Webster Kirkwood Times

"Built Up to a Standard, Not Down to a Price"

From the November 20th, 2009 Issue

by Marty Harris

All eyes were on retiring Rock Hill Police Officer Ron Zeigler, grand marshall of the Rock Hill Festival Parade, as he waved to parade goers in early October.

Many, too, couldn't help but notice the 1924 Dorris touring car in which Zeigler was riding. At the wheel was G.P. Dorris, the great grandson of the early car manufacturer George Preston Dorris I, founder of the Dorris Motor Car Company.

The 1924 blue Dorris is kept spit and polished - and running - by George Preston Dorris, IV (G.P.) and his father, George Preston Dorris, III. There's also a George Preston Dorris, V, the three-year-old son of G.P. who is called Preston. G.P., his wife Laura and Preston live in Rock Hill.

After the Rock Hill Parade, the 1924 touring car, as well as a 1903 St. Louis Motor Carriage car, were on display at the festival. The Dorrises antique cars can be seen at various area car shows.

"A lot of people have old cars, but won't drive them. The cars just sit and are maybe taken to a show every now and then," G.P said. "I drive the car to Dierbergs. It's a lot more fun to play with than to just look at."

The Museum of Transportation has two Dorris automobiles - a 1917 IB-6, known as an opera coupe, and a 1919 Dorris car converted to a panel truck and once used in St. Louis by DeBrecht Market.

"We consider ourselves lucky to have two outstanding examples of Dorris automobiles," said Molly Butterworth, cultural site manager at the museum. She said Dorris automobiles are significant for their local and national history.

"St. Louis has a rich automotive heritage predating the 'Big Three' in Detroit," Butterworth said. "St. Louis ran neck and neck with Detroit in terms of manufacturing here before the Depression.

"Of those builders, Dorris was probably the most technologically advanced because George (Dorris I) had such a great engineering mind," she said.

Dorris' descendants are proud of their family history and its place in automobile history. George Preston Dorris I died in 1968.

Dorris History

The Dorris Motor Car Company produced its first automobile in 1906. Prior to starting his own company, George P. Dorris I partnered with John French to form the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company. French's mother and brother Horace were also partners. John French was president; Dorris was vice president and engineer.

St. Louis Motor Carriage Company began in 1898 at 1211 N. Vandeventer, which is now used as an auto repair shop.

"It was the first building west of the Mississippi specifically built for the manufacturing of automobiles," said George. "By midyear 1905 they had vacated the premises and moved to Peoria."

His grandfather did not make the move, opting to start his own company in the vacated carriage company plant. The plant then moved to Forest Park and Sarah, and 4100 Laclede, now home of Dorris Lofts.

The company manufactured approximately 3,100 cars and 900 trucks before it dissolved in 1926. St. Louis Motor Carriage Company probably manufactured fewer than 400 cars, according to George. The St. Louis company faltered after French died in 1906.

"Built Up To A Standard…

"The Dorris Car Company had several mottos, including "Built to Last." But the later motto, "Built up to a standard, not down to a price," sums up Dorris and the engineering and development behind the cars, according to Butterworth.

"They were hand-made automobiles, not an assembled car," George said.
During that time, another auto maker, Henry Ford, was making quite a stir with his mass-produced Model T. In 1924, a two-passenger Model T roadster was selling for about $290, compared to the sticker price of about $4,150 for a basic Dorris model.

"The Dorris was a higher-end car," George said. "It was a big powerful car. You get what you pay for."

The Dorrises gave a few reasons for the demise of the car company.With mass production, Ford garnered a huge market share.

"He built millions of the Model Ts," George said. In contrast, Dorris was only making 300 cars a year.

In addition, Dorris had a very local market even though it had dealers in places like New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and Los Angeles. Ninety percent of cars were probably sold in St. Louis.

"In those days, they liked to know their customers," George said.

Dorris & Automotive Firsts

Thanks to the engineering prowess of its founder, the company is known for some automotive firsts.

A significant development was that of the float-feed carburetor, which Dorris invented with A. L. Dyke. This carburetor was used on automobiles until replaced by electronic fuel injection systems in the late 1980s.

Dorris is also credited with the invention of the first unit power plant where the engine, clutch and transmission are connected, said G.P.

In the early days of the automobile, car makers like Dorris raced their vehicles.

"They did it to prove their car was better than somebody else's," George said. "They used to race them and tour them and have endurance runs to prove they could climb a hill and wouldn't get stuck."

The car manufacturers also personally delivered the cars and taught new owners how to drive.

In October 1899, the St. Louis Motor Carriage shipped by rail the first gasoline-powered car in Texas. The car was accompanied by George Dorris I. The car's new owner was Edward H.R. Green. Two days later, Green and Dorris set off on the state's first automobile road trip from Terrell, Texas, to Dallas.

In 1999, George and G.P. drove their 1903 St. Louis Motor Carriage automobile to participate in the 100th anniversary and re-enactment of that first road trip, George explained.

Today, the Dorrises try to keep their cars authentic. But George's grandfather didn't feel the same way when it came to a 1902 St. Louis car he bought in 1944.

"He went to great pains to make it drivable and he probably drove it 5,000 miles, but he didn't make it original," said George. "He put on electric lights and hydraulic brakes, plus Harley Davidson motorcycle wheels and tires.

"He took it to the Illinois State Fair and they said it wasn't original. He said 'I designed it; I built it; I changed it - what's not original?" George said. "He still took second place."

"Going Home"

Over the years, the Dorris family has been acquiring both St. Louis Carriage cars and Dorris cars.

"Many years ago my brother Andy and I said if we didn't buy cars as they became available, our children would never be able to get them," George said. "We cornered the market."
"It's really not a sought-after market except by family members," G.P. said. "We were lucky enough that people who saved them were happy they were going home."

Of the nine St. Louis Motor Carriage cars in the world, the Dorris family owns five. George said there are about 16 Dorris cars and trucks. The Dorris family owns six.

The Dorrises enjoy working on the old cars.

"It's very interesting to see what my grandfather was thinking when you have to take one apart," said George.

George Preston Dorris, III (left) and his son, George Preston Dorris, IV, with their 1924 Dorris touring car. The Dorris Motor Car Company was in business from 1906 to 1926. photo by Diana Linsley.
George P. Dorris I stands beside a 1924 Dorris automobile. The hand-assembled Dorris was a higher-end car than the mass-produced Model T being built by auto maker Henry Ford. photo courtesy of the Dorris family