The early twentieth century was the Wild West of the American automotive era. Hundreds of manufacturers sprung up in cities and towns across the nation. Most failed within a year, usually after producing only a dozen machines. In 1915, Philadelphia auto enthusiasts opened their magazines to see advertisements trumpeting a new American luxury car. The car looked suspiciously like a Mercedes-Benz: a sharp, V-shaped radiator; a low-slung chassis; wire-spoked wheels; curved bicycle-style fenders. Unlike bulky, lumbering American luxury cars in its price-range — such as Packard and Pierce-Arrow — the Biddle was nimble and sporty looking, built on a mere 120 inch wheel base, with step plates instead of running boards.
The company claimed that the Biddle was “neither a studied copy of European models, nor moulded to suit the limitations of American’s quantity production.”
The namesake of the car was one Robert Ralston Biddle, who apparently loved cars but contributed little else to the machine’s development other than his storied last name of Second Bank of the United States fame. According to the 1910 Philadelphia Social Register, Biddle lived with Misses Catherine and Sarah Biddle (presumably his sisters) in a brick townhouse at 1326 Spruce Street.
Philadelphia’s car was attractive but hardly revolutionary. In the judgement of automotive historian Beverley Ray Kimes, “what the Biddle did best was look good.” The Biddle was a so-called “assembled” car. Rather than making their parts from scratch like Ford or General Motors, the company purchased pre-assembled engines, axles, and other components from outside suppliers and then assembled them into an attractive, sleek package. Not that the Biddle was a slipshod job. Its components were all of the highest quality. The car’s price started at $1,650 for the chassis alone, and a variety of custom Fleetwood bodies could be ordered (limousine, town car, roadster, touring car) for an additional $2,000 to $4,000. In today’s money, a well-outfitted Biddle would cost about $65,000. By comparison, a Ford Model T cost about $850, or about $18,000 today.
Yet what really made the Biddle stand-out was its four-cylinder engine, manufactured by the Duesenberg brothers of Indianapolis and able to crank out 100 horsepower, five times more than Ford’s Tin Lizzie. Fred and August Duesenberg were American originals. They immigrated to America from Germany with their widowed mother in 1885, and grew up tinkering with machinery on the family farm in Iowa. After racing bicycles for a few years, the brothers started a company that manufactured race car and marine engines. Fred proved to be a mechanical genius, and by 1914 Duesenberg-powered cars were garnering trophies at the Indianapolis 500.
The success of the four-cylinder Duesenberg racing engine attracted the attention of Arthur Maris, president of Biddle, and of Charles Fry, the company engineer. The year after production started, Biddle removed the original Buda powerplant from its cars and installed the more powerful Duesenberg one instead.
Unfortunately, Biddle arrived on the scene at exactly the wrong time. America’s entry into World War I in 1917 squashed demand for luxury cars, and the brief, post-war recession that followed made matters even worse. The automotive industry was also undergoing structural changes and consolidation. President Alfred Sloan of General Motors purchased a clutch of independent companies (Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac) and integrated them into a consortium that could corner all segments of the market. General Motors also purchased suppliers and integrated their products into an in-house supply chain. The company purchased Fleetwood, for example, so that the distinguished “carriage trade” body maker could supply custom bodies for the prestigious Cadillac marque, not Biddle and other smaller luxury makes. In the meantime, Henry Ford perfected his assembly line, which could churn out dozens of cars an hour. As a result, the price of a Model T dropped from $850 in 1908 to a mere $260 by the early 1920s.
In this new economic landscape, there was no room for niche companies like Biddle to compete. At its peak in the late 1910s, Biddle was only building 500 cars a year at its expanded Frankford Avenue plant. Philadelphia’s Biddle Motor Car Company closed its doors in 1922, just as the economy began to take off and America, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, entered “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” Company president Maris went to Wilmington, Delaware to launch a new car company backed by E. Paul du Pont. Like the Biddle, the du Pont was also an “assembled car” with a fancy name and glamorous coachwork, but relatively conventional mechanical guts.
Yet Biddle’s choice of engine supported a company that would become the biggest automotive star of the Roaring Twenties. In early 1929, Fred Duesenberg and his partner E.L. Cord unveiled the Duesenberg Model J: the fastest, most powerful, and costliest production car in the world. Under the hood was a Duesenberg-designed 6.9 liter straight eight, able to develop 265 horsepower — twice as powerful as the closest European competitor. It had so much torque that it could supposedly do 60 miles per hour in second gear, at a time when a good car topped out at that speed.
Sadly, Fred Duesenberg was one of those unfortunate geniuses killed by his own creation. He died in 1932 after flipping a supercharged Model J on a slick road near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
The site of the Biddle Motor Car plant at 1210 Frankford Avenue is now occupied by the Frankford Hall beer garden.
Little is known about the fate of Robert Ralston Biddle.
In the passenger seat of a 1929 Duesenberg Model J. The car’s straight eight engine developed 265 horsepower, or 325 in the supercharged version, and able to propel the three ton car at up to 115 miles per hour. A much smaller, four-cylinder Duesenberg engine powered the Biddle during its 1917-1921 production run. A well-equipped, coach-built Duesenberg sedan sold for about $12,000 ($8,500 for the chassis alone), or about $170,000 today.
Beverly Rae Kimes and Harry Austin Clark, Jr. The Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942 (Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1989), p. 116-117.
“Duesenberg, Frederick and August,” Des Moines Register, September 20, 2004.
Motor Record (The Ferguson Publishing Company, 1919), p. 44
Social Register, Philadelphia, Including Wilmington (New York, New York: Social Register Association, 1910), p.17.