Four Wheels No Brakes

Excerpt from a book on early St. Louis automobile history called Four Wheels, No Brakes:

George P. Dorris Gives History

Started by John L. French and George P. Dorris in 1898, the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company was the first successful car company west of the Mississippi. French acted as president, with Dorris as vice president and engineer. By 1900 they had an extensive business, producing 130 cars in their first year of production at their factory on Vandeventer Avenue in St. Louis.

After leaving the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company in 1905, George P. Dorris founded the Dorris Motor Car Company. The automobiles produced by this company were priced close to twice that of the average motorcar price of the time, which was reflected in the company’s motto, "Built to Last." Dorris continued to strive for excellence in engineering, developing at least 12 new patents for automotive improvements.

During his time in the car production business, Dorris, an engineering genius, developed many "firsts" for the automotive industry—the transmission run starter, the self-starter, and the distillatory, which filtered out heavy deposits in gasoline until they were heated enough to be drawn into the engine safely. Other firsts were the single-cylinder engine and the float-feed carburetor.

George P. Dorris's account

John L. French and myself are natives of Nashville, Tenn[essee]. We were boyhood friends and attended school together. As we grew older our instincts naturally turned to mechanical problems. This interest resulted in our purchasing a second-hand Racine coal-oil burning steam launch, in 1890. We operated this launch for the season. Owing to the fact that we were both under age, we had great difficulty in obtaining a license, so we decided upon building a gasoline motor. The first one being fairly successful, we built a double 5x5 motor, which operated the boast successfully until about 1897.

In 1895 French moved to St. Louis to engage in the piano business with the Jesse French Piano and Organ Company, a concern controlled by his father. About the time French went to St. Louis, I became interested in automobiles from reading accounts of the early German and French experiments in the Scientific American, and encouraged by the success of the road race held Thanksgiving Day in 1895, at Chicago, I decided to build an automobile. I had this machine in operation in the early spring of 1897. It attracted a great deal of attention. In the fall of 1897, my automobile had reached such a state that sixty-mile trips were made.

In 1896, French placed his order with the Winton Motor Carriage Company for one of its single-cylinder cars. The delivery of this car was, however, delayed from month to month, so that it was not actually delivered until the middle of the summer of 1898. This was the sixth Winton machine, and was successfully operated in St. Louis for a number of years following.

French, seeing a future for the horseless carriage, as it was called in those days, decided to embark in the manufacture of cars, so arrangements were made for organizing a company. On Thanksgiving Day, 1898, I arrived in St. Louis, and the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company was organized with $5,000.00 capital stock. John L. French was president of the company, and I was vice-president and engineer.

No experimenting had been done in St. Louis up to that time. My first experimental car was brought from Nashville, and the first two cars manufactured in St. Louis by the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company were practically copies of my first machine and were completed and delivered in 1899, one being sold to A.L. Lambrick, of St. Louis, and one to E.H.R. Green, of Dallas, Texas, a son of Mrs. Hetty Green of New York.

The first cars had twin cylinder 4 x 5-inch motors. From this you will see that the purchase of the Winton car stimulated Mr. French’s interest in automobiles, the actual car as first manufactured was a copy of my first machine—started in 1895 and completed in 1897.

In 1900, the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company had developed quite an extensive business, marketing a single cylinder unit power plant machine. This car had the motor, clutch, and transmission built as a single unit and patent papers were granted to us on this type of construction, thus you will see that the first unit power plant was incorporated in the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company’s product. Upon the organization of the Dorris Motor Car Company, this patent was transferred to the Dorris Company. The detail and design of this car was entirely the result of my work. One of the earliest races which the St. Louis car entered was the New York to Buffalo run in 1901, in which a St. Louis car was driven by French. At the conclusion of the race, French had the car shipped to Boston and spent the summer there demonstrating and selling the car. He sold sixty-five in Boston, which was practically the entire output of the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company for that season. The following year this same type of car was known as the "Boston Model," and was sold in Boston by Reed & Underhill with great success.

In the fall of 1902, while French was demonstrating in Pittsburg, he had a collision with a street car on one of the steep hills there, and received injuries which later caused his death. He returned to St. Louis, and in the Spring of 1903 drove a St. Louis car to Florida, passing through Nashville and Chattanooga, where he drove the car up Lookout Mountain, his being the first car to climb the mountain. From Chattanooga he went through Atlanta and other cities, arriving in Florida in a weakened condition, where he died in May, 1903.

In the Fall of 1903 I drove a single cylinder, St. Louis Motor Carriage Company’s car in the New York to Pittsburg endurance run. My car was No. 42, and was the tenth to complete the run. There are still a large number of single-cylinder machines in use in St. Louis and vicinity.