Feb 2003 Tennessean

Nashville men and their machines among first 'horseless carriages'

What is known about an automobile manufacturer in Nashville in the early 1900s and what was the company name? — Clayton Clouse, Nashville.

Nashville appears to have had several shops experimenting with development of ''horseless carriages'' in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many present-day Nashvillians know of the Marathon because its manufacturing plant at 1305 Clinton St. — now Marathon Village — houses studio and office spaces. They were made here 1910-14 after the Southern Motor Works operation relocated from Jackson, Tenn.

With a total production estimated at 10,000, the Marathon has been described as the only car completely manufactured in Tennessee until arrival of Spring Hill's Saturn plant in 1990.

Another early car with strong Nashville ties but less well-known was the Dorris. It was actually produced in St. Louis, after being developed here.

Inventor George Preston Dorris, then 23, son of a Nashville newspaper editor, fashioned a gasoline-fueled auto in his brother's bicycle shop here on Church Street. An 1897 test run to Lebanon and back — return trip time just three hours — proved its reliability.

Dorris and a friend, John French, had been testing the design since 1895. French's family had a piano factory in St. Louis where the two formed St. Louis Motor Carriage Co.

The car was first called the ''St. Louis,'' basically a copy of the design perfected in the bike shop. One sold in 1898 to a Dallas multi-millionaire has been called the first gasoline engine-powered car in Texas.

In 1901 Dorris patented the float carburetor used on autos for decades afterward. In 1902 he sold 65 cars in Boston alone.

His older brother in Nashville, Duncan Dorris, abandoned the bicycle shop in 1905 and formed a dealership, the Nashville Motor Car Co. It soon occupied a new brick building at Ninth Avenue with show windows on Church Street.

That same year, Preston Dorris reorganized as the Dorris Motor Car Co., starting a 21-year history of producing the ''Dorris.'' The car came in several colors and had an initial price of $2,250, rising to $5,000 for a 1922 luxury model.

Duncan Dorris continued to give his brother in St. Louis advice from Nashville customers for improvements to bring quieter and less smoky cars.

Duncan (1872-1972) also had the dubious distinction of being involved in one of Nashville's first traffic accidents when at 6 mph on Broad Street he struck two ladies at the corner of what is now 12th Avenue. Neither was seriously hurt, and a charge of ''fast and careless driving'' was later dismissed. He continued driving until age 95.

The emphasis on quality materials and assembly — ''Built up to a standard, not down to a price'' was the slogan — eventually priced the Dorris out of national competition. The last car came in 1926, after an output ranging from 92 to 296 a year.

An intriguing list of other early Nashville car entrepreneurs appeared in a letter written 13 years ago by Robert Howles, who said he was working on a book about Tennessee automotive history. The project appears to have failed because no record of such a book is apparent today.

Howles listed six he found here: Volunteer Carriage Co., incorporated 1905; Harding Manufacturing Co., incorporated 1899; Hermitage Automobile Co., incorporated 1911; the Cyclette, built and tested in 1904; the McEwen, built 1913 by Norman S. McEwen at 111 Louise Ave.; and Percival C. Cloyd's 1911 autos built at 1110 Third Ave. S.

Howles himself remains a mystery man. His letter, sent to a newspaper here for senior citizens, requested photos and information for the book project. He gave only a downtown post office box address.

Someone with time for research might use his clues to uncover much more about Nashville's automotive pioneers.

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