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Auto Marketing Derring-Do In 1916

by Bob Hagin

August 1, 2001

Today, the promotion of a particular type of car is usually done through TV, magazines and newspapers. Strictly controlled auto races, especially those involving "stock" cars, has little or nothing to do the vehicles that are bought off the showroom floor.

But things were very different in the early days of the automobile before World War I. Cross-country races were catch-as-catch can over dirt roads, cow trails and even railroad ties. Turn of the century hill climbs like the venerable Pikes Peak event (its 79th running recently took place) were at first tests to see if the competiting cars could even make it to the top.

On local scenes, automotive promotions and feats of speed and endurance were often ad hoc and in many cases, illegal. But they attained "ink" in local papers and brought fame and sales to the contestants.

One such promotional event was a somewhat impromptu race up Mount Diablo, a California State Park near my home in Northern California. The 3900-foot mountain became an irresistible challenge to car salesmen in nearby Oakland. It wasn't long before dealers set out to prove the speed and endurance of their products on the hill.

Recently Ralph Cotter, a long-time reader of this column, passed on the information that Ben Hammond, the father of a boyhood friend, had made record runs up the mountain in the early 1900s. Cotter sent along several ancient newspaper "clips" that described the events.

The Mount Diablo runs were performed without official sanctioning of any kind and started from the Key Route Inn, a watering hole at 22nd Street and Broadway in what is now near the center of Oakland. Any motorist could make a run for the Key Route Inn trophy by notifying the proprietor of the place a day or two in advance. The scenario was simple. At exactly 2AM on a given morning, a timekeeper would flag off the challenger from the front of the inn with three passengers aboard. The route was predetermined since at the time, there was only one road to the mountain some 35 miles to the east.

At the top of the mountain, another timekeeper with a synchronized watch would await the arrival of the contestant. "Patrols" had been sent out in advance and stationed along the way to make sure "...a clear right of way," was available, according to a story published in an Oakland newspaper dated October 29, 1916. That particular run established a record of just 55 minutes and the car that Ben Hammond used was a 33-horsepower, four-cylinder Brisco Model 4-38 touring car sans top and windshield. At the time, Hammond was the manager of the Kissel-Kar dealership in Oakland.

In the flowery journalistic prose of the day, staff writer Edmund Crinnion described the Briscoe as "...likened to a comet, hurtling itself in the very teeth of the laws of gravitation." When this story appeared, it no doubt brought lots of attention and potential customers to Hammond and his Oakland showroom.

Unfortunately, it also came to the attention of the district attorney of nearby Contra Costa County, the county in which Mount Diablo is located, as well as the chief of police of Oakland, both of whom took a dim view of speed contests over public roads. Both issued edicts to the public in general and Oakland auto dealers in particular that further record attempts would result not only in citations but perhaps some jail time as well. One Mr. Frazer (no first name given) of an Oakland dealership attempted a followup run in a Chevrolet and "...the mornings were made hideous by the loud bark of the Chevrolet..," according to a report in a rival Oakland newspaper which had take up an adversarial posture to the Key Route Inn contests.

As a result of the negative publicity, Hammond, Frazer and the owner of the Key Route Inn were summoned "... on the carpet..," by the Oakland police chief and ordered to cease and desist. Hammond made two further record runs (one of which destroyed several fences along the way) and after his successful drive on October 29, he was arrested and jailed in Contra Costa County.

Then there is a time-lapse of eight years to this story. The last newspaper clip sent to me by Ralph Cotter is dated October 15, 1924. Hammond again made a record run up Mount Diablo, this time starting at the toll gate at the bottom of the mountain, avoiding problems with local law enforcement. The he used car was a then-new 25-horsepower, air-cooled, six-cylinder Model 10-B Franklin "enclosed" sedan. The record set by Hammond and his two passengers was 25 minutes, 17 seconds and in the newspaper coverage of the event, Hammond states that "...the balloon type tires with which the car was equipped stood us in good stead."

I'm indebted to Ralph Cotter and Mrs. Faye Hammond (widow of Matt Hammond's son) for the newspaper clips I used in this story. Some of the automotive articles that are included further point up the differences between auto marketing and promotions then and now. An ad for U.S. Royal "Cord" tires announced that they were used on a Hudson that had broken the record on a run from Oakland to New York and back. A short business story in 1916 stated that there were eight million automobiles on American roads with a potential demand for another seven million. "As perfect as we believe the car of today, there is no barrier to American ingenuity and invention.." it stated.

And that barrier has yet to be erected 85 years later.