Automobile Industry in Des Moines

From the late nineteenth century through the 1930s Iowa had a thriving automotive industry, and automobiles were designed and manufactured in its capital city by several companies. From early electric carriages to gasoline-powered luxury cars, Des Moines played an important role in the manufacturing of automobiles in the state. According to Bill Jepsen’s meticulously researched book, Iowa’s Automobiles: An entertaining and enlightening history, Iowa was number one in the nation in automobiles per capita in 1916 – one car for every fifteen persons.

Scottish-born William Morrison, a chemist by trade, produced the first horseless carriage in Iowa (and by some accounts, in the nation) with his Morrison Electric Buggy. Constructed in his laboratory on Fifth Street between Locust and Grand, the surrey made its debut to much astonishment on September 4, 1890, during the second annual Seni Om Sed (“Des Moines” spelled backward) celebration parade. The Shaver Carriage Company of Des Moines built the bodies for the Morrison vehicles, and a total of twelve buggies were made, including the original. They each sold for $3,600, an amount that would have consumed several years’ wages for the average worker at that time.

Two automobile nameplates that made their debut prior to 1910 were the Hawkeye and the Monarch. The Hawkeye was a high-wheeled carriage produced by the Lagerquist Automobile Company, situated where the Brownstones on Grand are now, that sold for $2,000. The Monarch, produced by the Monarch Machine Company, just across the river where now stands the Embassy Suites, came in two varieties, the thrifty $300 “Model C” and the four-passenger “Model D Road King” that sold for $750. There are no known survivors of any of the Hawkeye or Monarch vehicles. Another local automobile manufacturer was the Des Moines Automobile Company, in business for only a year, which produced a very small number of cars in 1902. They were located on Ninth Street where the City of Des Moines parking garage is now.

The Mason was probably the most widely known automobile manufactured in Des Moines. Edward R. Mason, whose parents owned the Mason House Inn in Bentonsport, was a well-to-do Des Moines lawyer and former clerk of the United States Circuit Court. Through his sons, he met Fred Duesenberg, a brilliant engineer, and mechanic who, with a $25,000 investment from Mason, designed and built the first Mason automobile. First located in a blacksmith shop at 915 Grand Avenue, a new factory to build the car was constructed at East Fifth and Vine in Des Moines. The first Mason to be produced there made its debut on August 16, 1906, at a cost of $1,350. To demonstrate its road-worthiness, three months prior to its unveiling Fred had famously driven a prototype up the steps of the Iowa Capitol Building. Fred and his brother August, who also worked for Mason, later went on to build high-end luxury and racing cars that now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. In 1909 Fred L. Maytag, Newton farm equipment and washing machine entrepreneur bought a controlling interest in the company and by 1910 the manufacturing of the newly named Maytag-Mason Motor Co. had moved to Waterloo. Eventually, the Mason name was dropped and the automobile was known simply as the Maytag. On September 15, 1915, the Waterloo factory was sold, marking the end of the Maytag-Mason automobile.

A company associated with the early Masons was the Des Moines Cabinet Company, later known as the Clemens Automobile Company, operated by Ross and Ashton Clemens. The company made wood auto bodies for Duesenberg and the Mason Car Company. In 1916 the Clemens brothers built a six-story building at 200 Tenth Street in Des Moines for the sales, repair, and storage of primarily Overland and Willys-Knight automobiles. One hundred years later, in 2016, the building was renovated and now consists of 44 apartments and Bubba restaurant.

The Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, located on Grand Avenue, was completed in 1920 at a cost of $420,000, and by 1923-1924 was cranking out up to 200 cars a day. After car assembly operations ceased at the end of 1932, the plant was leased and later purchased by the Solar Aircraft Company and in 1952 was purchased by the Des Moines Public School District. It housed Des Moines Technical High School from 1958 until 1986, and is now home to Central Campus, part of the Des Moines Public Schools.