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Mail-order cars? Once upon a time

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

In an era when most any item can be bought online, you have to wonder why you can't buy a car from and have it shipped to your door. Well, that's because of automotive franchise laws. Still, it's not a new idea. In fact, it's almost as old as the automobile, but it never succeeded.

A century ago, one of the most important books in any home was the Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order catalogue. If an item appeared in this weighty tome, it was proof that it had become mainstream.

In 1908, the same year that Ford Motor Co. introduced the Model T, Sears introduced the Runabout, item number 21R333. This gas-powered, two-cylinder high-wheeler produced 10 horsepower and carried two people down the road without the benefit of doors, windows, windshield, heater or seat belts. It cost $395 — or approximately $9,200 today.

It was designed by Alvaro Krotz who, after designing it, developed a car that ran on both gasoline and electricity. Sears wasn't interested, so Krotz left and attempted to build it on his own. He had no success.

In the meantime, Sears' buggy proved popular with customers, but not with company accountants. Production of the car ceased in 1912 after it was revealed that it was being sold at a loss.

Despite that, 40 years later, the idea resurfaced.

Blame Theodore Houser, the vice-president of merchandising for Sears who, in 1949, sat on the board of Kaiser-Frazer, an upstart automaker launched after World War II by steel magnate Henry J. Kaiser.

That year, Kaiser-Frazer sales had withered under the assault of all-new models from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Financial prospects dimmed. Houser offered to sell a Kaiser-Frazer car under Sears' Allstate brand, but he wasn't sure Kaiser's current models were a good fit.

In an effort to remain solvent, Kaiser-Frazer borrowed $44 million from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation with the stipulation that the automaker build an affordable small car. That car, introduced in 1951, was the Henry J, modestly named after the company's founder.

In an era when bigger was better, this plain two-door fastback's 181-inch length — an inch longer than a 2013 Toyota Corolla — must have seemed spectacularly small. And its 68-horsepower four-cylinder engine couldn't compete against the likes of Oldsmobile's 135-hp Rocket V-8, although an 80-hp six-cylinder engine was optional.

Still, the Henry J found 81,942 takers. Arrangements were made to slap Allstate badges and some unique trim on the Henry J and have Sears sell it for 1952.

Prices for the Allstate started at $1,395 — or $12,355 today. Considering that a trunk lid and glove box weren't standard on base models, Allstates were pricey.

An additional $65 bought a full-size Chevrolet, while an extra $29 netted a full-size Ford. Is it any wonder that only 1,566 Allstates were sold? When a mere 797 found buyers in 1953, Sears pulled the plug.

Let's face it: Few things in life are as exciting as going to a car dealer and selecting a new car or truck from a row of shiny new sheet metal. And, given the cost involved, it's not something that can be taken care of with a click of the mouse.


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