With the weather getting warmer and summer around the corner, one of the things you see everywhere in Elkhart County are car shows. Featuring cars of the past that have been restored or converted into hot rods, these shows are a popular place to for people to admire cars and talk about a time when automobiles had character.
What these people may not know that Elkhart has a history with cars. While many people have Fords, Chevys and Studebakers, the history of Elcar is mostly forgotten.
The story began in 1873, when Elkhart hardware store owner Frederick Platt and his son William began making buggies under the name of the F.B. Pratt and Son Buggy Works. The company, whose business model involved direct selling to customers, became very successful. By 1884 the company, now operating under the “Prattworks” name, employed over 80 workers and had an 87,000 square foot complex. The company entered the national scene in the 1890s when its moved its facility to the 700 block of West Beardsley Avenue in Elkhart and renamed itself the “Elkhart Carriage and Harness Manufacturing Company.” The company was selling buggies to California, Canada and nationwide, and was the largest carriage manufacturer that sold directly to customers in the world.
With the advancement of technology in the early 1900s, the company, which was then being run by William and his brother George Pratt, started to decline due to the development and popularity of automobiles. The Pratts made the choice to evolve their company and develop a motorized vehicle of their own. After research and development, the first motorized buggy rolled out of the factory in 1908. The buggy was sold for $428, got 30 miles per gallon and reached speeds of 30 miles per hour. Seeing the attention this new product was getting, the company produced its first standard automobile in 1909, which was a Shaft Drive Roadster with a Rumble Seat.
The 1910s brought about an expansion of the automobile division of the company and the phasing out of the buggies, even though the company produced buggies until 1919. The company, wanting its cars to be associated with luxury, used radiators that resembled those made by Mercedes and offered their cars with a grey undercarriage and black hoods, fenders and frames. Other than producing cars like the Elcar 30-35, which was marketed as “The Car For the Many,” the company also found a niche producing a line of taxi cabs that were highly reliable. By the end of the decade, Elcar (which the company changed its name to in 1915) had automobiles in 46 states and reached countries like China, South Africa, Australia and most of Europe.
Wanting to move into a different market, the 1920s brought the introduction of a luxury line of cars that featured an eight in line engine that provided a much smoother ride. The 6-60 line of Elcars, which featured these engines, brought the company the greatest success it had seen since its peak producing buggies 30 years before.
Despite its successes, the company went bankrupt by 1931. The main reason the company failed was the same thing that killed many other car companies of the era: The Great Depression.
There were a few other reasons for Elcar's demsie. One reason was that the company was so specialized and had so many models of automobile that what was once successful proved to be unsustainable. Another was that the Elcar Company bought engines and other parts from outside vendors. When the vendors' businesses were affected by the Depression, Elcar's supply lines dried up and it was unable to get the the parts it needed. After declaring bankruptcy, the company continued to produce cars until the last one was produced in 1933. The company's land, buildings and equipment were auctioned off in 1936, marking the official end of Elcar.