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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Anyone 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 Truck.

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.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" May 18, 2017 column

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