CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s hard to imagine a time in Cleveland when the city streets were not clogged with cars and trucks.
But more than 117 years ago, downtown streets were the domain of horse-drawn carriages and later electrified trolleys. As Cleveland entered the 20th century, things began to change as automotive pioneer Alexander Winton developed his first car, a single cylinder contraption, in Cleveland.
He stands shoulder to shoulder with automotive pioneers like his rival, Henry Ford, as the reason automobiles are king in America and most of the world.
Back in the 1800s, Winton worked in the Ford shops in New York and decided to move to Cleveland to make his mark. He started as a bicycle manufacturer in Cleveland.
His great-grandson, Jim Winton, of Rocky River, said everything his ancestor did was top grade.
“His bicycles were very well made – and expensive,” he said. “The least expensive bicycle was $65, a fortune in those days, and the most expensive was $150.”
There were several different companies trying to make an automobile that the public would accept and be able to afford.
“There were people who made carriages and wanted to put engines in them,” said Jim Winton. “And there were people who made engines who wanted to put them in carriages. It was a matter of getting them to work together.”
Using money he had made from his bicycle sales, Alexander Winton developed his own car.
After driving it around the area, he proved that it was as trustworthy as any equine, and in 1897 he drove the vehicle 800 bumpy, uncomfortable miles from Cleveland to New York City.
Two years later, in 1899, he and a Plain Dealer reporter made the trek amid a flurry of publicity. His plan worked. There were stories galore not only in the Plain Dealer but in newspapers across the country and especially newspapers located along the trip.
One hundred years later, the Plain Dealer sent automotive reporter Christopher Jensen to recreate the trip with Charles F. Wake, another great-grandson of Alexander Winton. They used an actual 1899 Winton automobile for the trip.
But after the 1899 trip to New York, Winton’s small car company turned the corner.
“He was a true force in the automotive industry, right up there with Henry Ford,” said Angie Lowrie, director of the Cleveland History Center which houses the Crawford Auto and Aviation Museum. He even raced his car in Ormond Beach, Fla., in what would eventually become the Daytona 500 and won. We have his trophy, along with several of his cars in the museum.”
Jim Winton said after the New York stunt, sales of the cars perked up considerably. In 1902, a 100,000-square-foot plant opened on Berea Road in Cleveland’s West Side to churn out the six cylinder vehicles. Like his bicycles, the cars were not cheap, averaging from $3,500 to $4,500, comparable to what Henry Ford was selling his cars for at that time. Later, Ford would devise the assembly line approach to manufacturing that allowed him to cut the price of cars dramatically.
Jim Winton said peak production years for the company were 1917 and 1918 as less expensive vehicles, including Ford’s Model T, became available. The Winton company stopped production in 1924, a year when a scant 50 cars were built. It was an inauspicious end to the production, which had built a whopping 23,000 vehicles from 1898 through 1924.
But the Winton story was not over. In 1913, he started the Winton Engine Co., which built diesel and gasoline powered engines for the manufacturing, rail and marine industries. Jim Winton said the engines powered passenger trains, industrial plants, ocean freighters and military vessels – including the submarine the USS Cod.
In 1930, the company was sold to its competitor, General Motors. Jim Winton said they continued to operate as “The Winton Engine Division of GM” until World War II when the plant was renamed Cleveland Diesel.
“The Winton auto plant still exists on Berea Road,” Jim Winton said in a speech many years ago. “If you take the Rapid Transit by the plant just after it has rained, you can still make out ‘Winton Motor Carriage Co.’ on the side of the building.”
Jim Winton envies his great-grandfather’s innate mechanical skill, which was not handed down, he said.
“I don’t even own a Winton, because it would be pointless. I couldn’t work on it so I would have to pay a lot of money to keep it running. And they are very expensive, there are only 115 left in the world, mostly in the United States.”
He said whenever friends come to town, he takes them to the Crawford Auto Museum to see the cars.