From Point A to Point B: Ross M.G. Phillips and the Golden State Motor Car, Los Angeles, 1905-1907

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This morning’s meeting of the Homestead’s Fiction Book Club discussed Scott Bottles’ 1991 book, Los Angeles and the Automobile, and I gave a brief presentation at the end, sharing a dozen of the hundreds of auto-related artifacts in the Museum’s collection, with the examples ranging from the 1897 cabinet card photograph of the first “horseless carriage” in Los Angeles, a topic of a recent post on this blog, to the late 1920s and including photos, pamphlets, a wanted poster for a stolen car, and the featured artifact for this post, a booklet advertising the Golden State Motor Car, designed in the Angel City by police officer turned inventor Ross M.G. Phillips.

Phillips was born in 1873 in Iowa, but was Ross Merritt Griswold Palmer, born to lumber dealer John H. Palmer and Effie L. Phillips, but, after the couple divorced, she and their two sons went to live with her parents—later, Ross decided to take her surname. The Phillips family migrated to Los Angeles, probably with the hordes who came during the Boom of the Eighties, as they were here in 1890. Young Ross became a salesman, but, in 1894, the strapping 6’1″ inch young man applied and was accepted to join the Los Angeles Police Department.

Los Angeles Record, 23 June 1897.

His career lasted into the earliest days of the new century and his beat for much of that time was in Chinatown, then situated where Union Station was much later built. Phillips got into some notoriety during his time, including at least two reported instances of physical confrontations with Chinese men. In one of these, in a June 1897 incident, he claimed that he was acting in self-defense, though it was pointed out that the badly injured plaintiff was much older and of small stature, while, as noted above, Phillips was of an imposing (especially for the time) size.

In that case, the victim, Wong Sun Sue, sought over $5,000 in damages, though after a considerable delay, a jury hearing the civil case could not agree on a decision and the jury was hung, ending the proceedings. The other example took place in March 1898, as the civil matter was pending, and Phillips was jailed on a charge of assault preferred against him by Chon Fuey, though it appears that the officer escaped any judgment for his actions. Who knows what other altercations he was involved in during his years with the department?

Los Angeles Express 13 August 1901.

During his law enforcement career, Phillips began tinkering with ideas and an early example was the 1898 development of a new lantern which was briefly discussed by the Los Angeles Times in its 12 December edition. The paper noted that the officer “has invented a new dark-lantern which contains some very valuable attachments, and at the same time does the work in a more satisfactory manner” than with existing devices.

The paper continued that what users of current lanterns had to do with slides is use both hands in opening and closing, but Phillips’ innovation was to develop a lever on the back that, when pressed, permitted “a ray of light to shoot out that cannot be seen further away than a few feet.” This allowed the user to have one hand free and the Times reported that Chief John M. Glass “speaks highly of the new lantern and thinks it will be adopted by police forces generally.”

Phillips and his family enumerated in the 1900 federal census, with him listed as “Police man” in an area just north of the old Chinatown, now Union Station, and where the Terminal Annex post office facility is today.

At the dawn of the 20th century, in summer 1901, Phillips came up with another law enforcement applicable idea, this being a combination revolver case and rifle stock. As described in the 13 August issue of the Los Angeles Express, the device “works somewhat on the principle of the Mauser pistol-rifle combination, in which the wooden pistol case is affixed to the pistol as a stock, thus making a very effective rifle of the affair.”

In Phillips’ invention, the case was steel-reinforced leather and, when the weapon was drawn, “a snap follows and the affair is ready for the accurate use of a rifle.” It was asserted that, with just a slight adjustment to the gun’s frame, military or police revolvers could easily be adapted to his design. There was a statement that the federal government was at work on an idea similar to his and the paper added, “it may be that Officer Phillips’ idea is the one they will adopt.” Th article ended with the note that he had several other “neat devices,” including the lantern.

Los Angeles Herald, 21 September 1905.

It appears that Phillips left the force about 1902 and turned his inventive spirit towards his best-known project, the development of his Golden State Motor Car, for which the like-named company was incorporated in September 1905 with beer sales agent and real estate investor John Hauerwaas, who was also a champion rifle shot; gunsmith, store owner, sharpshooter and inventor Joseph Singer; secretary Francis M. Townsend, a patent attorney; and president Charles F.A. Last, a beer, wine and liquor dealer of note in the Angel City. Later, Jacob Fieber, co-owner of the Bristol and Palace cafes, joined as a director, while lawyer John T. Jones became treasurer.

On the last day of the year, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature with photos on the new firm, indicating

Of special interest to automobilists is the Golden State motor car, soon to be manufactured here, and embodying the inventions of Police Officer Ross M.G. Phillips of this city, who has already made a name for himself in other lines of work.

Certain features of the Phillips automobile are so unique, and so at variance with common practice that the entire construction is worthy of as detailed description as limited space will permit.

Specifically, the paper pointed out was the fact that “the air-cooling principle is as old as internal combustion motors, but Phillips found a new and better way of achieving it,” through copper rings titled upward around the cylinders but with each featuring perforations at irregular spots to prevent air pockets and permit better circulation. It was stated that this innovation was such that the engine could run six hours in an enclosed space without getting overheated.

Los Angeles Times, 31 December 1905.

Moreover, the engine and transmission were a contained unit with a dust-proof protective casing with no working parts outside it, while a three-point suspension system and a well-aligned bearing pack were highlighted, as well. The piece noted that the Model B, with a three-cylinder engine, had a piston connecting rod arrangement patented by Phillips and lubrication was consistent, while the nickel and steel crank shaft was said to guarantee smooth running.

Another notable feature was the 30-inch fan on the fly-wheel which “forces draft against the cylinders and tends to deflect the dust under the body and insure more comfortable riding, while a jump start ignition included recharging dry cells, another Phillips idea. A variable compression control mechanism controlled by a steering wheel level and an automatic spark advance with the throttle were demonstrated to the Times by Phillips in the two-cylinder Model A.

Herald, 28 January 1906.

He claimed that braking was rendered virtually unnecessary because the throttle lever allowed for cylinder compression and a vacuum braking system to act in halting the car’s momentum. The throttle design was such that there was said to be much improved fuel consumption. The accompanying photos were of the Model A from a side view as well as one of the engine.

Stock issued from the company was sold by the Consolidated Securities Company, which was launched in July 1905 and which occupied the same office on the top floor in the recently erected Herman W. Hellman Building at the corner of Spring and Fourth streets, where Fieber’s Bristol Cafe was also situated. While there was a total issue of $500,000 at $1 par value, there was an initial offering, for purposes of raising funds for the factory, of $10,000 worth at 80 cents.

Wichita [Kansas} Beacon, 26 September 1921. Note Phillips’ name in small print after the product name at the center of the circle.

An early ad from the Times mid-January 1906 noted that Golden State was “an innovation in motor making” with all patents by Phillips, who was assisted by auto mechanic and mechanical engineer James A. Walkley, held by the firm, which would guarantee it would “revolutionize automobile motive power and construction.” Moreover, it was claimed that the “unique mechanical features have been heralded far and wide in the automobile world, causing old manufacturers to sit up and take notice.

Beyond this, the ad claimed that in Los Angeles “every automoible [sic] expert has expressed himself enthusiastically in favor of our machine” and “we have letters from scores of them . . . who have ridden in our car and are anxious to get in on the ground floor. Noting that there was one local car manufacturer producing the Tourist, considered “one of the best cars in this market,” the ad observed that Los Angeles had 2,000 automobiles and that Golden State already had orders for 39 vehicles, with a provisional order for 50 commercial trucks.

Hartford [Connecticut] Courant, 27 July 1939.

Another ad two weeks later in the Los Angeles Herald promoted the “POWER, SAFETY, and SIMPLICITY of its Model B, which would generate up to 24 horsepower and cost about $1,500 and a section called “The Importance of the Automobile” pointed out that:

The phenomenal growth of the automobile is evidenced throughout the whole country, but in no section does its popularity exceed that of sunny California, and outstripping every city is Los Angeles, where the motor car of every type finds sale exceeding all other cities (except New York) . . . our car offers so much to the thoughtful, thorough manufacturer of automobiles . . . Procrastination is no word for a Los Angelan [?!]

Presumably, the pamphlet highlighted here was published about February 1906 based on the dates of two of the testimonial letters in the back. In the introduction, it was stated that “the purchaser of a motor car of this day desires to have embodied in the machine all of the best features known in mechanics.” With this in mind the company’s officials “take both pleasure and pride in presenting to you a few of the salient features of the Golden State Motor Car” while concluding “that the recital of their virtues will cause you to investigate carefully to see if you can afford to purchase a car which is not up to the standard of excellence attained by us.”

The car’s innovations were due to Phillips, with help from Walkley and it was added that “a trial of nearly two years has demonstrated that all we claim for these departures from the ordinary car is indispensable to a modern automobile.” To begin with, there was the combined engine and transmission power plant with that self-contained unit being “an entirely new system.” With this arrangement “there is chance for the bearings to be unequally strained” and the suspension was achieved without extra weight or a bulky body. Moreover, it was easy to access all parts of the “Unit Power Plant” by simply raising the hood.

More detail was given to the air cooled system and its copper flanges on the cylinder jackets with the “staggered perforations . . . which causes a thorough circulation of air and gives a perfect cooling effect.” Detailed photos of component parts of the cylinder heads, piston rings, wrist pin, crank shaft and others are also included along with the engine unit and other elements of the vehicle, while there were section drawings of the Model B engine, as well.

An automatic cutout to eliminate racing of the engine when the clutch was engaged; the crank case and shaft alignment; the air fan attached to the fly wheel; lubrication “by precision valveless oiler along with the use of extra oil on the case bottom for clutches and gears; the jump spark ignition; the float feed carburetor that could use distillate or gasoline; the variable compression throttle; the transmission with a two-speed clutch with a bronze lining for a gentle and gradual progression; a single foot level for low and high speed with the clutch; and other mechanical details were presented.

As for the body it was considered “of the latest style, seating two in the front and three in the tonneau, with [a] side door entrance, and having [a] divided front seat,” while the rear could be removed. There was a hollow sheet-metal dash that had the gasoline gauge in easy view and which “is a new feature on gasoline machines and is a very neat and useful device.”

General information included the statement that:

The most prominent features of the car are its stylish appearance, simplicity and durability, compactness and accessibility of parts. Being of extremely simple control, it can be handled by the most inexperienced, and by reason of the fact that only the most expensive and highest grade materiels [sic] and best workmanship are used in its construction, it requires a minimum of expert attention in the shop.

The Model B weighed 1,600 pounds, topped out at 40 mph with its 20-hp engine, and was to cost $1,500 (with an extra $150 for a rear seat and package carrier combination, while a Model C, which was a two-passenger runabout with a smaller wheel base, was to run $1,400. There was also a Model D three-cylinder truck for light delivery of up to 2,000 pounds, but no price was given as this was “a special delivery vehicle.”

As for the letters, they came from the president and secretary of the Automobile Club of Southern California, Harry Chandler of the Times, Felix J. Zeehandelhaar of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, and S. C. Carter “expert automobile builder and repair man,” among others. Carter wrote that he inspected the car in action and at rest and offered that “it has many strong points in its favor,” including keeping the oil contained in the case and that “the clutch system . . . is the safest type of clutch ever devised, and the most simple and easy to operate.” He also praised the combined engine and transmission as accessible and protected from dirt.

Chandler wrote of his ride with Phillips through Hollywood and up Cahuenga Pass in summer 1905 and said that, when they stopped with the engine running, it was cool to the touch and this was the case when the two returned to Los Angeles. Auto Club president Milbank Johnson took the professional opinions of club secretary A.P. Fleming and Alfred C. Stewart, an auto designer and builder, and stated that “you certainly have the finest gasoline engine control I have seen.” On a trip, he noted the smooth operation without “one throwing your high speed clutch” and added that, if the amount of gas and oil used was as advertised, “you have one of the most economical engines ever brought to my attention.”

Yet, the company soon collapsed and, while little could be found about what transpired, Walkley took out an ad in the Express of 18 April 1907 stating that he would sell at public auction in a few days 48,000 pledged shares of Golden State Motor Company stock. These were being held by the mechanic as security for a loan of $4,500 and interest taken out by Phillips. In 1908, the firm appeared on a long list of companies that did not pay their license fees and taxes to the state. How many cars actually were built, sold and driven on the streets of the Angel City and environs is not known.

Phillips soon left Los Angeles for Toledo, Ohio, where it was reported he had success in working with his air-cooled engine, though it was later stated that he assigned his patent to the Franklin Automobile Company of Syracuse, New York. By the mid-teens, he settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where he remained for the last quarter century of his life, working as an inventor, including on an automatic cooking stove, pneumatic vehicle springs, an inclusive watch holder, a gas furnace, a timing mechanism, a combined auto windshield and heater, an automatic circuit breaker and a hydraulic brake.

In 1921, his patent was employed for the Acorn automatic gas range and fifteen years later he and his son were among the founders of Braklok, Inc., which was to manufacture that hydraulic braking system that he patented. In July 1939, Phillips at age 65 died from pneumonia contracted from a cold he caught earlier in the year and obituaries appearing throughout the United States called him an automotive industry pioneer for his air-cooled engine design back in Los Angeles more than three decades prior.

Interestingly, it was also stated that he was friend of Thomas Edison and turned down an offer to work in the great inventor’s laboratories. The obituaries misnamed his car as the “Golden Gate” but it was stated that his patent sold to Franklin was such that the manufacturer continued to build air-cooled engines until just a few years prior. Finally, it was stated that Phillips “was working on a new type of aerial bomb under Government supervision” as well as a new carburetor at the time of his death.

This pamphlet is a great, rare early automobile-related item from the first years of the 20th century in Los Angeles, which became the car capital of the world in short order. We’ll continue to share more automotive-related artifacts from the Museum’s collection in future “From Point A to Point B” posts on this blog, so be sure to look for those.

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