The Monroe was a Brass Era and vintage car built in Flint, Michigan (1914–1916), Pontiac, Michigan (1916–1918), and Indianapolis, Indiana (1918-1923).
In the mid-teens, R. F. Monroe was head of the Monroe Body Company in Pontiac, while William C. Durant headed Chevrolet in Flint. These two worked together to form Monroe Motor Company in Flint in August 1914. Monroe was president, while Durant was vice-president. There was a cross-stockholding arrangement between the Monroe and Chevrolet companies. Construction of the Monroe cars occurred in a plant formerly used by Chevrolet in Flint, and the Chevrolet company undertook to distribute the new Monroe automobile. However, in April 1916, Durant resigned his vice-presidency, and the Monroe company moved into the former Welch factory in Pontiac.
The company was now reorganized as the Monroe Motor Car Company, with a capitalization increase to US$1,000,000. This company went bankrupt in 1918. In the fall of the same year, the William Small Company of Indianapolis bought the assets of the Monroe company. The Small company had previously distributed Monroes in Indianapolis. The Pontiac factory was now leased to General Motors for production of the Samson truck. Monroe production was thenceforth carried out in Indianapolis only.
The Monroe had started as a light, small car, with only open cars on offer. By this time in its history, however, they came equipped with an engine of the company's own design, and a sedan was included in the price lists by 1918. At this time, Louis Chevrolet was brought in by William Small as a consulting engineer to "work out design problems for the Monroe car." This was ironic, as Louis Chevrolet had also used to work with William Durant, just as R. F. Monroe had. Chevrolet had little impact on the production Monroe car, but he did assemble seven race cars with Cornelius Van Ranst. Three of these were raced as Frontenacs, while the other four used the Monroe name. Louis Chevrolet's brother, Gaston, won the 1920 Indianapolis 500 in a Monroe. This was the first time an American car won at the Speedway since 1912.
Later the same summer, the William Small Company went into receivership. After various refinancings, the American Fletcher National Bank of Indianapolis purchased the Monroe assets in January 1922. In March of the next year, Strattan Motors Corporation bought the Monroe company. Frank E Strattan, the owner of Strattan Motors, was rumored to be also considering purchasing the Premier factory, also in Indianapolis. Strattan declared that the Monroe would continue to be built, but be joined by a lower-priced car called the Strattan. Just a few months later, in order to concentrate on his Strattan car, Frank Strattan sold the Monroe company to Frederick Barrows of Premier. Originally after this latest purchase, the company was organized as Monroe Motors, Inc., but soon it was absorbed by the Premier company. The last Monroes transformed into the Premier Model B.
As early as 1908 the firm was listed in the State of Michigan’s Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics. Officers included R.F. Monroe, the firm’s president and Alfred Fritzsche, general sales manager of the General Fire Extinguisher Company of Warren, Ohio, vice-president.
Although Monroe is mainly remembered for his close association with Billy Durant, Chevrolet and his own Monroe automobile, earlier on he had produced production bodies for the Ford Motor Company as did his Pontiac, Michigan neighbor, O.J. Beaudette Co. By 1909 business had improved to the point where Monroe was utilizing a number of Pontiac, Michigan manufacturing facilities in addition to a satellite plant in Detroit that produced bodies for the Cadillac automobile Company who at the time were the nation’s 5th largest automaker.
Other customers included the Carter Car Co. a onetime Detroit automaker that had moved to Pontiac in 1908, for whom they built 2-passenger roadster and 5-passenger tourings.
A December 12th, 1909 article written by John C. Wetmore, automotive editor of the New York Mail revealed that on of the plants of the “Monroe Body Factory” in Pontiac, Michigan (along with the Wayne, Northern, Port Huron, De Lux, Western Malleable and Detroit Pressed Steel factories) had recently been purchased by E-M-F to supply coachwork for its new Detroit factory - the purchase price, $200,000.
An article in the March 26th, 1911 Washington Post announced:
“Cadillac Buys Body Plant: Purchases Detroit factory of Monroe Company to Increase Facilities.
“W.C. Leland, general manager of the Cadillac Motor Car Company, announced that the company has taken over the Detroit plant of the Monroe Body Company. Mr. Leland said:
“‘For some time we have realized the desirability of having the building of Cadillac bodies more directly under our own control, so that we can give them the same careful supervision that we do the mechanism of the car. The new arrangement enables us to control the production, from the purchase of raw material until the body is finished. The plant we have acquired has a capacity of 75 bodies per day’”
Flush with cash, Monroe Body’s president, R. Frank Monroe, made an investment in Billy Durant’s new Chevrolet Motor Company and was given a job as Assistant General Manager of Chevrolet’s Detroit operations. When his boss David M. Averill, Chevrolet’s General manager, resigned in mid-1913, Monroe was briefly in charge until A.B.C. Hardy took the reign in September of that year. Under Hardy, Monroe was placed in charge of Chevrolet’s new Hamilton Avenue plant (Plant #2) in Flint, Michigan, the former home of the Josiah Dallas Dort’s Imperial Wheel Co.
At about the same time Monroe opened his own Chevrolet dealership at 477 N. Woodward Boulevard, which would soon became the automaker’s official Detroit sales outlet.
Durant had commissioned his staff to come up with a small low-priced four-cylinder car to compete against the Ford Model T. Working in tandem, engineers at Chevrolet and Mason came up with a pair of vehicles that shared most components that would eventually be produced as the Monroe M-2 roadster and the Chevrolet Four-Ninety touring which was named after its $490 target price, the same as that of a Ford Model T touring.
It was decided that the Mason-sourced 92 cu. in. engine used in the runabout would be too small for the touring, so the production of Chevrolet’s version of the car was delayed in order to re-engineer the car for a larger powerplant, the 171 cu. in. Mason Model H. However, the Monroe roadster was ready to go so in August of 1914 Monroe and Durant formed the Monroe Motor Company, capitalized at $250,000, in order to produce the Chevrolet/Mason-engineered four-cylinder runabout. The $450 Monroe M-2 was to be sold through Chevrolet’s sales department and would be available at many larger Chevrolet dealers in addition to a handful of independent Monroe dealers.
The Flint Journal listed the officers as:
“R.F. Monroe, president, W.C. Durant, vice-president; Curtis R. Hathaway, secretary; and Arthur G. Bishop, treasurer.”
Additional directors included A.B.C. Hardy, R.T. Armstrong and William C. Rowles. All of Monroe’s stockholders were also stockholders in Chevrolet and Monroe’s board of directors were also on Chevrolet’s board
Hathaway was a New York City attorney associated with the prestigious law firm of Ward, Hayden & Satterlee; Bishop, a Flint Banker; Hardy and Rowles, Chevrolet managers and Armstrong, a New York financier.
The initial schedule called for the production of 5,000 vehicles at the Flint, Michigan’s Hamilton Ave. Chevrolet plant (Plant #2), the same facility that had previously manufactured the Chevrolet Light Six Model L under the direction of R.F. Monroe. Durant supplied the Hamilton Ave. plant in trade for stock in the new firm while Monroe and the rest of the board came up with the needed capital.
The prototype Monroe M-2 roadster was shown to potential dealers during December of 1914. The December 13th, 1914 Syracuse Herald included a picture of the car with the following description:
“The roadster is named after R.F. Monroe, one of the financial men of the Chevrolet Company who is the president of the Monroe Company. For many years he built the bodies for Ford cars in the Monroe Body Works in Pontiac, Mich.”
Production of the M-2 roadster began in January 1915 and continued mostly on schedule throughout 1915. However, the future of the M-2 was placed into jeopardy when Chevrolet debuted their Four-Ninety touring at the January, 1916 Detroit and New York Auto Shows.
As Durant had expected, his new Four-Ninety was a huge success and within 17 days of its introduction, a record 4,661 cash deposits had been received for the new car and by the end of the year over 18,000 examples had been sold. The sudden increase in Chevrolet’s coffers helped finance Durant’s reacquisition of General Motors which was announced at GM’s September 16, 1915, board of directors meeting.
Immediately following the debut of the Four-Ninety, Durant resigned from the Monroe board, swapping his personal shares in the firm to R.F. Monroe in return for Monroe’s Chevrolet shares. The value of Durant’s Monroe shares exceeded that of R.F. Monroe’s Chevrolet stock, so Durant made arrangements for Monroe to get a loan from Chevrolet for the difference.
R.F. Monroe immediately began development of a light 5-passenger touring of his own as he feared (rightly so) that the new Chevrolet Four-Ninety touring would hurt sales of the similarly-priced Monroe M-2 roadster.
Apparently the parting between Monroe and Durant was amicable as the Monroe Body Company was commissioned to build bodies for the new Chevrolet Four-Ninety. R.F. Monroe’s Pontiac, Michigan body plant had been providing bodies for the Monroe M-2 all along. A British journalist had visited the body plant during the spring of 1915 where he reported that the coachbuilder’s 400 hands were hard at work producing “between 170 to 230 bodies per week”.
The final divorce of Chevrolet and Monroe was made public at the beginning of February, 1916 as evidenced by the following article from the February 13th, 1916 issue of the Waterloo (Iowa) Times Tribune:
“Monroe Motor Co. To Have Force of 700 Men By June 1.
“R.F. Monroe Announces Schedule of 10,000 Cars for this Year.
"New Light Five-Passenger Car On The Market Soon.
"Announcement Upsets Persistent Rumors That Monroe Motor Company Was About To Consolidate With Chevrolet.
“The Monroe Motor Company, at present employing a force of 130 men, will have a force of 700 men at work by June, according to a statement made to the Flint Journal Thursday by R.F. Monroe, president and general manager of the company. Within the next few weeks the company will put on the market a light five-passenger touring car, with the same chassis and engine that has made the little Monroe roadster so popular and Mr. Monroe announces a schedule that calls for the production of 10,000 cars this year.
“Won’t Join Chevrolet
“This announcement upsets the rumor that has been quite persistent for the last several weeks to the effect that the Monroe was about to consolidate with the Chevrolet Motor Company, discontinue the manufacture of Monroe cars and enter in to the manufacture of a runabout model of the Chevrolet “four-ninety”. Mr. Monroe admitted that there had been talk of consolidation and that negotiations were in progress to this and for several weeks, but it had been determined, he said, that the Monroe organization should remain intact, in order to make this possible. W.C. Durant, with whom Mr. Monroe has been associated for a number of years, has disposed of his holdings in the Monroe Company to Mr. Monroe and the latter has disposed of his Chevrolet holdings to Mr. Durant.
“The Monroe Company will continue making axles for the Chevrolet “four-nineties” until the new Chevrolet axles plant is completed and operating. Mr. Monroe has entered into a contract with Mr. Durant to supply bodies for a new “four-ninety” runabout from the Monroe Body plant at Pontiac and negotiations are now in progress between Mr. Durant and Mr. Monroe to the end that the Monroe company will take the entire output of motors manufactured by the Sterling Motor Company of Detroit, which has been supplying the special Monroe engine since the cars were first produced.
“Organized in 1914
“The Monroe Motor Company was organized in August, 1914, with R.F. Monroe, president, W.C. Durant, vice-president; Curtis R Hathaway, secretary; and Arthur G. Bishop, treasurer, and the officers with A.B.C. Hardy, R.T. Armstrong and William C. Rowles constituting the board of directors. The company purchased from the Chevrolet Motor Company the buildings and grounds at Hamilton Avenue and St. John Street previously occupied by the Imperial Wheel Works and immediately began the manufacture of a light low-priced runabout with a schedule of 5,000 cars. The company turned out these cars last year and several thousand more, all of which were marketed. An excellent sales organization was established, which will remain intact under the new arrangement.
“Production during the last few months has been curtailed somewhat because of the fact that the company had been busy in the manufacture of axles for the Chevrolet Company but the new schedule calls for the immediate revival of activity.”
Coincidentally, General Motors Buick division desperately needed the former Hamilton Ave. Imperial Wheel plant as it was located adjacent to Buick’s Flint, Michigan facility, so in April of 1916 a deal was made with Monroe to swap it for the former Welch plant that was located nearby the Monroe Body plant in Pontiac.
As the vacant Welch plant was significantly smaller, General Motors paid Monroe an additional $80,000 in cash for the Hamilton Ave. plant. Monroe’s shareholders approved the deal and by June of 1916 the firm had been recapitalized at $1 million and was producing automobiles in Pontiac.
While in Flint, Monroe had produced approximately 3,500 vehicles. However, the Chevrolet distribution contract expired in May of 1916, and the remaining Monroe dealers had trouble moving enough Monroes to keep the factory running at full capacity. During July of that year, Monroe introduced their new 1917 Model M-3, with projected sales of 2,000 units during the model year. Sales fell well short of the firm’s projections and over 500 unsold 1917 M3s remained when Monroe introduced their 1918 models, the M4, M5 and M6.
The firm started to fall behind on their payments to their engine supplier, the Sterling Motor Company, and Sterling’s parent company, Scripps-Booth, became the firm’s largest creditor. R.F. Monroe’s loan from Chevrolet became past due, and W.C. Durant took a number of leftover 1917 M-3s in lieu of payment which were subsequently re-sold to a few mid-west Chevrolet distributors. Part of the now-underutilized Monroe factory was leased back to General Motors for wartime production of the Samson Tractor.
Monroe’s son R.O. Monroe had been in charge of the firm’s mid-west sales since the firm’s move to Pontiac, but in early 1918, Chevrolet’s Indiana distributor, William S. Small, took over national distribution of the Monroe. Despite his proven track record and previous experience as Monroe’s Indiana distributor, Small couldn’t sell enough 1918 Monroes to keep the firm profitable. A combination of shaky finances and the nationwide sales slump caused by the War doomed the firm and by the fall of 1918, the Monroe Motor Company was bankrupt.
At the December bankruptcy auction, the building was sold for $75,000 to a non-automotive concern and William S. Small purchased the firm’s remaining assets and transferred them to his hometown of Indianapolis. Small continued to assemble small numbers of the Monroe through 1923.
The Monroe Body Company suffered a similar fate and R.F. Monroe was forced to liquidate the firm’s Pontiac operations during 1919 although he retained ownership of his Pere Marquette Lake timber operations in Ludington, Michigan.
However, R.F. Monroe would soon re-emerge as the president of the Mengel Body Company of Louisville, Kentucky. The firm was organized in November of 1922, with a capitalization of $2 million, $1,000,000 of no par value common stock, and $1,000,000 preferred. Mengel was a subsidiary of the Mengel Co., a large Louisville-based manufacturer and distributor of timber and timber-based products that had been founded by a German immigrant named C.C. Mengel in 1877.
Mengel had been supplying automakers with wooden components since the erection of the Ford Motor Company’s Louisville assembly plant and Monroe convinced the firm’s directors to build a new facility to supply similar products to additional manufacturers. In early 1923 Mengel built a new $200,000 factory to house the new firm at the corner of 13th and Dumesnil Sts. in downtown Louisville. The plant’s battery of twelve double compartment kilns, which were supplied by the National Dry Kiln Co of Indianapolis, could house up to 600,000 linear ft of lumber.
In 1924 Mengel took out a license to manufacture Meritas-clad composite bodies using Kenneth L. Childs patents for the Louisville Ford distributor. Their town car bodies were marketed as an upscale alternative to the standard Model T and were available with a Rolls-Royce-style radiator. They also offered a line of commercial bodies and are one of the known body builders for the US Postal Service.
Mengel’s wooden subassemblies were used in the framing of Chrysler, Ford, Franklin, and Packard automobile bodies well into the mid-Thirties. All of the wood for Ford’s Model A station wagons was shipped to Mengel for milling and some sub-assembly, then sent on to either Murray or Baker-Raulang for final assembly. Rather than shipping the bare Model A chassis to Raulang, Ford opted to have Murray and Raulang assemble and finish the bodies, then ship them to a Ford assembly plant where they were mated to a waiting chassis.
The disappearance of the composite body ended Mengel’s work for Ford and other automobile manufacturers. The firm concentrated on their successful door and furniture business which included some beautiful art-deco radio cabinets for Philco. For more information of Mengle pleas see the Mengel Company page.
Both R. Frank Monroe and the Mengel Company were involved in a new Durant-backed firm, the Associated Bodies Corporation. Associated Bodies was organized to build commercial car bodies for Durant Motor’s new light commercial chassis which were sold under the Star, Durant, Mason and Rugby monikers between 1923 and 1933.
The June 1924 issue of The Motor Truck; the National Authority of Power Haulage (pp 36-37) announced the formation of the $1 million firm.
R. Frank Monroe, former president of the Monroe Body Company of Ludington, Michigan and the president of the Mengel Body Company of Louisville, Kentucky was elected president of Associated Bodies while D. Claude Harris, Mengel’s secretary-treasurer became its vice-president and treasurer. John W. Sliger, another Mengel executive, was appointed general manager of the new firm.
Other investors included F.A. Ames of the Ames Buggy Co., Walter L. Rowe, Vice President and Assistant General Manager of Durant Motors, Winifred W. Murphy, secretary and treasurer of Durant Motors, J.S. Hunt, vice-president and general manager of the Hayes-Hunt Company and Syd D. Camper, vice president of the Bankers Mortgage Company of Louisville. All of Associated Bodies directors were either former directors of Chevrolet, Durant Motors or the Mengel Body Co.
The article stated that the new firm had arranged to take over an existing factory located reasonably near Louisville that had a capacity to produce 100 commercial and 25 bus bodies per day. Very little information can be found after the 1924 announcement other than advertisements for the sale Associated Bodies stock, so it’s likely that the firm was just another one of Durant’s paper holding companies or perhaps just a temporary reorganization of the Mengel Body Co.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com