The Franklin

Warming to his theme, WB considers another car without coolant

The air-cooled car to which I referred last month but did not name was the American Franklin, the most successful exploitation of the air-cooled engine ever, surely? (PreVolkswagen if you insist, but VW soon took to the water, post-Beetle). Quite why is difficult to answer, though I suppose the cost of fan and ducting was found to be less costly than water plumbing and a coolant radiator — especially with separate cylinders. Anyway, that is how the Franklin was, in both four-cylinder and six-cylinder form, all its long production life. Indeed, this was just one of the unconventional aspects of this remarkable car. For year after year it retained a wooden chassis and full-elliptic springs. That, and a few advanced innovations along the way, and it deserves to be called remarkable.

The company constructing the Franklin was situated in Syracuse, New York and was known as the H H Franklin manufacturing Company, from its motor-car beginnings in 1901 up to 1917.

Prior to that H H Franklin had made castings for industry. He acquired a taste for the simple air-cooled engine from the prototype cars of a New York firm which had been designed by John Wilkinson, using transverse 1.7-litre four-cylinder power-units of advanced concept for those times, as they had float carburettors and overhead mechanically-operated valves, although their two-speed planetary transmission was less of a novelty on an inexpensive American auto at the turn of the century. Note, however, that they also had wooden chassis frames and full-elliptic road springing. Franklin was happy to continue with these unusual items for most of his cars production life.

He got things moving, saleswise, by 1902, when thirteen Franklins were built, and love of wood prevailing, their wire spoked wheels were soon replaced by artillery wooden ones. Production was up to 184 the following year, 1903. — such figures are comparatively easy to obtain for American makes — but design was by no means stagnant. Engines took on a conventional in-line mounting, a sliding-pinion three-speed gearbox look over from the epicyclic kind, and a rounded bonnet was adopted, as on not only the great Delaunay-Bellevilles but for quite a number of other Edwardian motor-cars. But Franklin refused to be wooed with water jacketing. He did stop using a push-on hand brake lever after 1906 but this was nothing unusual in the early days, — it enabled a desperate driver to lean on it in an emergency — although associated here mainly with Daimlers, which continued the practice for many years.

Franklin knew that demonstrations must be set up to prove that air-cooling held no terrors. In later years these were very convincing and quite frequent, but as early as 1904 a Franklin set a record time for the journey from San Francisco to New York. For one year the transverse and more conventionally-engined Franklins were made side-by-side, and the little 12hp model had something of the look of a De Dion Bouton voiturette about it. The cars had shaft drive, and as early as 1906 the Model-H six-cylinder Franklin had been announced, with seven-bearing crankshaft, which was continued for all subsequent Franklin Sixes. Style and luxury were on the way. . . And while one does not associate the make with racing, a straight-eight racing car was apparently intended for the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup race. It failed to made an impression in the eliminating trials, but one can see that with separate cylinder construction an “eight” could well follow the production Six. The Franklin engineers were certainly ambitious. They had introduced automatic ignition advance-and-retard by 1907 and followed this with gear-drive of the fan that cooled the unusual engine.

Further changes were incorporated in the 1912 cars, a Renault-type “coal-scuttle” bonnet replacing the rounded one, which enabled a flywheel-incorporated fan to suck air over the “Pots’. By that time full pressure lubrication was part of the specification. The small Franklin was the Model-G, rated at 18hp, and it was the only one to have a quadrant gear-change its engine capacity was 2.3 litres. So there had been a move away from purely small cars, and the to model was the 38.4hp six-cylinder. This was the mode followed in 1914, only a six-cylinder engine being available, used for the “6/30” Franklin, More advances were in the offing, by 1917, when the company changed its name to the Franklin Automobile Company. These left-hand drive cars now came with an electrically-controlled carburettor choke.

The war over, sales resumed a satisfactory level, 8648 Franklins being sold in 1920, when the price of the six had been reduced by fifty dollars to a round 2000 dollars. To allay any misgivings prospective customers might have had about air-cooling of such a large-engine, one of these cars had been successfully driven from Walla Walla to San Francisco in bottom gear. For the 1923 season a redesign had been thought desirable. It took the form of giving the car a Fiat-like dummy radiator, incorporating the turbine-style air blower, a single-plate clutch, a unit gearbox and, for some odd reason, the electrics were changed from twelve to six volts. One Franklin claim had been that the full-elliptic suspension enhanced tyre life, with mileages of up to 20,000 per cover obtainable, and to emphasise this the company refused to fit detachable rims, commonplace then on most American automobiles. The revised cars were not perhaps particularly handsome, looking like the bulk of other lower priced American sedans, except for the slightly different “radiator” shape, at a period when all the rest looked so much alike that it was difficult to tell a Dodge from a Durant from a Chevrolet. That was to change. In any case, the new Franklin model sold 11,000 in its first year, the closed car or sedan costing 2850 dollars in that depressed era. Incidentally, America went for closed-car comfort earlier than had European manufacturers, and Franklin had made mostly sedans from 1913.

In spite of a former Vice-President leaving to form his own business making the Holmes aircooled automobiles in Ohio, and later, when the final refining of the Franklin appalled him, the resignation of John Wilkinson (who had introduced H H F to air cooling all those years ago), the Franklin Company thrived. This later change, in 1925, to the 3.8-litre six included a dummy radiator with vertical ribs that completely disguised the cooling method, as the aperture for the fan had gone. The cars now looked entirely conventional, and in 1929 production rose to a record 14,432 and custom bodies from good established coach-builders became available. But the wooden chassis and full-elliptic springs remained. It is difficult to know why. Could a simple wooden frame have been more cost effective than making a steel chassis shaped with dumb-irons, and the excessive springing intended to save the wood structure from shock? I await comment. In the early days a wooden chassis was thought to contribute to better riding, being supple, but this could hardly apply by 1925. Whatever, the cars were successful and well-liked by those who acquired them. I do not know how many were sold here but the make was handled, not by a concessionaire, but by the Franklin Motor Car Company Ltd which had premises in Chilworth Street, Paddington, not far from the then GWR railway station, and which exhibited at the London Olympia Motor Show, where in 1927 the chassis was offered for £650 and the saloon for £885.

There were more improvements, for 1928, the engine size increased to 82.5 x 120.7mm (3871cc), with larger valves, gas speed increased through the tulip inlet ones, changed inlet and exhaust manifolding, stronger push-rods and valve-gear parts and the oil-pipe runs tidied up. The seven-bearing crankshaft that gave notably smooth running now had balance weights fitted to it and the frontal air-fan was of light weight. An air cleaner had been added to the air circulation system, air being forced through the crankcase as well as over the cylinders. The chassis too, was improved on European lines, four-wheel hydraulic internal brakes with aluminium shoes in 14in drums, being fitted, and brake fluid stored in a chassis tank. Two chassis lengths were now available, the shorter one still of wood, the longer wheelbase one strengthened with steel inserts. The short sedan cost that £885, a fine long wheelbase 8-seater sedan £965, a limousine £1,025. An exciting new model called the “Airman” ushered in these 66 improvements.

Good publicity also accrued when the motoring magazines were provided with test cars: A leading British weekly took a Franklin from Coventry to the then-dreaded BwIch-y-Groes, up which many water-cooled cars would boil furiously. But the Franklin refused to overheat and even after a number of ascents the cylinders ran so cool a hand could be laid on them. Later The Autocar had a saloon with the smaller 3258cc engine for a full test; it weighed just over 281/4cwt empty, had gear ratios of 17.1, 8.2 and 4.73 to 1, and used the 9ft 11in wheelbase. It gave 20 to 23mpg and the engine smoothness was remarked upon, there being only the slightest tremor at 10 to 15mph and none above that pace. Top speed was only about 53mph, which was excused by the excellent performance in the range where it counted, in traffic, and for reasonable average speeds on country roads. Moreover, the engine surprised by being “inaudible, with no trace that it is running, apart from a mild exhaust mutter”.

Light steering, with a taxi-lock was praised, and it was said that the engine would pull away from 3mph in top gear, just as well unless you cared for a “European whine” from the indirect gears. This Ihd car had rear brakes only, which pulled it up in 50ft from 25mph but with much deviation from straight ahead, and cold starting was not prompt. (The later improvements were perhaps a little overdue!) The Franklin’s dash was in the American idiom, plebian to European and British taste, but sensible. A tiny H-gate contained the lamps switches, strangler, ignition-switch, primer, and the lights’ dimmer. The side lamps were separate from the parking lamp, with their own little switch. A matching panel held the ignition advance-and-retard lever and there was a throttle lever on the hub of the four-spoke steering wheel. The gear lever was the typically long, willowy USA gearstick, placed centrally, as was the accelerator, with a rh brake lever. You started the smooth engine, that ran warm but didn’t overcook itself, with a foot button. It took the tester up Newlands Corner hill from Ripley at never under 20mph, in top cog.

One Englishman who enjoyed his Franklin was the novelist and writer Gilbert Frankau. He bought a used Franklin, a make of which he had scarcely heard, as a replacement for his Armstrong Siddeley limousine. A 30hp black and red sports coupe, presumably an “Airman”, it was delivered by a Mr A H Clarke, perhaps from Franklin Motors, and what clinched the deal were the Reg letters GF. The very first time Frankau drove the car it “spat at me like a wildcat and developed a shimmy in her full elliptic springing that made her solid steering column feel like india-rubber and nearly hurled me off the Coinbrook by-pass”. But the misfire was traced to loose wires in the Delco coil-ignition system and “an unscrewed king-pin” caused the other disaster, Frankau took his new possession to the Continent and with it open and without goggles, on “. that Sunny October morning drove down the long grey roads of France”, Mid-way between Avignon and Frejus, he tells us, “. . where one swings right for Sainte Maxime and Beauvallon, the road switchbacks. Down one of those switchbacks Frankie’s (the car had obviously to be named “Frankie”!) slightly optimistic speedometer touched 90mph.”

It was in his Franklin that Gilbert Frankau, wanting to get the atmosphere of motor-racing for his novel “Christopher Strong”, drove down to Brooklands, where Sammy Davis took him for some fast laps of the Mountain circuit in the sports-racing 4 1/2-litre Invicta. Franklau thought it dangerous, or pretended to. But when the novelist went down to the Track a day or so later, it was to see Davis lose the Invicta in the rain during a Mountain race at the 1931 Easter Meeting and slide uncontrollably down the banking into a telegraph pole, breaking his thigh… (I know all this because when the MOTOR SPORT offices were in City Road there was a used bookshop not far away, in which I used to browse. There I picked up Frankau’s autobiography, Self Portrait, and began to look through it. The publishers had listed the personalities the book contained. I glanced at it and my heart missed a beat as I read “S C H Davis” and then “Sir Dehane Segrave”. I had to have the thing, and was not disappointed, although at the time I thought the 2/-(20p) charged for it was a bit steep…

To maintain their reputation for good long-lived cars, Franklin signed a contract in July 1928 with “Cannon Ball” Baker, who undertook to think up runs that would endorse their integrity. He beat, it seems, many long-distance trains, and drove a Franklin from coast-to-coast in 69hr 31min, never stopping its engine. He also made six consecutive ascents of the famous Pikes Peak hill, at an average speed of 34.4mph, again with the engine running non-stop, and with a special 4WD Franklin broke the highly coveted record for this hill. There were also many other high-speed runs. To add to this, it was the time of the world-acclaimed Lindbergh solo Atlantic crossing in his Ryan monoplane (never, however, forget that Britain did the crossing long before that, with an R-R engined Vickers Vimy biplane, but with pilot and navigator, under very dicey conditions). “Lindy” ran a Franklin “Airman” as did other aviators like Amelia Earhart, Donald Douglas, Frank Hawkes, and Glenn Curtis. A lot of aluminium, including for the pistons from an early date, went into the Franklin, the “Simplify and Add Lightness” theory, and the Pikes Peak engine was subsequently flown in a Waco biplane. In New York a Rockefeller ordered a Franklin.

The earlier design development had been in the hands of J Frank de Causse, but after his death in 1928 the new cars were the work of Ray Dietrich. Franklin did not rest on its laurels. By 1929 the demonstrations had come to England, when a car was RAC-observed to run from London to Glasgow in bottom gear, involving the engine in a 40hr non-stop stint, lubricated by Castrol oil. At Olympia there was a concessionaire at last Regent Motors, with Mr Cameron Tetley in charge who showed the new 4,4-litre Type 135, and the small Type 130 was also available. The later models had used a smaller fan to cool the copper-finned cylinders, absorbing 50% less power, which had increased from 65 to 95bhp at 3200rpm, so that maximum speed rose to 80mph, although The Autocar got only 64mph from the 4.4-litre 1929 35cwt £820 saloon. By 1930 the big Type 147 was a modern-looking and impressive car.

The chassis was of steel after 1927 but this implied no shortcomings in the former wood frames; rumour had it that it was now too costly to import ash from the Pacific North-West and wait five years while it seasoned. Otherwise old man Franklin continued with his theme that “Water freezes at about 30deg, and boils at 112deg”, and he sponsored Chicago’s National Air Races. So it continued. Comdr Byrd used Franklin engines for his Antarctic Expedition, and in the heat of the desert the King of the Hedjaz found Franklin cars to serve him satisfactorily. Ambition led to the supercharged “Airman” and even to a 6.8-litre V12 version, also blown in both senses, commanding a tax here of £57. L C Rawlence, the OM people, took these on. But I wonder how many they sold, or even imported? That was in 1934, but by then you could no longer visit the London Show and order a Franklin.

In America sales had been falling, from 6036 in 1930 to 2851 in 1931, 1905 in 1932 and, with the Wall Street Crash, to 1011 in 1933 and a mere 360 in the first months of 1934. The golden years were well and truly over, But those who now seek out old cars may be inspired by the fact that it was estimated from registrations in 1929 that 75% of all Franklins built since 1902 were then still in use and it was thought that many more must still exist in hiding. And in 1963 a Type 147 sedan was discovered in New Jersey, somewhat tired after 133,000 miles; it was restored and was going splendidly in 1977, after a further 7000 miles.W B