| Business

Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

Mail-order cars? Once upon a time

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

On the Grid

From the shale fields to the cooling towers, Trib Total Media covers the energy industry in Western Pennsylvania and beyond. For the latest news and views on gas, coal, electricity and more, check out On the Grid today.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Larry Printz
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.


Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.



Show commenting policy

Most-Read Business Headlines

  1. Kennametal expects to consolidate plants as it shrinks manufacturing
  2. Post-Gazette offers voluntary buyouts in bid to avoid layoffs
  3. Range Resources cuts workforce 11%
  4. United Airlines hack coincided with incursion into government employee data
  5. Muni bond funds stressed
  6. U.S. Steel CEO expects rebound
  7. GNC sales, profits slip in second quarter
  8. Gold continues to fall further out of favor with investors
  9. Travelers find direct Web route to Priory’s spirited past in North Side
  10. Voice-assisted technology raises privacy concerns
  11. PPG puts brand 1st in strategy to reach commercial paint market