PROPERTY SOLD TO BENEFIT THE COLLECTION OF THE RENSSELAER COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY, TROY, NEW YORK
1911 KELSEY 'MOTORETTE' 10 HP TWO-SEATER
Chassis/Car No. 900
Engine: horizontally opposed twin-cylinder water-cooled two-stroke, 3¼" x 3¾" bore & stroke (57ci); Transmission: planetary with final drive by roller chain; Chassis/Suspension: pressed steel with full-elliptic front springs, cantilever to rear; Brake: footbrake to back wheel. Right hand side tiller steering.
At the age of 18 Carl Kelsey and his college friend Sheldon Tilney built a small three-wheeled car in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania which they developed through 1899. Kelsey later estimated that their 'Auto-tri' successfully covered some 2,500 miles. Although production was intended, family opposition prevented this and for a time Carl left the automobile trade. The prototype 'Auto-tri' survives (generally referred to as the Kelsey & Tilney) and is now in the Smithsonian Institution.
In the early years of the twentieth century Kelsey made two more prototype vehicles and in 1903 he opened a garage in Germantown, PA. When the Maxwell car appeared on the market in 1905 Kelsey sold his garage to finance acquisition of the local agency and was so successful that he went on to become Maxwell-Briscoe's sales manager, helping to place Maxwell third in sales volume behind Ford and Buick.
Late in 1909 after a policy disagreement with Benjamin Briscoe, Kelsey resigned his position. He took a trip to Europe to study motor taxi-cab developments, but did not proceed with plans in this field on his return. Instead, he worked briefly as sales manager for the Colombia Motor Company and then built a one-off conventional car called the Spartan that was intended to rival the Model T Ford, but Kelsey's car was too expensive.
It appears that lack of success with the Spartan project prompted Kelsey to revive his first idea of an inexpensive three-wheeled car which he christened the 'Motorette'. Although essentially a simple design, it was not a wire, string and cardboard cycle-car of the type that were beginning to appear in Europe and would soon be produced by optimistic makers in the States. Using his experience of more than ten years in the motor industry, Kelsey built a vehicle thoroughly thought out in detail which, again drawing on his experience, he actively promoted with extensive advertising.
1911 adverts claimed for the Motorette: as well built as a $6,000 automobile, a capable, dependable car, a low after-cost car at a price of $385, guaranteed for one year. Other copy saw statements such as frame, same material as used in Packard, Cadillac and Chalmers; Springs, made by the same people as those of the Pierce-Arrow, Packard and Simplex.
The prototype cars made in the Hartford, Connecticut factory suffered from two defects. One was that the steering roll introduced unwelcome handling characteristics that Kelsey resolved by fitting a stabilizer for the front springs that he patented. This was initially known as an anti-sway bar, later just as a sway bar, or, in European parlance, an anti-roll bar. His second problem lay with the engine. Engine problems dogged the cars throughout their three-year production.
Initially an air cooled two-stroke horizontally-opposed twin was used, but when tested up Mount Washington in New Hampshire these engines overheated. They were rapidly re-developed into a water-cooled form and worked well, however, they were expensive to produce. In an effort to reduce costs Kelsey decided to buy in engines from Lycoming. Unfortunately, this firm was experiencing labor difficulties and the engines supplied for the Motorette had had half a cup of sand put in each crankcase and in use the motors naturally soon ground to a halt. The 1912 Spring sales drive seriously faltered and the return under guarantee of cars sold and the bad publicity forced the Motorette company into receivership.
In an interview with historian Keith Marvin shortly before he died in 1970, Carl Kelsey estimated that only 199 Motorettes were delivered, with a few more prototype and experimental machines being made. He also recalled with some pleasure that the dismantled 1912 example that he bought from the Cameron Peck collection 36 years later, after restoration, tied for first place with a Stanley Steamer on the 1948 Glidden Tour Revival. It is not without irony that this Motorette of Kelsey went into the Ford Museum in Dearborn Village.
A number of Motorettes survive in the hands of enthusiasts to demonstrate a perfect example of 'what might have been' had not production and business circumstances conspired against this intriguing light car. This is an older restoration on which the engine was recently rebuilt. The present owner purchased it in 1980 from Mr. Tony Price of Briarcliff Manor, NY, who is the grandson of Carl Kelsey. The Motorette was on loan to the Museum of Transportation in Brookline, MA from 1989 through 1991, since when it has been in storage. Now requiring sympathetic recommissionship, proceeds from its sale are benefiting the RCHS.