Gray Motor Corporation only manufactured for five years, 1921-1926.
Car dealerships have reopened in Michigan as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it will be a different experience now, we can resume a 120-year-old, great American pastime — shopping for new cars.
Speaking of car shopping, on a cruise through the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, I ran across an interesting article in the Nov. 4, 1921, issue of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle: “F. L. Klingensmith Starts Making of Low-Priced Cars.”
Klingensmith was the president of the newly formed Gray Motor Corporation. The company and the cars they made were named after the first president of Ford Motor Company, John S. Gray, who had died in 1906. His name was first attached to a firm that made boat engines, the Gray Motor Company, which was the Gray Motor Corporation’s ancestor.
Don’t feel badly if you never heard of a Gray. They were only manufactured for five years, 1921-1926, and never in large numbers.
By the time the Gray Motor Corporation was launched in 1920, the automobile manufacturing market was crowded and highly competitive. Hundreds of companies in Michigan and thousands in America attempted to mass-produce automobiles during the first two decades of the 20th century; only a few were successful.
In southeast Michigan alone, Ford Motor Company, General Motors — the umbrella corporation for Buick, Oakland (later renamed Pontiac), Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC Trucks — and the Dodge Brothers, all produced thousands of cars. Along with these carmakers, there were smaller companies such as Packard, Hudson, Huppmobile, Maxwell, among others. Chrysler Corporation began its operations in 1924.
Klingensmith was the former vice president, treasurer and member of the board of directors of Ford. A highly regarded executive, he has been given credit for handling Ford’s strategy of placing a network of factories around the country to make parts and assemble cars. His chief partner at Gray was former Packard Motor Car Company vice president Frank F. Beall.
It is also interesting to note that, during this era when anti-Semitism was widespread, both Ford Motor Company and General Motors (GM) had Jewish treasurers. Meyer Prentis held that office at GM from 1919-1951.
Gray automobiles were built at a factory on Mack Avenue in Detroit, near the railroad terminal. The first Grays were priced below $500, in the same price range as Ford’s Model T’s. They featured steel bodies and self-starters. A Gray with an enclosed body, a sedan, cost a bit more.
The Gray was also a very economical car. In 1922, a Gray set a new transcontinental record when it averaged 33.8 mpg on a trip from California to New York.
Although the owners projected the Gray Motor Corporation to ramp-up production to 250,000 vehicles a year, the car was never made in large enough numbers to achieve financial success. Klingensmith resigned as president in 1925, just before the Gray Motor Corporation’s collapse in the summer of 1926.
By the way, another automobile company from this early era was founded by a Jewish inventor/entrepreneur, Max Grabowsky. Unlike Klingensmith, however, his company was a great success. Established in 1902 as the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company, we know it today as GMC Trucks.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.