(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #126, March 2015)
On March 6, 1896, Charles B. King made motoring history when he drove his self-made gasoline automobile on the streets of Detroit. This was the first time such a feat would be successful in Detroit and would become one of many achievements to come out of the Motor City. After a tour of naval duty as Chief Machinist on the USS Yosemite during the Spanish American War, King would come home and work for the Olds Motor Works and then offered his services to Jonathan Maxwell and his Northern Car Company. By 1908 King decided to focus on automobiles on his own and his first offering came to the public in 1911.
While plenty of ads can be found promoting the earliest King automobiles, the earliest piece of sales literature that I could find is from 1914. This 6 3/8” X 3 ¾” booklet has a colorful front cover and sixteen interior pages. The booklet stated that the King was “The Car of No Regrets” boasting “expensive car features” throughout the vehicle. It goes on to trump some of the King’s unique features including cantilever rear springs (the front used semi-elliptic), left-hand drive, “center change gear lever inside car at driver’s right” and four-cylinder engine producing 30-35 horsepower. Interesting to me was the fact that the booklet made use of photographs instead of illustrations. While photographs in literature during this era were not uncommon, to see them used as heavily as they were in this booklet definitely caught my eye. The photographs showed the two body styles offered in addition to chassis parts, exploded views of the transmission and details of the engine.
By 1915, King would offer an eight-cylinder automobile called the Model D. It offered 40-45 horsepower, ran on a 113” wheelbase and could be purchased for $1,350. The sales catalog for the Model D measures 5” X 8 1/8” and the wonderful use of orange and green on the cover make a beautiful illustration. The first page proclaims King’s famous firsts including his drive on the streets of Detroit and his car’s use of an en bloc motor, left hand drive, center control and cantilever springs. The list goes on to state that King was the “first motor car company in America to share profits with its workmen” and “first in the world with a popular-priced Eight”. Beyond the List of Firsts, the catalog highlights six cylinder shortcomings while describing advantages of the Eight. In particular, the eight-cylinder engine provides an increase in power with “silence and freedom from vibration” since “the Eight obtains power by numerous small explosions” while four and six-cylinder engines “depend on fewer and larger explosions”. This catalog is heavily illustrated and provides specifications, equipment and warranty information. A reference is made to the four-cylinder line but by 1916 King would only offer eight-cylinder automobiles.
The latest King sales literature was issued in 1922. It isn’t a catalog at all but a folder that opens to 18 ½” X 12 ½”. There is a great difference in quality between this piece and the earlier catalogs as this folder simply illustrates the different body styles available with an overhead view of the bare chassis and a specifications list. By looking at this folder we learn that in 1922 the wheelbase had increased to 120” and ranged in price from $1,350 to $3,125. The engine was producing 60 horsepower from 282.8 cubic inches and an aluminum crankcase. These later autos still had the cantilever springs in the rear and centrally located shifter that made such a splash in 1911.
The best sales year for the King Automobile was 1916 when they produced 3,000 automobiles. Shortly thereafter, Charles B. King would lend his services to the US Army’s Signal Corps during World War I and left control of the company in the wrong hands. By 1920 the King Motor Car Company was in serious financial trouble and was sold in 1921. The King Motor Car Company showed signs of a rebound in 1922 but only 240 cars were produced in 1923. Bankruptcy came to the company in 1924 and finally, the King was dead.