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Nelson: The Car with the Aeroplane Type Motor

(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #130, July 2015)

Nelson0004Emil Nelson was a prominent engineer and designer for Olds Motor Works, Packard and Hupmobile during the first decade of the 1900s.  His greatest success came as Design Engineer for Hupmobile when he developed the models “20” and “32” from 1910-1913.  While making business trips to Europe in 1910 and 1912 to study the European marketplace, Nelson believed the future of the automobile was in small, efficient vehicles.  Hupmobile did not agree with Nelson so the two entities parted company allowing Nelson to travel back to Europe to continue his education in European design and manufacturing.  After realizing that he was tired of answering to bosses, Emil Nelson introduced his namesake automobile to the world on May 1, 1917 as sole investor in the company.

The earliest Nelson offerings were simply known as the “Four-29.” A 1918 sales catalog for these early models describes the car as “aristocratic and exclusive.”   The eight-page, 9” X 12” catalog is heavily illustrated and features yellow shading.  The first half of the catalog includes a photo of driver & passengers enjoying a ride in a touring car with a side description that the car “induces that feeling of pride and satisfaction which the owner feels in having a car of such qualifications standing in front of his home or in being seen driving it by his friends and business associates.”

The second half of the 1918 catalog addresses the vehicle specifications and includes a full page describing the “Nelson aeroplane type of engine designed and built by E.A. Nelson.” The car’s aeroplane type motor, as the model name suggests, was a four cylinder engine that could produce 29-horsepower.  It was unique in that it featured a single overhead cam that was driven by a vertical shaft connected to the crankshaft. The lower half of the crankcase was aluminum and the catalog describes thermos-syphon cooling, a removable cylinder head, full oil bath for the camshaft and force-fed high pressure “aeroplane type” oiling to the crank and bearings.  According to the catalog, this would all contribute to “long life and durability, combined with…25 to 30 miles to the gallon of gasoline and 150 miles to the quart of oil.”

Other features described in the catalog include a cooling fan attached to the end of the camshaft, a U.S.L starter attached directly to the crankshaft, unit transmission, a sturdy frame featuring six cross members and “patented full scroll springs” in the suspension.  The car ran in a 130” wheelbase and standard equipment included a Boyce Moto-Meter, Waltham clock and ammeter, gasoline and oil gages, dash light, tools and mechanical tire pump.  A roadster could be purchased for $1,200 while a sedan would cost $2,200.

In 1920 Nelson’s advertising budget must have been severely reduced as that year’s brochure was just a simple two-color listing of specifications.  One area of the brochure was dedicated to the Nelson engine (and its influence by Hispano-Suiza) and a final section dedicated to testimonials.  That brochure measures 3 ½” X 7” and opens to 13 ½” X 7”.


At its launch the Nelson had several things in its favor including high quality, efficiency, innovation and value.  However, considering the poor economic conditions during and immediately after World War I, the timing of the Nelson’s launch could not have been worse.  Only 623 Nelsons were sold between 1917 and 1919 and in March of 1920 the company was in bankruptcy after an attempted merger with the Gray Engine Company fell through.  Nelson would limp along another two years, producing just 405 more units.  When the Nelson Company was announced to the public in late 1916 they promised production levels of ten cars a day. Reality was cruel to Nelson and in September, 1921 more than 1,000 cars became orphans.