by Jim Benjaminson • courtesy of the Plymouth Owners’ Club
A scholar once wrote that you can't know where you are going until you know where you have been. It sounds a lot like an excuse for a history lesson to me — about the first Plymouth car, as well as Plymouth tractors and locomotives.
This is not a mistake. Plymouth, Ohio, is the home of the Plymouth Locomotive Works, builders of special railroad locomotives. In the early days they also built a Plymouth car, Plymouth trucks, Plymouth farm tractors, and the locomotives.
The auto industry has seen countless mergers and acquisitions. In Chrysler’s case, they started in 1894 where Henry Morris and Pedro Salem built a vehicle in Philadelphia, called the Electrobat. It was one of the first participants in the first auto formal race in the United States, in 1895. Over the years a maze of car companies including Columbia, Stoddard-Dayton, Brush, Alden-Sampson, Thomas, Everitt, Metzger, Flanders, Chalmers, and Maxwell finally evolved into the Chrysler Corporation (1925). Walter Chrysler introduced his Plymouth in 1928.
Over in Plymouth, Ohio, another company had been formed in 1882 to make clay working machinery. After ten years, one of the founders, J.D. Fate, bought out the interests of his partner, Mr. Freese, to form the J.D. Fate Company. In 1909, a somewhat older J.D. Fate joined with investors from Toledo, Ohio, to form the Plymouth Truck Company. Production was to be in Toledo, but ended up in Plymouth.
The company built trucks and a line of sightseeing buses. The original engines were Rutenber four cylinders (bore and stroke both being five inches), with a high tension Splitdorf multi-unit coil ignition and Hancock valveless automatic force-feed oilers. Later Plymouth trucks utilized Waukesha four cylinder engines.
They had a unique feature — “gearless” transmissions (actually, friction drives). The drive train consisted of a front drive shaft from the engine which turned a large flywheel near the middle of the chassis. Two friction discs ran at right angles against the flywheel, transmitting power to still another rotating disc that was parallel to the first flywheel; then chains went to each rear wheel.
In bus form, the Plymouth carried 20, 24, or 40 passengers (a much smaller three seater was also built.) Wheelbase for most vehicles was 144”. Tires were, at least in the early days, solid rubber, made by Firestone, with 32 inch wheels on the front axle and dual 36 inch wheels on the rear. Prices ranged from $1,250 for a delivery wagon to $5,000 for the largest truck.
These trucks were built to order, as evidenced by a 1911 contract, dated August 4, 1911, calling for the company to build a “1912 Model H three ton truck” for the Rose & Johnson Company of nearby Youngstown. The truck, priced at $2,475 was to be delivered on or about August 15th; actual delivery took place September 12th when the truck was shipped to Youngstown by rail.
Truck production continued through 1915; a figure of 150 to 200 has been published by the company. In 1910, they gave automobile production a try.
The Plymouth car — the first Plymouth, one could say, since it was made around 17 years before Chrysler’s version — was a 7 passenger touring car body on a 112”-wheelbase truck chassis. Under the hood was a four cylinder, 40 horsepower Wisconsin engine, backed up by the Plymouth truck’s normal drive system. An unusual feature was the dome on top of the hood, for the gravity flow gasoline tank. The eight inch wide filler cap helped motorists, who had to fill the tank using a three gallon bucket!
On the first Plymouth’s maiden voyage, all went well on a trip to New York City, but at Atlantic City, a cylinder casting broke. The Plymouth had to return home on the back of a railroad car. Whatever the fault might have been, it prompted the company directors to decide to stick to truck production. (Rumor has it that the car was dismantled and its usable parts went into a truck.) Exactly how many cars were actually built is somewhat of a mystery. The company todays claims only one car was produced, while other published reports have stated that as many as three cars were built.
In 1912, the Bigelow Clay Company asked the firm to build them a special truck — to be run on rails. Several experimental locomotives followed the Bigelow order, and on March 20, 1914, a locomotive with serial number “1” was delivered to the National Fire Proofing Company in Haydenville, Ohio. Called the Model AL Type 1, it was built with a 36" guage (tread). All locomotives and experimentals that followed used sequential truck serial numbers.
By 1915 Plymouth truck production had come to a halt, and the plant focused on building Plymouth railroad locomotives. Each was built to order, with size and power matched to the customer needs. In October, 1920, locomotive number 1,000 was delivered to the Central Sugar Company in Salamanca, Cuba. This was an unheard-of production figure in the locomotive field. Engine number 2000 came in 1925; number 3000 in 1928, 4000 in 1939, 5000 in 1946,6000 in 1957 and number 7000 in 1974.
J.D. Fate merged with Root-Heath Manufacturing in 1919 to form Fate-Root-Heath. F-R-H, in 1969, became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Banner Industries. Recently [this was first published in March 1990] the locomotive works was purchased by the employees of the company, which now goes by the name of Plymouth Locomotive International, Inc.
In 1933, Fate-Root-Heath decided to enter the farm tractor business. They marketed a small unit called the Plymouth 10-20, using a 20 horsepower Hercules 1XA four cylinder motor (3” bore x 4” stroke). It had a “speed gear” — the tractor could work as slowly as one mile per hour, but for transport, the fourth gear provided a startling 25 mph top speed. Standard equipment included steel disc wheels; rubber tire wheels were optional, along with a power take off unit on the side, draw bar, or the rear. Like the 1910 Plymouth car, the Plymouth tractor combined the hood and gas tank into one unit. Optional implements included a "Plymouth Foot Controlled Cultivator" and the “Plymouth Full Floating Plow.” Emblazoned prominently on the radiator shell was the name PLYMOUTH.
These activities did not go unnoticed in the Chrysler corporate offices at Highland Park. To have the Plymouth name on this little tractor simply would not do and Walter Chrysler decided to do something about it. He was in for a little lesson in history!
Miles Christian, former president of Fate-Root-Heath, and a family member of the founding company fathers, told the story: “Legend has it that when we started building a line of farm tractors, Chrysler sent a team of high-powered lawyers down here to tell us we must drop the name ‘Plymouth.’ But then they discovered we had prior use of Plymouth on trucks and a car. We wound up selling the name Plymouth to Chrysler for only $1 and changed the name of our tractors to Silver King.” [The car trademark would have been well out of date by then; many older car names have traded hands.]
The tractor name change took place in 1935. By 1936, the Silver King offered an unusual three-wheel tractor powered by the same Hercules engine. The Silver King remained in production until 1956, when the tractor works was sold to the Mountain State Fabricating Company of Clarksburg, West Virginia. The Plymouth name was restored in the 1970s.
Today, Plymouth Locomotive International concentrates solely on railroad locomotives, all still built to special order under the Plymouth name.
Update: In 1997, Plymouth Locomotive was purchased by Ohio Locomotive Crane; production moved to Bucyrus, Ohio, in 1999, but only temporarily. Not long after this, the company’s entire locomotive business ended, with the replacement parts handled by Williams Distribution. Many of the company’s small locomotives — over a thousand, in 2015 — are still in use.
Thanks to Donald Barnthouse and his secretary, Juanita; Lloyd Groshing; Henry Mills; railroad historian John Denny, Jr.; Thomas F. Root; railroad historian David Hamley; Mary Cattie of the Philadelphia Library; Joe Wells; Ron Pfleegor; John Hoffman; and the Ohio Region members of the Plymouth Owners Club.
Chrysler Train Cars • Jim Benjaminson’s Plymouth 1946-1959 • “First Plymouth” • Plymouth cars
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