Sears, Roebuck and Company, which declared bankruptcy this week after 125 years imprinting itself on the American consciousness, was the Amazon of its day. Did you know it was also an automaker?
Richard W. Sears got into the mail-order business by accident, when he was stuck with an unwanted order of watches. After he made a profit selling them, he founded his own company to sell other timepieces. That became Sears, Roebuck in 1893 when he partnered with Alvah Roebuck and began selling goods to rural Americans—mostly farmers—who couldn’t easily get to a store. The business prospered so much that it was more than 30 years before the first catalog outlet was built. This is from History.com:
By the early 20th century, the Sears catalog had become so entwined with the American psyche that the government began to use it for propaganda purposes at home and abroad. During the world wars, thousands of catalogs were sent to American soldiers at the front and convalescing in foreign hospitals to bring them a taste of home. President Franklin Roosevelt famously said that the best way to combat communism was to give them a good dollop of capitalism in the form of Sears catalogs. The Soviets took note—in 1981 they selected that year’s catalog as one of 300 works put on display in a cultural exhibit meant to inform the Soviet public about America.
Sears was famous for selling just about everything, and that included—on two fateful occasions, separated by nearly half a century—cars. If the company had gotten any deeper into auto sales, it might have failed a long time ago.
Richard Sears didn’t get cars, but his successor as president in 1908—Robert E. Wood—did. The Sears Motor Buggy of 1909 wasn’t an in-house job—it was farmed out to a guy with the unlikely name of Alvaro S. Krotz. He built the first electric streetcar line in Springfield, Ohio, designed the first storage battery for the Willard company (and then built a few Willard battery cars).
But the gas engine called, and by 1907 Krotz had the first one done. With a fleet of a dozen built, he took them to show Sears—running the cars through sand, mud and snow. According to John M. Daly’s historical research, the first cars were built without name plates (would you have bought a Krotz?) but Sears signed on in 1908 and it appeared in that year’s catalog.
“My dad found a Sears in the 1950s and restored it,” Daly told me. “I first drove it when I was 12. There were 3,500 built, and my registry has tracked down more than 300, so that’s a very high survival rate. Actually, they were cheap, but not particularly good cars, especially when compared to the Model T. My theory is that people ordered them, got embarrassed when the car was delivered, and hid them in the barn or walled them up somewhere. Those are the cars that were then taken out and restored.”
According to Daly, customers lucky enough to live 50 miles or less from the factory in Chicago could take delivery there, but most catalog buyers got their vehicles in giant crates delivered by railroad, with the fenders and wheels needing to be mounted. The vehicle (which offered a two-cylinder air-cooled engine) was more buggy than car, with Sears—and Krotz—arguing that farmers were used to their horse-and-wagons, and would find the new-fangled auto designs too radical.
The first Sears Motor Buggies were either loaded or bare-bones, but by 1910 there was a plethora of models, priced between $370 (the model “G” without top or fenders) and $525 (the model “M” with such luxuries as a two-section glass windshield and disappearing side curtains. The model “P” surrey was added for $495 in 1911.
Some owners loved them. John M. Howard wrote in 1910:
I received your motor car in August last; am much pleased with it and it does all you claim it will do. Last season I ran the car about 1,500 miles without a break or bog, and it crossed the Blue Mountain and also the Broad Mountain out in the coal regions with ease. We have rough and hilly roads here in Pennsylvania and the Sears stood all kinds of tests.
The Sears had the advantage of being less than half the price of the Model T, but that wasn’t enough to generate sales—and Daly said that the company claimed to lose money on every Buggy sold. The car was listed in the 1912 catalog, on page 1,213, but that was its last appearance. The assets were sold off later that year.
You’d have thought Sears had learned its lesson, but no. The company had dealings with the Kaiser company, which sold it pots and pans for the catalog. Kaiser-Frazer also produced cars, and a Sears executive named Theodore Houser was interested in collaborating on a car. They talked from 1945 on, and the idea finally came to fruition with a version of the very affordable K-F Henry J, which first appeared as a 1951 model.
Sears thought the economy car (powered either by an economical but slow 68-horsepower four or an 80-horsepower six) suited its customer base. Did it sell? No! Just 2,500 were made. They were Henry Js, but with a Sears-blue paint job, snazzy plaid upholstery, a restyled nose via Alex Tremulis (designer of the Tucker), and Sears-brand tires, plugs, battery and lightbulbs.
Tremulis says it was a rush job. “I did a hurry-up remake of the grille,” he said, “putting in two horizontals and a little triangular piece, made up a jet plane-type hood ornament that looked nice, and put on the Allstate logo with a map of the U.S. Voilá, there it was!”
The public knew the newly branded Sears Allstate was a Henry J, but those weren’t selling either. The cars were sold only in 1952 and 1953, and appeared only in the ’52 catalog. For $1,395 (or $1,600 decently equipped) the customers got a nice looking little car, but advertising showing an excited new-owner dad waving to Junior (who’s coming at a gallop) were only wish fulfillment. Zero to 60 in 20 seconds! (25, if you got the four).
So forget Sears the carmaker. But don’t quite count out Sears the store just yet. Some 700 outlets were open at the time of the bankruptcy filing, with 68,000 workers. An additional 142 stores will close by the end of the year. But it’s possible Sears will emerge from bankruptcy and some vestige of its glory years will live on.
Here's a video look at a Sears Allstate in all its glory: