Story of the Week

Posted: 05.17.2010
Byron Carter: Promise Unfulfilled
If not for his untimely death in 1908, Byron J. Carter might have joined the exulted pantheon of U.S. auto icons such as Henry Ford and Billy Durant. As it is, Carter is best remembered for his aptly named Cartercar and its revolutionary transmission that many believe was ahead of its time.

Byron Carter was born to Martha (Crum) and Squire B. Carter in Jackson County, Michigan on August 17, 1863, just 18 days after the birth of Henry Ford. And like Ford, Carter left the family farm for a career in business and never looked back.

When he was 21 years old, he moved to the city of Jackson and was hired on by the Steam Job Printing and Rubber Stamp Manufacturing Company. After 16 years in the business, he teamed up with his father and opened a bicycle shop in downtown Jackson, a city fast becoming one of the most important industrial centers in Michigan.

In January 1903, replete with experience from his time at the Steam Job Printing, Carter developed and got a patent for a three cylinder steam engine destined to be the power source for the first automobile he produced “ the Jaxon Steam Car. By July of the same year he partnered with businessmen Charles Lewis and George Mathews to form the Jackson Automobile Company with the purpose of manufacturing and selling the Jaxon.

Lewis was in the business of the manufacture of carriage springs under the name Lewis & Allen. After three years he had his sights on more lucrative ventures and in 1897 bought out his partner and added an axle department to the company called, appropriately enough, the Lewis Spring and Axle Company. In addition to his business enterprises, Lewis also happened to be a director at the Union Bank of Jackson, a position in which he was able to secure financing for the new venture.

The second partner, George Mathews, got his business acumen from working as a manager at a coal company in Cleveland. After moving to Michigan in 1891 he took over the Fuller Buggy Company of Jackson after the death of the founder of the firm. Like so many business people in Jackson at the time, Mathews began to champion the potential of the horseless carriage and was looking to break into the burgeoning industry.

Unfortunately for the three businessmen, sales of the Jaxon, were sluggish and they were forced to redesign the car, now called the Orlo, to be gas propelled. The Orlo was a five-seat, side-entrance model that was equipped with a 16/17 hp two-cylinder engine and sold for $1,125. It was the companys lone offering until the development of their signature automobile - the Jackson Touring Car - which was in production until the company was sold to Associated Motor Industries in 1923.

Jackson Auto Factory 1910

A year after the formation of the Jackson Automobile Company, Byron Carter patented what he called the friction drive transmission. Friction-drive was designed to replace the conventional transmission to provide, among other things, more precise control of a car's speed. Carters radical new transmission used friction discs, instead of gears, so arranged as to be instantly changed to any desired speed. The discs in Carters transmission were able to move both forward or backward and could be used as a brake to stop the machine by reversing a lever. It was the precursor to todays disc brakes.

1913 Cartercar advertisement

Carter, unable to convince Lewis and Mathews of the utility of his new transmission, quit Jackson Automobile to form his own firm called the Motorcar Company which featured an automobile he called the Cartercar. At that time automatic transmissions were virtually unknown in cars and his revolutionary transmission received a lot of attention by the press and the public at large. It was advertised as the car with "a thousand speeds" which was simple to run and cheap to maintain, having far less parts that needed replacing than conventional transmissions.

ca. 1907 Cartercar Touring car

Cartercar Model R roadster 1912

An article that appeared in the New York Times in January, 1909 raved: Exhaustive tests proved the correctness of the friction drive transmission. When it was introduced, many jokes were made at its expense but today there are over 30 different makes of friction-driven cars on the market. Its flexibility allows it to adjust to any road condition, it reduces the risk of accidents and it seldom becomes necessary to remove the hands from the steering wheel. In balance, Byron Carters device has been a complete success.

Carter made no claims for the speed of his auto; what he was selling was strength, toughness and flexibility. He displayed his car at state fairs, ran it up library steps, down cog railway inclines and plowed it through snowstorms. And he had the marketing savvy to photograph his Cartercar in action that later appeared in the cars advertising brochures.
It wasn't unusual for Carter to dream up wild stunts to show off the special features of his car. On one occasion, for example, he demonstrated the cars ease in starting by hiring a little person by the name of Count Magri, who effortlessly cranked the engine up before crowds of onlookers. Another time, in an effort to demonstrate the Cartercars smooth ride, he employed a tightrope walker to teeter his way over 10 miles of countryside on a rope fixed above the body of the auto in motion.

Thanks in large part to his marketing campaign, the Cartercar sold well for a small, start-up firm. Cartercar sales rose from 101 in 1906 to 264 in 1907 and 325 in 1908. It was in 1908, however, that tragedy stuck. Carter was struck trying to start a stalled car when the crank kicked back and hit him in the jaw, eventually causing gangrene that ultimately proved fatal.

With the heart of the organization gone, the Cartercar languished. In 1909 its fortunes were temporarily revived when the enigmatic president of General Motors, Billy Durant, who liked the concept of friction drive, purchased the Motorcar Company. Now under GMs wing its advertising tagline was: Its hard to improve a Cartercar.

The next year, however, Billy Durant had been forced out of GM and the Cartercar remained on GMs sideline. By the time he regained control in September 1915, the sales of the Cartercar were disappointing, never reaching Durants goal of 2,000 units a year. Within two years the Cartercar was quietly dropped from GMs lineup.

"They say I shouldnt have bought Cartercar", Durant said later. Well, how was anyone to know that Cartercar wasnt going to be the thingω It had the friction drive and no other car had it.

For an up close and personal look at some of the cars built in Jackson, please visit Ye Old Carriage Shop at 3538 Henderson Road Spring Arbor, MI 49283 (517) 750-4300. The museum features 52 automobiles along with automobile memorabilia, including gas pumps, signs and a Coca-Cola exhibit. Ye Old Carriage Shop contains 5 one of a kind cars including the 1902 Jaxon Steam Car. The museum also features an all original 1914 Cartercar with the fiction drive transmission. Tours are welcome.

For more information on Ye Old Carriage Shop and other regional points of interest, please visit

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