Unknown to many people, the J.I. Case Co. competed in automobile racing in the early decades of the 20th century.
Most folks also are aware that Case built automobiles in the early 20th century, but surely the staid old J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. never took a flyer at racing cars, the sport of the rich? Actually, most early auto manufacturers did field racing teams, as it was considered to be great advertising for their machines – provided that their cars won races, of course.
Case had a very early experience with a self-propelled road vehicle, predating its first steam traction engine by several years. In either 1871 or 1873, a steam-powered buggy was built in Racine, Wisconsin.
One account has it that a Methodist minister, the Rev. John W. Carhart, and his brother, physics professor H.S. Carhart, built the vehicle with the help of J.I. Case Co. The Racine newspaper reported that the machine was built during the winter of 1872-73 by Carhart and financed by wealthy Racine lumberman George W. Slauson.
The auto buggy, possibly the first such vehicle built in the U.S., and certainly the first in Wisconsin, was said to be powered by two identical 1 hp Case-built steam engines, one for each drive wheel, while the vertical boiler was built by Button Steam Fire Engine Co., Watertown, New York.
The machine, named the “Spark,” weighed 600 pounds and ran at 5 mph, or at least did until it was banned by Racine city officials after spooking one too many horses. At the 1908 International Automobile Exposition in Paris, Carhart was named the “Father of Automobiles” and given a cash award as well as a certificate of honor.
Case’s next venture into the world of automobiles wouldn’t occur until 1910.
In 1887, 28-year-old Andrew J. Pierce arrived in Racine from Rochester, New York. He went to work for Racine Hardware Co., where he was soon put in charge of the firm’s engine production. In 1893, Pierce founded Pierce Engine Co. and began to build marine and stationary steam engines.
A year later, Pierce and Edward Pennington built the first gasoline-powered car in the state of Wisconsin. In 1902, Pierce built a separate auto manufacturing plant, where he experimented with cars of his own design, and also briefly built the Mitchell car for Wisconsin Wheel Works.
Manufacture of the Pierce-Racine car began in 1904, but Pierce was deeply in debt by 1909, primarily to J.I. Case Co. Two Pierce Engine Co. directors also served on the Case board: Frederick Robinson was vice president; Charles McIntosh was treasurer. They were also large J.I. Case Co. stockholders and influenced the firm’s board to take over the failing car company.
In 1910, Pierce Engine Co. was reorganized as Pierce Motor Co. with McIntosh as president and Robinson as vice president. In the shuffle, Andrew Pierce was downgraded to plant superintendent and the J.I. Case Co. was firmly in control. The production of marine and stationary engines was discontinued in the fall of that year and all cars built bore the Case name and Old Abe trademark on the radiator.
Case president Frank K. Bull justified the action by saying, “Auto sales help fill in the ‘off season’ for this company.” At that time, Case built a 10-mile paved road between Racine and Kenosha. In a strategic public relations move, the highway was built using Case equipment and was touted as a public service, showing local residents the value of good roads – plus, it was a great place to test and demonstrate the new Case cars.
Case soon became involved in automobile racing and hired Lewis Strang, who set a national dirt track speed record of 95 mph in 1909 as the Case racing team captain. Strang recruited two other famous drivers of the time, Louis Disbrow and Joe Jagersberger (the latter nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman”) and began work on three cars for the 1911 Indy 500.
Built around the Case 4-cylinder roadster chassis, none of the Case cars finished the race. Disbrow’s machine had to retire early when it was hit and badly damaged by another car. Jagersberger was forced out on the 87th lap when a steering knuckle broke, and Strang was later forced out by a seized piston.
Bad luck dogged the Case cars and, especially, their drivers. Jay McNay was killed in 1911 while practicing in a Case car, Jagersberger was crippled in a 1911 accident, and a couple other Case drivers were killed or badly injured in racing accidents.
After Strang was killed in a freak traffic accident, Disbrow took over the team. He built new racers, including a strange machine called the Jay-Eye-Cee after a famous racehorse once owned by J.I. Case. The car looked like a large, upside-down canoe on wheels and was built around Strang’s old Fiat racer, the “Red Devil.”
Disbrow bored out the Fiat engine to 9-1/4 inches which, along with the 8-5/8-inch stroke, produced a claimed 290 hp. None of the Case cars ever did well at Indy (the best being Disbrow’s eighth-place finish in 1913) but they won many dirt track events, with Jay-Eye-Cee setting a record of 102.75 mph at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, in 1912.
A 100-lap race on the 1-mile dirt track at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Milwaukee on June 13, 1915, marked the final time the Case racing team competed. Four Case cars were entered and three finished one, two and three before a crowd of 12,000. Disbrow was first in Jay-Eye-Cee, Eddie Hearne second in a Case Special and John Rainy drove a lightweight Case Comet to a third-place finish.
The Case board of directors passed a motion early in 1916 to discontinue auto racing. American industry was becoming involved in war production for the European allies, and with U.S. involved in the conflict a year later, they would soon have no time for such frivolities as automobile racing. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at email@example.com.