July 30, 2007 8:28 AM
Manufactured in Syracuse, New York from 1902 through 1934, the Franklin was the only large production automobile ever made in America with an air-cooled engine. Herbert H. Franklin set up shop in 1893 to produce metal die castings, a term coined by Franklin himself. Five years later, engineer John Wilkinson, the grandson of the man who named Syracuse, developed a prototype for a four-cylinder air-cooled engine. In 1901, the two men collaborated to build a vehicle, featuring Wilkinson’s principles of “Scientific Light Weight” and the Franklin was born. The first production Franklin was sold the following year, and has survived 125 years to reside in the Smithsonian.
Wilkinson’s principles of “Scientific Light Weight,” published in 1902, called for flexible construction and unsprung weight. Thus the earliest Franklins were constructed primarily of wood and aluminum, providing excellent vibration absorption and a smooth ride. By 1904, a Franklin roadster set a record of 33 days coast to coast, halving the previous record, and proving Franklin’s technological edge. Franklin was the first to the market with six cylinders in 1905, which helped the car halve its old coast to coast record the following year. Automatic spark advance was introduced in 1907. At that time, Franklin was building so many cars that it became the world’s largest consumer of aluminum.
Modern technological innovation came fast and furious for Franklin over the following years. By 1915, the year Jay’s Franklin was produced, the Franklin was capable of a top speed around 65 mph at 32 mpg - the same mileage Jay gets today! 1915 was also the last year of exposed valves in the engine, with exposed points that were meant to be lubricated every day at noon, according to the car’s manual.
Hoping to win the edge over other luxury car manufacturers during the Great Depression, Franklin put out a twelve-cylinder engine in 1932. Hoping to recover bad debt, bank managers overruled engineers, and the car’s design went awry. This Franklin wasn’t the equal of its
forbears, and didn’t sell well. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1934, though it did survive to go on producing air-cooled aircraft engines. Ironically, the company was later bought by Preston Tucker to manufacture engines for his infamous car, and engines based on the company’s air-cooled designs are rumored to still be in production in Poland.