Photos by Larry Edsall
Seemingly everyone knows that Checkers, best known for their ubiquitous taxi cabs, were built in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And you may have seen a Dort, a Michigan or a Roamer at a car show. But did you know that 17 brands of automobiles were produced in Kalamazoo?
You do if you’ve visited the Gilmore Car Museum, located just northeast of Kalamazoo in Hickory Corners, Michigan, because a display in the museum focuses on locally produced vehicles and even proclaims Kalamazoo as “the Other Motor City.”
On display are a 1900 and 1903 Michigans (though the ’00 is a horse-drawn buggy, a 1922 Dort, a trio of Checkers (vintages 1923, 1936 and 1982), a 1920 Roamer Sport Touring, a 1921 Roamer Town Car Landaulet and a snazzy ’21 Roamer Speedster, the only surviving Barleys (a 1922 and a 1923), a 1922 Handley-Knight, and a model of the 1915 Cornelian that Louis Chevrolet drove in the Indianapolis 500 that year.
Other local automakers were Blood, Cannon, Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Truck, Kalamazoo Motors, Lane Truck, Mighty Michigan, Pennant Club, States and Wolverine.
Several of the companies have interwoven histories. For example, the Blood Brothers, Maurice and Charles, were bicycle makers who built a prototype motor car in 1902. They soon were joined by Charles and Frank Fuller (makers of washboards and other wood products) and for a couple of years produced cars under the Michigan Automobile Company banner, at least until a falling out of the families resulted in a separate and short-lived Blood Brothers Automobile & Machinery Company.
The Michigan auto company lasted until 1907, but a new Michigan Motor Car Company formed in 1911 and produced cars until selling its facilities to the States Motor Car Company in 1915.
The Fullers then produced transmissions and were enfolded into Eaton Corp. Meanwhile, the Bloods would focus for a decade on the machinery part of their business, eventually doing universal joints and becoming part of Rockwell International. But in 1914, Maurice Blood’s son, Howard, started another automotive venture, Cornelian, displaying a car at the New York auto show and building a racing car that Louis Chevrolet drove in the 1915 Indy 500. However, only around 100 Cornelians were built during the company’s two-year production run.
In 1921, J.I. Handley, a veteran of American, Marion and Willys-Overland, formed Handley-Knight with a million dollars in funding, much of its from Kalamazoo businessmen. Soon, however, Illinois automakers Commonwealth and Markin merged to create Checker, which bought out the Handley and Dort manufacturing plants (Dorts were assembled in Flint but their bodies were produced in Kalamazoo by the Dort Body Company).
Like Checker, Roamer, named for a famous race horse, started in Illinois but moved to Kalamazoo, where Roamer, Barley and taxi-producer Pennant Club were interconnected auto producers.