who grew up in the 1950s surely remembers Dinah Shore singing "See
the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet" in black and white TV ads.
But if the Rev. Herman Eugene Luck had been luckier in his heyday,
maybe the songstress would have been using the word "Chaparral" instead
of Chevrolet. Of course, the rhyme wouldn't be quite as satisfying.
On the other hand, "Wouldn't you really rather have a Chaparral?"
would have worked just fine.
It's hardly known today, but the long ago pastor of Cleburne's
First Christian Church had a mechanical as well as spiritual nature.
Around 1908, he designed and built the first automobile to be commercially
manufactured in Texas.
Luck's homemade horseless carriage featured a 20-horsepower, two cylinder
air-cooled engine. His car (back then such vehicles were more commonly
referred to as "motor cars" or "automobiles") had a double-chain drive
hooked to a planetary transmission. Rather than a battery, the vehicle
had a friction-drive generator to furnish juice for its spark coil
ignition system and its headlights.
Surveying all that he had wrought, the preacher decided to name his
car after a faster traveler, the sharp-beaked roadrunner, aka chaparral.
As the reverend tooled around town showing off his new wheels, interest
in his product grew. Well, maybe envy would be a better word. Others
wanted one, and soon a group of Cleburne
businessmen decided to get into the automobile manufacturing business.
"Steps were taken here today to organize a company for the manufacture
of automobiles," the Associated Press reported in a Sept. 16, 1911
dispatch. "The stock was nearly all subscribed." The two-paragraph
item also noted that an effort would be made to "have machines ready
to exhibit at the Dallas
state fair this fall."
Whether that happened has not been determined, but the first Cleburne-built
car rolled out of the shed on September 30. By year's end, the company
had built nine cars, eight of which had sold.
By late winter of 1912, Luck and his partners had made arrangements
to display two of their "large Cleburne-made automobiles" at the Fort
Worth Fat Stock Show March 18-23. A newspaper article noted: "One
of the machines will be placed in the Coliseum and the other one will
be exhibited on the outside."
On Sept. 25, 1912, in a brief article filed by its Austin
correspondent, the Houston Post noted under "Corporations Chartered"
that "The Cleburne Motor Car Manufacturing company, Cleburne,"
had been chartered with a capital stock of $10,000. The incorporators
were listed as Luck, G.A. McClung, O.L. Bishop "and others." Elected
officers were Luck as president; R.H. Crank, secretary; E.N. Brown,
first vice-president and F.L. Deal, second VP.
In addition to the Chaparral, the company built a vehicle known as
the Luck Utility and another called, with nice alliteration, the Luck
Rev. Luck and his partners certainly had the right idea in entering
the automobile manufacturing business when they did. As an El
Paso newspaper had noted in the spring of 1910, in 1908 there
had been 55,000 automobiles valued at $83 million manufactured in
the U.S. Output for 1910 was estimated at 200,000 vehicles valued
at $250 million.
Not everyone was on board with the notion of putting the horse to
pasture. Speaking in the spring of 1910 to a convention of Texas bankers
in El Paso,
New York City National Bank president J.T. Talbot warned against the
growing number of loans being extended in his profession. Much of
the mounting consumer debt, he said, could be attributed to people
taking out loans to "buy machines [cars]." Talbot viewed that as an
"extravagance" and a "great menace to the nation."
But entrepreneurs were building and selling cars all over the U.S.
However, among the many players, two brands were quickly leaving their
competitors in a proverbial cloud of dust -- the $400 machines being
mass-produced by Henry Ford and cars built by Chevrolet. Those brands
and some others flourished but for whatever reason, the Texas-built
Chaparral, no matter its catchy name, did not acquire enough market
share to turn a profit.
The Texas Secretary of State's office accepted on May 17, 1915 a "certificate
of dissolution" filed by the Cleburne Motor Car Manufacturing Co.
Rev. Luck's vision of financial success for his product had disappeared
faster than a roadrunner chasing a lizard.
While most people had forgotten about Chaparrals and Luckies by mid-century,
someone remembered. When Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington
opened for its second season in 1962, the amusement park featured
a ride with 14 scale-model Chaparrals that visitors could drive on
a one-third mile old-style "highway." Powered by one-cylinder gasoline
motors, the three-quarter size Chaps whizzed along at seven miles
an hour. A year later, the park added six more mini-Chaps. The ride
continues in operation, the second oldest attraction at the park.
Apparently only one vintage Chaparral survives, but no one seems to
know where it is. For years, the vehicle stood on display at the Witte
Museum in San Antonio,
but that institution eventually closed its automotive exhibit and
an internet search does not show where it ended up.
"Texas Tales" May
18, 2017 column