Cranbrook and the Car, Part 1: The Aristocrat of Small Cars

In its 100-year history, Cranbrook has been known for producing artists, designers, scholars, athletes, and leaders.  But cars?  An upcoming exhibition mounted by the Center for Collections and Research (that’s us!) at the Cranbrook Art Museum will explore the relationship between Cranbrook and the automobile industry. Called A Driving Force: Cranbrook and the Car, it will highlight the history of Cranbrook through the lens of the automobile, detailing the ways that members of Cranbrook’s community have innovated and influenced the auto industry for the past 100 years.  You can learn more about the exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum’s website here.

As we prepare to open A Driving Force: Cranbrook and the Car on June 12, we’ll be writing up occasional posts about the exhibition, highlighting bits and pieces of our research and providing glimpses into the down-and-dirty world of museum exhibiting.   And we’re going to kick it all off with the story of James Scripps Booth and the Scripps-Booth Company.

James Scripps Booth (behind the wheel) with brother Warren Scripps Booth in a Scripps-Booth 4-cylinder Model C at Tower Garage at Cranbrook House. Their father George Gough Booth stands next to the car, partially hidden by the windshield.  Circa 1917, Cranbrook Archives.

James Scripps Booth (behind the wheel) with brother Warren Scripps Booth in a Scripps-Booth 4-cylinder Model C at Tower Garage at Cranbrook House. Their father George Gough Booth stands next to the car, partially hidden by the windshield. Circa 1917, Cranbrook Archives.

James Scripps Booth, the eldest son of Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth, was something of an automobile phenom.  As a young man he threw himself into building the nascent automobile industry in Detroit, establishing first the Scripps-Booth Cyclecar Company (more about that in a future post) and then the Scripps-Booth Company.  Scripps-Booth made the most luxurious of luxury cars, skimping on neither style nor amenities.  The Scripps-Booth Model C, for instance, was the first automobile to be sold with an assembled spare wheel and tire, as well as a horn button mounted on the steering wheel.  Some Scripps-Booths even came with electric door locks and removable hard-tops.  Scripps-Booth cars were also very light, providing a stark contrast to other, heavier luxury vehicles coming out of Detroit and Europe at the time.

This Scripps-Booth Model C (owned and lovingly cared for by James Scripps Booth's own grandson, Tom Booth) features a 4-cylinder engine and a rear-mounted spare tire that Tom says is easier to use than even modern spares.

This Scripps-Booth Model C (owned and lovingly cared for by James Scripps Booth’s  grandson, Tom Booth) features a 4-cylinder engine and a rear-mounted spare tire, plus a surprising amount of trunk space.

Scripps-Booth cars sold quite well in the United States, but they also found a receptive audience across the Atlantic.  One article, published in the Pittsburgh Press on August 15, 1915, reported that an auto retailer in London had recently placed an order for 5,000 Scripps-Booth cars to be filled at a rate of ten cars per day.  An unidentified “well-known English automobile man” described the Scripps-Booth vehicle as “the aristocrat of small cars.”  In extolling the virtues of the glamorous vehicles, he compared buying a Scripps-Booth to the well-documented tradition of English aristocrats hunting for wealthy wives in America:

“There has been a great deal of fun in your newspapers concerning Europeans who come to America for wives, the sting lying in the suggestion that they came only for the dot that goes with the girl.  There is a lot of rot to that.  American girls represent something – the power and freshness of the new world galvanized into beauty and style.  And it is just because the makers of the dainty yet powerful Scripps-Booth have been able to put into this product the same quality that we in Europe want the car.”

Pittsburgh Press, 15 August 1915.

Pittsburgh Press, 15 August 1915.

Fortune-hunting Englishmen aside, many of the wealthy and powerful in Europe purchased Scripps-Booth automobiles.  By the time James Scripps Booth sold the company to Chevrolet in 1917, he could count the King of Spain, the Queen of Holland, and Winston Churchill among his customers.  They, like so many others, had fallen in love with this “aristocrat of small cars.”

By Shoshana Resnikoff, 2012-2013 Collections Fellow

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