Lone survivor: The saga of the Alpena Flyer
ALPENA — During the first two decades of the 1900s, vehicle manufacturers grew across the U.S. like an August corn field.
In Minneapolis, there was the Brasie Motor Truck Co. Buffalo offered the Thomas Flyer. Indianapolis developed the Cole Motor Car Co. In Wisconsin was the Milwaukee Automobile Co. And, in Kansas City, the Beggs Motor Car Co.
In most all instances, those car and truck manufacturers and hundreds of others were short-lived.
In Michigan’s northeastern portion of the Lower Peninsula, an automobile manufacturing glimmer became a reality beginning in 1910 with the Alpena Motor Car Co. The company produced the Alpena Flyer.
AMCC’s articles of incorporation were filed June 15, 1910. The following July 11, ground was broken at 150 Elm St. for the manufacturing complex. That was adjacent to the current Besser Concrete Manufacturing World Headquarters campus.
Daniel Hanover was appointed AMCC president, with the board of directors comprised of Alpena residents.
Later in 1910, the company acquired manufacturing and related equipment from the defunct Mt. Clemens-based Wolverine Motor Car Co.
Before the factory was finished, a prototype Alpena Flyer was built at the machine shop of William C. French.
When the manufacturing complex opened, AMCC projected the annual production of 2,500 vehicles, employing up to 250 people.
AMCC leadership manufactured various model automobiles. By 1912, the vehicle lineup would vary from the Model J, a four-door touring vehicle which could accommodate four passengers, the Model F, a touring car offering seating for five, and the Model G, a roadster seating two. The Model F was attributed to a wider rear seat.
Prices would range from $1,450 to $1,600.
Each automobile would only appear in a dark royal blue color and be powered by a four-cylinder Northway engine producing between 35 and 40 horsepower.
A sales brochure stated the Alpena Flyer could reach a speed up to 60 mph.
The transmission would offer three forward gears and a reverse. The curb weight for the larger automobile was 2,250 pounds.
The vehicles would all be right-hand steering, which was common at the time, as well as some electric lights, three oil body side lamps, two gas headlamps, and be self-starting.
AMCC leadership spent a considerable effort on advertising. The Historical Society of Michigan’s Chronicle magazine in a 1983 edition stated that the company was themed on “greatest value for the price”, “the highest point of mechanical construction”, and, “so simple a child can operate it”.
To appeal to the rural auto-buying audience, AMCC stated, “It is cheaper than a horse at any time,” and, “It is the simplest car on Earth.”
News articles from the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan noted the Alpena Flyer appeared at numerous automobile shows, including in New York City and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The New York show profiled the Alpena Flyer as one of the 10 best in the world.
By 1912, AMCC was facing a significant lawsuit for a patent infringement. They were being sued by the North American Vehicle Co. for an illegal use of a three-point suspension design. News accounts indicated AMCC entered into a $450,000 settlement for not receiving a right to utilize this design.
That settlement caused a massive cash flow challenge and, by February 1914, AMCC declared bankruptcy. News accounts revealed select manufacturing equipment and assets were auctioned off to a Canadian company.
Subsequent revelations indicated AMCC had a difficult challenge in producing vehicles to meet consumer demand. Records showed only 450 to 500 vehicles were produced between 1910 and 1914. AMCC employees only numbered 75.
A sole Alpena Flyer was located in Washington state by Alpena resident Ron Winter, former chief executive officer of Omni Metalcraft.
In a 2014 Alpena News account, Winter stated, “I took possession of the badly deteriorated car. I disassembled everything, cleaned each part, and made sketches of all.”
The News account added it was a bare-bones car, with bushel baskets full of various parts.
The Flyer’s multiyear refurbishment was conducted by Restorations Unlimited 2 Inc. of Cary, Illinois.
The sole surviving Alpena Flyer, donated by Winter, is now on display at the Besser Museum in Alpena.
In an Alpena News account, Chris Witulski, executive director of the museum, commented on preparing to receive the vehicle: “It is such an honor to be able to exhibit this part of Alpena’s unique history. We would never have been able to do this without the generosity of Ron Winter.”
Witulski recently commented, after Ron Winter’s passing, his son, Brian, graciously extended his father’s wishes to have the Alpena Flyer continue to be displayed at the Besser Museum.
THE COMPANY WHO BROUGHT THE FLYER BACK TO LIFE
Forty-five minutes northwest of Chicago is Restoration Unlimited 2 Inc. (RU2inc). The 3,500-square-foot facility is owned by Ralph Morey, whose firm for the past 51 years has refurbished hundreds of vehicles.
Through a reading in Hemmings auto magazine, Alpena resident Ron Winter became aware of the refurbishing firm. RU2inc began bringing back to life the 1911 Alpena Flyer which Winter previously located in Washington state.
Morey transported the vehicle from Alpena to Cary, where he began a 42-month process to reassemble the lone surviving Alpena Flyer.
According to Morey, a rolling body frame was delivered to RU2inc with the engine, radiator, differential, hood, and air cowl intact. Accompanying the frame were containers of various parts, many of which offered no relevance to the vehicle. To Morey’s amazement, the tires, wrapped in canvas, still held a level of air.
Winter provided RU2inc with a variety of photos, advertisements, sales brochures, and related materials offering how an assembled Alpena Flyer would appear.
Morey indicated the majority of the restoration was able to be conducted and fabricated by his firm. That included fenders, aprons, seating, and numerous other aspects. He commented, “Certain mechanical and trim items were farmed out to other companies who had specific expertise.”
Morey added, “This was possibly the most complex restoration his firm has ever undertaken.”
An interesting aspect was the Alpena Flyer’s steering was on the right-hand side. According to the Antique Automobile Club of America Library and Research Center’s Chris Ritter, “It is my understanding that cars were originally right-hand drive so that the driver could exit the vehicle on the curb, instead of the road, where there could be oncoming traffic.”
During the restoration process, Morey commented Winter had a well-defined vision of how the Alpena Flyer should finally appear. He started, “A prime example was mixing the right colors to bring out the factory original, gleaming, dark royal blue.”
In reflecting on the cost to undertake this restoration, which occurred over a dozen years ago, Morey stated it then factored at nearly $275,000.
Once the project was completed, Morey and his staff fired up the 35-horsepower engine and took it for a brief drive.
The operational Alpena Flyer was transported by motor carrier to Plymouth, Michigan, for a brief showing. Then to Alpena, where the vehicle is proudly displayed with an accompanying visual history at the Besser Museum of Northeast Michigan.
Jeffrey D. Brasie is a retired health care CEO who frequently writes historic feature stories and op-eds. He is a former Alpena resident and resides in suburban Detroit.