In the early 1900s, backyard tinkerers were obsessed with all things mechanical. While Wilbur and Orville Wright fantasized about flying while operating their Ohio bicycle shop, more “grounded” mechanics sought to come up with a reliable motor car. One of those was Harry Eugene Wilcox, who talked his father, John, into financing a factory to build automobiles in Northeast Minneapolis.
John F. Wilcox was an early Minneapolis businessman, coming to the city in 1867. He had followed his father into the manufacturing of window sashes and doors, and booming Minneapolis, with its brisk lumber trade, was the place to be. His plant at 1030 Marshall Street NE was completely destroyed in a fire in 1893, but he rebuilt it and did a thriving business. The plant, which stood at what is now Graco, Inc.’s gateway, occupied two square blocks and employed 225 men.
Son Harry was evidently a motorhead, and started making cars in the repair shop of his father’s factory in 1906. He incorporated the business with his brother Ralph and a $100,000 investment from John. He called the business Wilcox Motor Car Company. The first car was called a Wolfe, after salesman Maurice Wolfe, who designed it. “Built by westerners for the west,” the touring car had a four-cylinder, 24-horsepower, air-cooled Carrico engine, a double chain drive and a 108-inch wheelbase. It cost $1,800. It had a 16-inch ground clearance, important in a day when city streets were made of cobblestone and most roads were muddy and unpaved.
Maurice Wolfe didn’t hang around long. In 1909, he bought the Clark Motor Car Company in Ohio, and Harry changed the name of the Wolfe to Wilcox.
Harry continued to build cars. The 1908 Wolfe featured a 30-horsepower water-cooled engine. By 1909, the company offered touring, baby tonneau, or “gentlemen’s roadster” bodies and the purchase price came down to $1,500. Fewer than 100 of the Wilcox cars were built, and they’re a very rare item today. Harry also started building trucks.
Dad must have seen some promise in the enterprise. In 1911, John Wilcox put up $1 million to reorganize what became known as H.E. Wilcox Motor Car Company. C.H. Davidson, Carrington, N.D., known as “a big operator and one of the shrewdest business men in the west,” also put up capital. Harry, “who is identified with motor cars with their first appearance,” was named president.
Described on his World War I draft registration as “stout” with red hair and blue eyes, Harry was a born promoter. He was the first man to drive from Minneapolis to Chicago. He tirelessly promoted his products at auto shows around the nation. He produced catalogs (the Smithsonian Institution) has a collection). Advertising, whether it appeared in Minneapolis or Indianapolis, featured local companies that used Wilcox Trux.
He sent his brother Gilbert to Washington, DC, before the war to a drive on the nation’s capital to protest the Taft administration’s use of mules to haul cargo instead of trucks. (Taft thought mules were more efficient.)
Harry even arranged for a retired circus elephant (“Jumbo” had killed six of his Ringling Bros. Circus trainers) to ride around Minneapolis in the back of a Wilcox truck. “The large beast tips the scales at 6,300 lbs. but he was a very easy load for the Wilcox truck in which he was given a ride through the Flour City,” reported Motor Body, Paint and Trim in 1911. “The elephant showed no fear of the truck and seemed to enjoy the trip as well as did the spectators and as an evidence of his almost human intelligence, it is said he showed a great fondness for Minneapolis beer and had to be treated repeatedly.”
Truck production soon eclipsed cars, and Harry decided to concentrate on building one-ton and three-ton trucks. In an early hint to the 1980s fad of naming things with an x, he called them Wilcox Trux.
The few Wilcox Trux still around are quaint-looking, with square cabs and big spoked wheels. Cab interiors were completely finished in wood; what we would today call a headliner was made of tongue-and-groove wainscoting.
The June 9, 1909 Minneapolis Tribune ran a full-page article on the Wilcox’s business. The paper noted the company’s fourth plant expansion on Marshall Street would increase manufacturing capacity by one-third. It also praised the number of windows in the plant, “on every floor and all sides, the workmen have every advantage in this respect.” It continued, “The second floor will be used for body building, and as the new building is now arranged, the vehicles make systematic progress from one department to another.” Fifty men were employed at the plant. Harry told the Tribune he wanted to extend the plant to run the entire length of the block.
By 1918 Wilcox made trucks in six sizes. Customers praised their reliability and they found a number of uses, from hauling lumber to fire engines. Wilcox advertised 447 trucks in use in the Twin Cities, and mentioned them all by name.
Commercial transportation increased greatly in the 1920s, and Wilcox was there to meet demand with a line of six-cylinder engines with horsepower ranges from 80 to 150. Getting goods from one place to another became faster.
Cars in the Heights
Cars were built in Columbia Heights, too. The Motor Buggy Manufacturing Company was located at 38th and University, in a former motorcycle factory. It produced what was introduced as the Acme Roadster but became known as the M.B. (motor buggy) 22. In 1908, the M.B. 22 had a two-cylinder water-cooled engine that produced 16 horsepower; the 1911 version was rated at 22 horsepower. The light-bodied, high-wheeled vehicle had solid rubber tires.
An article in the March 18, 1909 Minneapolis Tribune mentioned a Motor Buggy on display at the Auto Show, “especially adapted for the family surrey and the country livery man. The rear seat is detachable so that the car can be made into a runabout.” The article noted that the company also made a delivery wagon.
In 1910, the company produced a vehicle that was more like a car and less like a horseless carriage. Called the Renville, it had a 45-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, pneumatic tires and sold for $1,500.
The Motor Buggy never really caught on. By 1912, the fledgling Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles listed registrations for four Acme autos and 27 Motor Buggies.
The Hoffman Brothers of Renville, Minn., began building trucks at the same location in 1913. Their sole product was a three-ton truck. It had an enclosed wood cab, Prest-O-Lite gas lights and a four-cylinder Waukesha engine. Its top speed was 25 mph. The center chain drive was problematic, and the Hoffmans were out of business by 1915.
The beginnings of Greyhound
In 1901, the Missoula, Mont., Missoulian reported that Charles L. Bresee had purchased a 20-passenger car from Wilcox and expected to take delivery in nearby Stevensville within four weeks. Bresee planned to use it to make runs to and from the train depot and as a sightseeing car. The following year, Wilcox shipped its first bus to South Dakota. It was described as a combination stagecoach and mail wagon. It was one of many buses made by Wilcox Trux.
Harry Wilcox and his sales manager, J.H. Shields, made a trip to Maryland in 1911 to view a pair of bus lines that had purchased Wilcox buses. One bus ran from Washington, D.C., to Brandywine, reported the Washington Post, “and the car has made several trips daily without deviating from schedule.”
In 1922 Wilcox made their first purpose-built bus chassis. The buses used either Continental or Waukesha six-cylinder engines, and later models had a top speed of 62 mph with 29-passenger bodies. Northland Transportation Company ordered 39 of these buses during 1925-26. In March 1927 Harry Wilcox sold the enterprise to principals of the Motor Transit Corp., formed in 1926 as a holding company for bus lines operated under the Greyhound name.
“A Progressive Firm,” Minneapolis Journal, Nov. 26, 1903
“New Incorporation,” Minneapolis Journal, Oct. 31, 1906
“H.E. Wilcox Motor Co.’s Plans,” Farm Implements, Vol. 23, 1909
“Wilcox Factory Grows,” Minneapolis Tribune, June 20, 1909
“Plans to Install a Sightseeing Car,” The Missoulian, Aug. 27, 1909
“A Three Ton Elephant Takes a Joy Ride in a Wilcox Truck,” Motor Body, Paint and Trim, Vol. 47, Aug. 1911
“In the Auto World,” Washington Post, Aug. 18, 1912
“Fast Pace is Routine for 94 Year Old,” Washington Post, Sept. 8, 1983
Ominsky, Alan, “A Catalog of Minnesota-Made Cars and Trucks,” Minnesota History, Fall 1972
Below: The H.E. Wilcox Motor Company plant at 1030 Marshall Street NE. (Hennepin County Library) Harry Wilcox road-testing a 1906 Wolfe. (Source: earlyamericanautomobiles.com)