By on July 5, 2013

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It’s not unusual for automakers to wrap themselves in their national flags. After citing baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, and sponsoring Dinah Shore to tell us in song to see the USA, Chevrolet is the car company that comes to mind pretty quickly when considering automotive nationalism, but they all do it one way or another, in their home markets. Export markets too, in the case of German and Japanese cars. Those cases might be nationalism or they might just be good marketing but there was once an American car company whose founder was so patriotic that he built a copy of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall for his company headquarters. Actually, there were two car company founders that did that. You may know about one of those buildings and you undoubtedly know about who built it because it’s called the Henry Ford Museum. Percy Owens, however, is less well known, and he built his copy of Independence Hall before Ford has his own replica of America’s architectural symbol of independence made. There are other replicas and near replicas across the country, mostly at colleges, Mercer, Howard, Dartmouth, Brooklyn and Dallas Baptist. Knott’s Berry Farm in California also built a full-scale replica outside their Buena Park amusement park in 1996, but the Motor City is the only place there are two.

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By 1916, what had been a curiosity only a decade earlier, the automobile, was now the focus of a booming industry. The DuPont family recognized that and helped Billy Durant reacquire control of General Motors, the company he founded. World War One, the first mechanized war, was raging and GM and other companies would soon find a ready market for their trucks once the US entered the war. In ten years the automobile had become a much more practical machine, with electric starters and enclosed bodies. Ford’s Model T found a huge market among working and middle class Americans (and then around the world).  So there was opportunity in the air.

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Percy Owens had been in the automobile business practically since there were automobiles. He sold Wintons in the 19th century and opened New York City’s first auto showroom. He successfully imported Bianchi automobiles from Italy. In 1908 he started representing Chalmers, then a major brand and one of the foundational elements of what would become the Chrysler Corp., rising to sales manager for the entire Chalmers company, a position he formerly held at Winton.

The Liberty Motors logo was even red, white & blue.

The Liberty Motors logo was even red, white & blue.

Using his contacts in the industry and with the help of financial backers, Owens took over a factory on Lycaste Ave in Detroit from the failed R.C.H. car company, an enterprise of Robert Hupp, founder of Hupmobile. Owens staffed his new company hiring engineers and managers with solid automotive experience, “motor men” all of them. He decided to call his company Liberty, in honor of America. To distinguish the 3.4 liter Liberty Six from other mid priced automobiles Owens introduced features that are still used by today’s automakers. On the outside, unlike most cars of the era which were made to be functional, with little concern for styling, the Liberty Six wasn’t boxy and was made with an attention to style and flowing lines. Inside, the Liberty was designed to be more comfortable than competing makes, with better seats, and easier to operate. Some say that Liberty was the first automaker to consider what we now called ergonomics.

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Within three years production was up to 6,000 units and demand exceeded the capacity of the Lycaste Avenue plant. Funds were raised to build a new factory at Connor and Charlevoix in Detroit. The office building in front of the factory was a full scale replica of Independence Hall, fitting for a company named Liberty. In 1920 the company changed engines, from an underpowered off-the-shelf Continental powerplant to a custom designed Wisconsin unit that produced twice the power. Sales climbed to over 9,000. In 1921, with 11,000 units sold (some sources say 21,000 but 11,000 seems more in line with previous sales levels), things looked very good for the patriotically named car company.

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Unfortunately for Owens and Liberty, there was a deep recession as the year went on and sales steeply dropped. In 1922 only 1,624 Liberty Sixes were sold. That wasn’t the only problem the company faced. Liberty was facing the same problems that would plague other independent automakers. They were essentially assemblers, buying components and bodies from suppliers. The bigger independent companies, like Hudson and Packard, could afford to buy in bulk or simply buy out their vendors to insure supply. Without sufficient capital to compete, in 1923 Liberty Motors went into receivership.

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The factory and office building was purchased by Columbia Motor Car, which folded a year later. The Budd body company eventually bought the building and it was used into the 21st century, along with “Independence Hall”, by ThyssenKrupp Budd. The facility was closed in 2007, but the building still stands next to the sprawling East Jefferson Ave facility where Chrysler builds Jeep Grand Cherokees.

Detroit's better known copy of Independence Hall, The Henry Ford Museum's clock tower. Wikimedia photo.

Detroit’s better known, second copy of Independence Hall, The Henry Ford Museum’s clock tower. Wikimedia photo.

This Liberty Six was at the 2011 Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti. According to one source, it’s one of about a dozen Liberty Motors’ cars that still exist.

Note: This was previously published, in slightly different form, at Cars In Depth. It seemed appropriate for the Independence Day holiday.

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8 Comments on “Happy 4th of July! With Liberty and Six Cylinders For All. Percy Owens’ Liberty Motor Car Company...”


  • avatar
    KixStart

    http://xkcd.com/1214/

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      Lol, near where I grew up there is a replica of the leaning tower of Pisa, I’ve always been fascinated by it and kind of glad it’s there, though as a kid I really did think the Pisa, Italy was just down the street from where I lived

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Interesting story. I see that the art of automotive copy-catting originated with their buildings, I suppose the reason being there wasn’t a whole lot of other automobiles to copy

  • avatar
    50merc

    Great article, Mr. Schreiber. This building is such a wonderful historical artifact of Detroit’s better days. Are such sites marked by plaques or signs so visitors can understand what they’re seeing? There should be at least a brochure to guide tourists to historic sites such as Ford’s Piquette Avenue plant and the Packard plant. (Assuming, of course, that it’s safe to drive in those neighborhood.)

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Check with Motorcities.org about historic automotive sites around Detroit. I don’t know if they published it, but one of the times that I was at the Piquette Ave Model T museum, I did get a pamphlet that’s specifically about the Milwaukee Junction area where the Piquette factory is located. That’s the neighborhood east of Woodward and south of Grand Blvd and it’s where a lot of car companies built their second and third factories, sort of where the U.S. car industry had its explosive growth.

      Regarding safety checking out old factory sites in Detroit. I don’t go spelunking in abandoned buildings but I do take a lot of photos of historic sites and those buildings that still stand. I rarely feel concerned for my personal safety, mostly because many of those areas are a bit like ghost towns. Who’s going to mess with you? You’re the only person there. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not naive. Detroit is a dangerous city with a lot of crime but for the most part the criminals seem to prey on each other, not some guy taking pictures.

      I could put together a driving tour of historic automotive locations around the city and it’d be very cool to try to do it with some kind of vintage bus or depot hack, but I just don’t know if there’d be enough people willing to pay to make it a viable business. To do it right, I’d buy the three 1955 Cadillac Broadmoor Skyview station wagons that have clear acrylic roofs that are for sale on eBay.

      Regarding plaques, some sites and locations have them, some don’t. A lot of the sites that interest me, like the Liberty HQ or the old Detroit Electric charging station near Belle Isle, are a bit oddball so they’re not likely to have one of those Green painted brass plaques but it’s sometimes surprising to see what gets a plaque. Here’s the site for Michigan Historical Markers: http://www.michmarkers.com/

  • avatar

    The ThysenKrupp plant closing is also the subject of the book “Punching Out: A Year in a Closing Factory”. It’s an interesting read for car nuts and business fans.

    Excerpt here:

    http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_05/b4213098723883.htm

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Wow, two lessons in one; I never knew about Liberty nor the copycatting of Independence Hall. Thanks for another great read.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Thanks, Ron. I like learning about orphan marques


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