who had retired from the presidency of General Motors Corporation.
The new owner took active command of the business in September of that year, but it was not until 1918 that the first Nash-designed car appeared on the market. Meantime, the manufacture of Jeffery products continued uninterrupted right up until the fall of 1917. That year more bodies than ever before were produced by Seaman for the Nash organization. The old firm’s continuing good fortune was due not merely to some lucky star, but to the wisdom of the new management. The year that the Nash was introduced brought sales totaling 10,000 units--which proved that the public, faithful to the old Jeffery, also recognized a good thing when it was new.