The Big Car Database


The Maxwell was a brand of automobiles manufactured in the United States of America from about 1904 to 1925. The present-day successor to the Maxwell company is Chrysler Group.

Former type

Automobile Manufacturing
Industry Automotive
Fate Acquired by Walter Chrysler
Successor Chrysler
Founded 1904
Founder Jonathan Dixon Maxwell
& Briscoe Brothers Metalworks
Defunct 1925
Headquarters Tarrytown, New York
Detroit, Michigan


The brand name of these motor cars was started as the Maxwell-Briscoe Company of Tarrytown, New York. The company was named after founders Jonathan Dixon Maxwell, who earlier had worked for Oldsmobile, and the Briscoe Brothers Metalworks. Benjamin Briscoe, an automobile industry pioneer, was president of the company at its height.

In 1907, following a fire that destroyed the Tarrytown, NY, factory, Maxwell-Briscoe constructed what was then the largest automobile factory in the world in New Castle, Indiana. This factory continued as a Chrysler plant until its demolition in 2004.

Maxwell was the only profitable company of the combine named United States Motor Company, which was formed in 1910. Due to a conflict between two of its backers, the United States Motor Company failed in 1913 after the failure of its last supporting car manufacturer, the Brush Motor Company. Maxwell was the only surviving member of the combine.

In 1913, the Maxwell assets were purchased by Walter Flanders, who reorganized the company as the Maxwell Motor Company, Inc.. The company moved to Highland Park, Michigan. Some of the Maxwells were also manufactured at two plants in Dayton, Ohio. For a time, Maxwell was considered one of the three top automobile firms in America, along with General Motors and Ford(though the phrase "the Big Three" was not used at the time). By 1914, Maxwell had sold 60,000 cars.

The company responded to the increasing number of low-priced cars—including the $700 Ford Model N, the $485 Brush Runabout, the Black at $375, the $500 Western Gale Model A, the high-volume Oldsmobile Runabout at $650, and the bargain-basement Success an amazingly low $250)—by introducing the Model 25, their cheapest four yet. At $695, this five-seat tourerhad high-tension magneto ignition, electric horn and (optional) electric starter and headlights, and an innovative shock absorber to protect the radiator.

Maxwell eventually over-extended and wound up deeply in debt, with over half of its production unsold in the post-World War I recession in 1920. The following year, Walter P. Chrysler arranged to take a controlling interest in Maxwell. One of his first tasks was to correct the faults in the Maxwell, whose quality had faltered. This improved version of the car was marketed as the "Good Maxwell."

Maxwell Motors was re-incorporated in West Virginia with Walter Chrysler as the chairman. Around the same time that this was happening Maxwell was also in the process of merging, awkwardly at best, with the ailing Chalmers Automobile Company. Chalmers ceased production in late 1923.

In 1925, Chrysler formed his own company, the Chrysler Corporation. That same year, the Maxwell line was phased out and the Maxwell company assets were absorbed by Chrysler. The Maxwell car would continue to live on in another form however, because the new 4-cylinder Chrysler model F-58 which was introduced for the 1926 model year was created largely from the design of the previous year's Maxwell. And this former Maxwell would undergo yet another transformation in 1928, when a second reworking and renaming would bring about the creation of the first Plymouth.

Chrysler - Maxwell   Part 1: 1903-1916

The first popular, quantity-produced car to use shaft drive instead of chains, this Chrysler forerunner challenged all comers.

The story of the Maxwell car--which 20 years after its inception became the sensational Chrysler--is one of determination, constant endeavor and well-earned success, Back in 1903, Jonathan Dixon Maxwell and Benjamin Briscoe designed, built and tested a little car which ran so well that they decided to put it into production. Both Maxwell and Briscoe were outstanding personalities and pioneers in the automotive business. It was Maxwell, for example, who in 1894 joined the Apperson brothers in helping Elwood Haynes build the first Haynes auto buggy--which later evolved into a famous car.

Anyway, in 1904 the partners Jonathan and Benjamin incorporated their firm as the Maxwell-Briscoe Company and pro­duced their first two models during the fall of that year. Both were two-cylinder cars, but one had an eight hp engine while the other rated 15 hp. The engines of both had a bore and stroke of equal dimensions, de­signed to limit piston speed; quite a pro­gressive idea for those days, since it wasn’t until years later that de­signers became actively conscious of the direct influence of this factor on engine life and efficiency. The cylinders of the smaller engine were four inches by four, and of the larger, five by five.

Prices were $750 and $1,550 respectively and the cars found a ready sale. By August, 1905, in fact, 532 Maxwells were built and delivered from the factory at Tarrytown, New York. While on the subject of progressive features, the Maxwell was the first popular, quantity-produced car to use shaft drive in place of the usual chains. It also was one of the earliest to employ the principle of thermo-siphon cooling.

Encouraged by their success, Maxwell and Briscoe entered their product in the Glidden Tour, where it tied with a Pierce-Arrow for premier award. It was then en­tered in just about every competitive event that was going. The following year, a Max­well won the Deming Trophy in the Glidden Tour and the partners were busy building two special cars for the Vanderbilt Cup. Unfortunately, though both showed promise in the early stages, neither turned out to be a success.

In November of 1906, the factory moved to Newcastle, Indiana, although the Tarry-town plant was retained.

The first four-cylinder Maxwell was produced in 1907. It was a machine similar in basic design to its predecessors, but more powerful and still moderately priced at $1,500. This was followed by a much larger car with a four-cylinder engine of 30-40 hp, known as the Model D and priced at $3,000. Very probably, the search for power in the Vanderbilt Cup models in­spired the design of this model, but the price caused some raising of eyebrows.

There already was plenty of well-estab­lished competition in the luxury bracket and the Model D Maxwell could make little headway against such contenders as Apperson, Thomas Flyer, Northern, Locomo­bile, Pierce-Arrow, Marmon and others. However, the original two-cylinder cars of eight and 15 hp were retained--the former as the RS or RL Runabout (with divided or undivided seat), selling for $825; and the latter as the Model HB Light Touring Car priced at $1,450. These continued to find a ready market.

Next came the 1908 Model D, a four-cylinder, 24 hp touring car that weighed 2,100 pounds, cost $1,750 and had a good sale. The change of rules in the 1908 Glidden Tour angered the partners, who alleged that the new regulations favored the cost­lier autos. The Maxwell Company there­fore issued a sharp challenge to the winner of that year’s Glidden Tour, and plastered the challenge in a dozen contemporary ads. “Come out and fight,” Maxwell and Briscoe said, in effect, “but under 1907 Glidden rules which will put the Maxwell on equal footing with the highest priced and most powerful cars made. We challenge you to a race from New York to San Francisco, with no quarter asked or given!”

The challenge went unanswered, and that same year a proposed merger between Maxwell and Buick failed to materialize--for the good reason that Buick became a part of the infant giant, General Motors. This seemed to cause the partners little worry. Benjamin Briscoe now became president of the company.

By August, 1909, more than 9,000 Max­well cars had been sold. That same year, a Model LD, 14 hp runabout appeared, priced at $825. The following year, Briscoe re­tired to organize the United States Motor Company, which was formed in combina­tion with several other firms.

By 1912, the United States Motor Com­pany had failed and Benjamin Briscoe went off to France with a couple of engineers to study European design.

In 1913, the Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company, Incorporated, was organized to succeed United States Motors and produc­tion continued as before. That year the first six-cylinder Maxwell made its ap­pearance and was priced at $2,350.

The firm now sold its Tarrytown, New York, plant and moved to Detroit. For two years running thereafter, it achieved a generally forgotten success in the gruel­ing 500-Mile Indianapolis Memorial Day race. In 1914, a four-cylinder, 445-cubic-inch Maxwell, driven by William Carlson, finished ninth at an average of 70.97 mph, and in 1915 a 298-cubic-inch Maxwell occupied the same position at 78.96 mph, handled by Carlson and Hughes. Pretty good going for a firm with almost no previous racing experience. Meantime, in 1914 at Corona track, California, the great Barney Oldfield drove a Maxwell to second spot in a 301-mile grind, which he covered non-stop.

In 1916, the firm leased part of the Chal­mers plant in Detroit. Nine years later, Walter P. Chrysler appeared on the scene.

Chrysler - Maxwell   Part 2: 1916-1925

The car that led the field in publicity and advertising stunts gave way to the Chrysler.

Though the decade 1915-1925 was to be the last in the long and colorful 20-year period of Maxwell manufacturing, this firm continued to do good business and remained the champion of an aggressive form of advertising found nowhere else in the automobile industry.

By 1916, the company had manufacturing plants in Newcastle, Indiana, and Dayton, Ohio, as well as the Detroit factory leased from the defunct Chalmers Company. One of the Maxwell’s strongest selling points was its economy of running. So pleased, for example, was a Maxwell owner named W. H. Whipple, that he wrote as follows: “Total operating expenses on my Maxwell touring car for a period of 8,000 miles, including gas, oil, repairs, an extra tire and an occasional wash have been but $73.84. This is less than a quarter of a cent per mile per passenger.”

That year, too, a Maxwell beat 40 other cars in a gas consumption test held by Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School. It averaged 33.2 mpg at a speed of 19.8 mph. The result of all this was that during the summer of 1916, Maxwell dealers reported big sales increases, vary­ing from 233 to as high as 800 per cent over previous year.

The 1916 Maxwell range featured five body styles on a common chassis with a 103-inch wheelbase and a tough, four-cylinder L-head engine. Of relatively light weight (1,960 pounds and up), the Maxwell was a high-geared automobile with a speed of 25 mph at only 1,000 engine rpm. The power unit would run up to 2,000 rpm, this range being known as the “utility point.” Low gas consumption was thus not difficult to explain.

At this time, too, when more and more assembled automobiles were appearing on the market, Maxwell made capital of the fact that its product was built from end to end under one roof. Typical of the company was this statement: “It is the veriest soph­istry to argue that a car made from parts manufactured by several makers, located in as many different places, all of whom must have a profit, can by any possibility be as good a car as a manufactured car. Or that the buyer can hope to obtain as much car value for his money. It isn’t possible.” Mak­ing its position even clearer, the company adopted the slogan: “From the Raw Ma­terial to the Finished Car,” and this, also, was a sales-getter, considering that Max­well sold for as low as $655.

The biggest Maxwell stunt of the time was a non-stop engine run during which a stock Maxwell covered 22,022 miles under AAA observation without a single motor stop, setting up a new world’s record. Started November 23, 1916, the run ended January 5, 1917, with the car covering 500.6 miles daily during this period. It also set a gas mileage record of 21.9 mpg and showed an average tire life of 9,871 miles.

The Maxwell output for 1917 was 100,000 chassis, including a new line of delivery cars for laundries, groceries, department stores and the like. The delivery car chassis was identical with the one that had set-up the world’s non-stop record. Prices ran from only $615 with a panel body and sales through some 3,000 Maxwell dealers hit a new high for this type vehicle. The chassis alone sold for $545. In addition, Maxwell entered the commercial field with a line of solid-tire one-ton trucks featuring worm drive. These had a 124-inch wheelbase and a chassis weight of 2,400 pounds. With a heavy duty panel body, the price tag was only $900, the same engine being used as on all other Maxwells.

The following year, Maxwell closed cars came in for a lot of publicity and sales plug­ging, being described as “Once a Luxury--Now a Utility and Economy.” The 1918 chassis wheelbase was lengthened by five inches to 108 inches, and the four-cylinder, L-head engine developed 25 hp. The Model 25 came in five body styles and spares were both plentiful and cheap. You could buy a front spring shackle (Code word “Fusnu”) for 35c and a complete axle shaft (Code word “Hedid”) for only $17.

Another economy test performed by Pro­fessor D. L. Gallup with a stock 1918 Max­well resulted in 33.7 mpg at 10 mph and 23 mpg at 35 mph. The company also offered an All-Weather rigid top for its touring cars, priced at $110, “for those who pre­ferred sedan comfort at a touring car price.”

The stunt to end them all was probably the 1919 San Francisco-New York record run by a Maxwell truck which carried 2,200 pounds of military supplies from Australia, destined for France. This 3,428 mile run “in all kinds of weather and over all kinds of roads” took 17 days, 8 hours 20 minutes--an average speed of 16.54 mph. The driver, Ray McNamara (a Maxwell road engineer), computed as follows: the engine turned over 17,000,000 revolutions at an average of 1,381 rpm; the plugs sparked 34,360,459 times at a rate of 2,762.6 sparks per minute; the road wheels revolved 2.000,000 times and the carburetor sucked in 919,659 cubic feet of air. Gasoline, by the way, then cost 45 cents a gallon in remote spots like Sand Springs, Nevada.

The 1920 range carried the same specifi­cations as the year before, but a three-passenger taxicab was added, which cost $1,520 and weighed 2,225 pounds. The standard 108-inch wheelbase was retained on all models.

The following year, a beefed-up version of the Maxwell engine was offered as an alternative to the time-tried power unit. It developed 32 hp (seven hp more) and propelled a 109-inch wheelbase chassis. There were five body styles with a price range of $885 to $1,335 and these cars were known as “The Good Maxwell.” The company also introduced a new series sports roadster and touring car of jauntier appearance but with the same specifications. Service after sales was given stronger emphasis than ever and Maxwell’s ideas of public relations were pretty sound. “A visit to the Maxwell factories is urged upon the prospective buyer of a motor car, that he may see for himself the wonders that time and science have worked in the production of Maxwell pleasure cars.”

Praising its 12-model range for 1923, Maxwell boomed: “No motor car has ever won so high a place in public regard in such a short time as has been accorded the Good Maxwell since the new series was intro­duced.”

A year later, however, though the Max­well’s power output was hiked to 38 hp and the 12-body-style range of the Model 25-C continued as before, the dynamic shadow of Walter P. Chrysler was suddenly pro­jected into the picture. Chrysler, a brilliant engineering mind and an old hand at the game, took over Maxwell with a definite ideal in view. That ideal was to build a truly modern car which would bear his name and would admit of no compromise whatever with quality. He came well prepared-- backed by a unique team of three of the topmost automotive engineers and de­signers in the business--Fred M. Zeder, O. R. Skelton and Carl Breer, whose ex­perimental steam car had caused much comment back in 1900.

Said Chrysler: “My conception of an ideal quality light car was that of scores of thousands whose requirements are prac­tical, not visionary. For them I saw a car with the power of a super-dreadnaught, but with the endurance and speed of a fleet scout cruiser. . .”

Chrysler’s dream, swiftly transformed into efficient reality, burst upon the motor­ing world at the end of 1924 and sent the public into ecstasies. Its six-cylinder, vibrationless engine was the first of its size with a seven-bearing crankshaft. This neat, com­pact L-head wonder of 201.45 cubic inches drove the car through a clutch with 148 square inches of lining surface. The road springs were mounted parallel with the wheels to eliminate side sway; the power output was 70 brake horsepower and the road speed over 70 mph, without fuss or noise. Handling qualities were superlative and Lockheed hydraulic four-wheel brakes provided ample stopping power. Gas consumption bettered 20 mpg while the comfort achieved on the Chrysler’s 112-inch wheelbase had never before been equaled.

Starting with a beautiful phaeton finished in chrome blue with pin morocco grain upholstery, the Chrysler range was ex­tended to 11 models for 1925, and the modest $1,395 starting price for this super­lative automobile guaranteed its instant success. The varnished wood-spoked wheels, nickel trim, barrel-type headlamps and neat, attractive instrument panel of the Chrysler all conspired to produce an effect of elegant, classical dignity that was fitting complement to the high mechanical ideals of its creator.

Though the Maxwell lingered through 1925 and the touring version of Model 25-C bore a remarkable similarity of outline to the sparkling new Chrysler, that was the year of Maxwell’s swansong. Eclipsed, out­sold and no longer economically feasible, this worthy veteran of the industry with a bright and nostalgic past faded from the public eye. That the Chrysler was destined to assume a leading role among automobile manufacturers was never in doubt from the day the first model came off the line.

Chrysler Model 70 sedan had Fisher Body, 4-wheel brakes, 112%-inch wheelbase and balloon tires. One of 9 models, its total weight was 3,150 pounds.

Credit: John Bentley

Marketing to women

Maxwell was one of the first car companies to specifically market to women. In 1909 it generated a great deal of publicity when it acted as the sponsor for the first woman to drive coast-to-coast across the United States. This achievement was accomplished by Alice Huyler Ramsey, who was an early advocate of women drivers. By 1914 the company had strongly aligned itself with the women's rights movement. That year it announced its plan to hire as many male sales personnel as female. At that time it offered a promotional reception at its Manhattan dealership which featured several prominent suffragettes such as Crystal Eastman, while in a showroom window a woman assembled and disassembled a Maxwell engine in front of onlookers.

In media

Comedian Jack Benny (shown here shaking hands with Harry S. Trumanfrom the seat of a c. 1908 Maxwell Roadster) kept the Maxwell familiar in U.S. popular culture for half a century after the brand went out of business.

In 1920 the Maxwell Company contracted with actor and producer Nell Shipman to create a short promotional film featuring the Maxwell. She was able to stretch the money budgeted for the project into a multi-reel feature entitled Something New. The Maxwell's abilities were prominently featured in this melodramatic film, which had Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle escaping a band of Mexican bandits by racing the sturdy little car across the Mexican badlands where they overcame obstacles such as boulders, steep hills, rivers, gulches, and all other sorts of rough terrain. Maxwell dealers presented this motion picture at various venues to promote the car, often with the now-battered Maxwell on display. The Maxwell Company had assisted in the film's production by supplying a car and by deploying a mechanic to the filming location. The mechanic's job included repeatedly replacing the car's transmission, which kept getting torn up by the harsh desert landscape.

A decrepit old Maxwell was famous as the car Jack Benny drove decades after it had stopped being manufactured. The running joke was that Benny was too stingy to buy himself a new car — or even a newer used car — as long as his old one still ran, however poorly. The sounds used for it used to be pre-recorded, but when a technical fault prevented the recording from playing, voice actor Mel Blanc himself improvised the sounds of the sputtering car starting up. His performance was received well enough for him to continue the role permanently.