by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was labeled “the car that convinces,” but in the crowded field of automobile manufacturers in the early days of maturing industry, Monroe Motor Cars, despite energetic efforts to create a niche for itself amid crushing competition, failed to convince enough American buyers of the virtues of its vehicles.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a pamphlet, issued on this day in 1917, detailing technical specifications for Monroe vehicles. Distributed by the official Los Angeles dealership, Conwell-Hathaway Company, the brochure is very specific in its goal:
A study of the enclosed “Technical Points” will convince any well posted motorist that the MONROE sets an absolutely new standard of value in the popular priced field.
The information was for the M4, a five-passenger touring car, and the M5, a club roadster and gives specifications for the four cylinders and eight valves; the pistons; the crank shaft; the oiling system including the gear pump and crank case; the horsepower rating of just under 45 at 2650 r.p.m. and displacement of just under 240 cubic inches; the carburetor; starting and lighting systems; the clutch and three-speed transmission; the breaking system; the springs; tires and wheels; gas tank; radiator; and much more.
There was a separate catalog for the less technically inclined potential buyer and, because the Homestead’s collection does not have one of those, we can rely on newspaper advertisements taken out by Conwell-Hathaway to see how the vehicles, really the M4, were marketed to the general public.
First, though, a bit of history about the Monroe company. Founder R. Frank Monroe established about 1908 the Monroe Body Company in Pontiac, Michigan, outside of Detroit, to manufacture automobile bodies for manufacturers in the Motor City area like Ford and Cadillac. Shortly afterward, Monroe sold one of his plants and followed that, in 1911, by selling his Detroit facility to Cadillac.
The money realized from these transactions allowed Monroe to invest in a new car company called Chevrolet and he also parlayed his friendship with William C. Durant, one of the new firm’s financial backers and a leading pioneer in the American auto industry, into assuming a managerial role. He was assistant general manager of operations and then oversaw the operations of the company’s second plant in Flint. Finally, Monroe was given the franchise to operate the official Detroit Chevy dealership.
When Durant asked his designers to develop a low-priced car to compete with Henry Ford’s dominant Model T, two such vehicles emerged. One, with a larger engine, was sold by Chevrolet as the 490 touring car, but the other morphed into a car sold by a new company created in August 1914 by Durant and Monroe: the Monroe Motor Company.
The flagship vehicle, with a smaller engine than the 490, was the Monroe M2 and it was built at the Chevy plant in Flint Monroe oversaw and retailed for $450. To show how interconnected Chevy and Monroe were, the M2 was sold through Chevy, as well as independent Monroe dealers, and the directorate and stockholders were all on the Chevrolet board and list of shareholders. Durant allowed use of the Chevy plant in lieu of cash for stock.
While the M2 was in production, however, the Chevy 490 became a major success and the profits from the sales of the vehicle allowed Durant to reacquire General Motors, which he founded and lost before starting Chevrolet. Meanwhile Durant resigned from the Monroe board and exchanged shares with Monroe in the two firms, though, because Durant’s stock was worth far more, he arranged a loan for his friend to bridge the gap in value. The two remained friends, however, and Monroe continued making bodies and axles for Chevy, while there was some talk of consolidating the Monroe Motor Company with Chevrolet.
Instead, Monroe pushed forward with plans to build a larger five-passenger touring car because the M2, of which about 3,500 units were sold, couldn’t compete with the 490. He also moved from the Flint plant, which went to GM, and set up shop again in Pontiac to build the larger M3. While the aim was to sell 2,000 of these cars, these projections were not met, even as Monroe announced the development of the M4, M5 and M6.
Meanwhile, Conwell-Hathaway became the official Los Angeles dealers of the Monroe, but, despite heavy promotion in local newspapers and at car shows in Los Angeles and Pasadena, sales apparently did not go well in the burgeoning car capital of the world as was the case elsewhere.
Monroe began to default on payments owed to suppliers and on the loan from Chevrolet. Durant took some M3s in lieu of payments on that loan to sell through Chevy and the Monroe plant was leased to General Motors. These issues and the fact that America’s entry in the First World War caused a large shrinkage of auto sales doomed Monroe and it went bankrupt by the end of 1918.
A Chevy distributor in Indiana, hired to revive Monroe’s fortunes, purchased its assets and produced cars under that name through the early 1920s. While Monroe also lost his car body company, he did experience a rebirth by opening a car body company in Louisville and experiencing great success through the Twenties.
As for the Los Angeles dealer, it experienced a sudden and tragic end when James S. Conwell, part-owner and treasurer, died of a heart attack in late 1917 at age 58 while in Blythe, California en route to Los Angeles from Phoenix, where he’d gone for a vacation. Stress from his business, involvement in politics, and oversight of the recently held Los Angeles Automobile Show were cited as contributing factors in his death.
Conwell was born in Minnesota and educated at Northwestern University in Evanston near Chicago. After serving as Evanston city clerk, he migrated west to Los Angeles in 1882 and opened a men’s clothing store. He experienced the ups and downs of the great Boom of the Eighties and the inevitable bust and relocated in 1889 to San Francisco, where he worked for an umbrella manufacturing company. He then turned to an increasingly popular enterprise by working in the bicycle industry, both in the City by the Bay and in Indianapolis, where he moved in 1897.
With the automobile newly introduced, Conwell got into that business and returned to Los Angeles in 1907 as manager and secretary of the United Motors Company for several years before launching Conwell-Hathaway, whose other namesake may have been one of the Monroe stockholders and directors.
Conwell was not only city clerk in Evanston, but served on a committee to write a new city charter in San Francisco. Not long after his return to Los Angeles, he became active in political circles and secured election to the city council in 1913. He was the only incumbent to retain his seat in 1917 and was immediately elected by his colleagues to serve as the council’s president.
He was in his third term and highly regarded for his leadership in fighting for an ordinance that restricted billboards in residential areas and was on the council’s efficiency and supply committee, and his business background was cited for his work in tightening purchasing rules to save the city time and money.
Conwell also worked to consolidate assessment and tax collection responsibilities with corresponding departments at the county level. He was honored for his service to the city by being the first person to have his body lie in state at City Hall. With his death, Conwell-Hathaway went defunct, not long before the Monroe Motor Car Company experienced its bankruptcy and breakup.
As with many other examples, the automobile industry, as it matured and expanded dramatically during the first decades of the 20th century, was highly competitive with many entrants in the field trying to establish the market share needed for success. While Monroe had a track record in manufacturing car bodies and a relationship with one of the pioneers in the industry in getting a leg up, it proved to be unable to survive in the wake of financial problems and market challenges.
This pamphlet is a document in the early auto industry in Los Angeles and, while Monroe is a forgotten name, the brochure is part of an important story in which the City of Angels and its burgeoning suburban area became the American mecca for the automobile as the century continued.