The Kissel Kar
When I was a young enthusiast contemplating what sportscar I would own had I been able to afford one I put British makes on my imaginative buyer’s-list, but ignored cars like the Stutz Bearcat and Mercer Raceabout, not because I regarded them as inferior but because I knew very little about them. Of later sportscars, my preference was for the Bentleys with their exciting Le Mans victories, the 3-litre Sunbeam because of its Grand Prix-type twin-cam engine and the fabulously desirable 36/220hp and 38/250hp supercharged Mercedes-Benz, especially after I had experienced my first 100mph on the public road as a schoolboy passenger in one of the 36/220 four-seaters. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that I came to appreciate the special qualities of the Alfonso Hispano Suiza. Before war had come I had had every opportunity of realising that the Type 43/57SC Bugattis were amongst the most desirable cars there were, the very fastest, the safest-handling motorcars, that made all the right noises.
In this wonderful dream world of fast cars, Brooklands, Donington Park, winter mud-trials and the overweight Show Numbers of The Autocar and The Motor, American fast cars, such as the Stutz Black Hawk and the Model-J Duesenberg, were seen as strangers, about which not much was known. And when the Kissel Kar Gold Bug arrived on the scene it was put aside in the mind as something just “too Yankee”, although one had a sneaking desire to know what it was intended to be.
In fact, in the beginning the Kissel wasn’t a sportscar at all. It was the idea and product of two of the four Kissel brothers, George and Will, of a prosperous family residing in Wisconsin, which it had been responsible for developing, after the father had emigrated from Germany. Having in 1905, built an experimental automobile in the family factory, which made farm implements, the two boys, still in their twenties, were ready a year later to launch the Kissel among the few well-established makes already sharing a market which Henry Ford was soon to dominate. They went for a simple runabout type of vehicle, but with a four-cylinder motor and shaft-drive. So it seems unlikely that the Kissel family’s White steam car and the single-pot stationary engines one of their businesses made for farm use; had much influence.
Better was to follow. While they improved their own engine the boys installed Beaver motors, and they apparently employed a sleigh maker to construct the bodywork for them. It was good enough for their Milwaukee agent to suggest the name Kissel Kar and for a Chicago distributor to order 100 cars, if a less expensive radiator was fitted, which brought in a profit of 25,000 dollars. Incidentally, the new rounded radiator was still reasonably distinctive, whereas in later times all American cars looked much the same, be they Chevrolet, Buick, Dodge, Durant, Dort, Maxwell. Hudson, Oldsmobile, Studebaker, etc. Very soon the Kissel Company took on Herman Palmer, an engineer from the University of Cologne, and he was responsible for the sound concept of the cars, or “kars”, and the introduction of many good innovations.
Overcoming the dreadful murder in his office of their father Louis, and the complexity of building to order almost any kind of motor vehicle anyone needed, in that tragic year of 1908 they took on another valuable employee, the body specialist Friedrich Werner who had been a respected coachbuilder at Opel in Germany and who was expert in choosing the right kinds of timber for such work and blending them correctly. So in the pre-1914 era Kissel was well served in that area. Incidentally, in spite of the original single make-name, two “Ks” were now used, for the Kissel Kar. By 1909 the range of models was not only in capable hands but the range was sensible, comprising the four-cylinder “Light Four” of 4 1/2×4 3/4in bore and stroke, the “Regular Four” of 4 3/4×4 3/4in, and the 60hp “Big Six”, made easily possible because the engines had paired cylinders, so this model simply used three pairs from the “Regular Four”. Wheelbases varied from 8ft 11in to 10ft 8in, prices from 1350 to 3000 dollars. In 1910 another radiator shape, styled on that of the Mercedes, was introduced, adorned with a badge or “button” biased to the off-side, which persisted until 1929.
By now, the Company had its own foundry, a drop-forge, and its own body shop. Electric lighting and starting, by a 75rpm motor, were a fifty dollar extra in 1913. Up to this time the four-cylinder cars had earned a fine reputation and it is said that only the 1914 6-48 model, which had an en bloc Wisconsin engine, was troublesome, tending to overheat and break camshafts and crankshafts. In 1915 came a sort of pioneer hard-top, called the “All-Year” top, but it presented the usual problem of where to store it in fine weather, and this one was apparently inclined to warp if left in a damp garage during the summer and proved difficult or impossible to re-fit, too much force sometimes shattering the glass.
The war years — for Europe — saw the innovative Kissel 6-38, with 3 3/4x5in monobloc engine developing 52bhp, and a Double-Six, apeing Packard, a short-lived, not very successful design using an Indianapolis-built Wiedley ohv engine. At this time Kissel claimed as a “first” the Stewart system of vacuum petrol-feed from a rear-mounted tank, said to be the idea of racing driver Webb Jay (What price our Autovac?) After the war Kissel began to think in more sporting terms. Their double-drop chassis was well-suited to such concepts. A semi-racer with bolster tank, somewhat on Stutz and Mercer lines, had been drawn in 1911 and there were plans to combine the Silver Apperson V8 Speedster, with four outside exhaust-pipes on each side of the bonnet, to a Kissel chassis in 1917. At the 1918 New York Auto Show, with the war behind them, Kissel made a notable impression with its all-yellow “Silver Special” Speedster. But the war period had seen far more commercial Kissels built than cars, with 4WD trucks for the American Army predominating. Up to mid 1928 Kissel used its well-proven L-head six-cylinder engines, gaining more power by increases in compression-ratio and two dimensional changes etc, and in 1921 the 6-45 model was given forced lubrication and thermostatic control of water heat, but it wasn’t until about 1926 that cast-iron pistons were replaced by Lynite aluminium pistons. Three-quarter elliptic back springs had been changed for half-elliptics in the middle1920s, requiring a longer chassis frame.
It was said that this time celebrities who bought Kissels included Fatty Arbuckle, Al Johnson, the air-woman Amelia Earhart, and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, both of whom apparently owned several Kissels, while Rudy Vallee had a “Gold Bug”. Even the great racing driver Ralph de Palma was reported as favouring a Kissel. The name “Gold Bug” for the yellow-painted Speedster was apparently chosen as a result of a readers’ ballot (prize five dollars) organised by the motoring editor of the Milwaukee Journal, after he had been loaned one of those Kissels for a long-term road-test, during which he covered 4978 miles in 1919 and pronounced the Kissel Speedster one of the best all-round cars in its class. Certainly the Kissel 6-45, which had a 61 bhp motor, and the 6-55 of 1923, were accepted as good cars, looking like custom-built automobiles, although not often fitted with specially-built bodywork. Indeed, figures released for the year 1923 showed that car production had numbered 2123, against 99 trucks. And improvements continued to be made. By 1924 the new balloon tyres were an optional extra, as were Lockheed hydraulic four-wheel-brakes, the latter at first a 75-dollar extra. A smaller straight-eight was offered, with a Lycoming engine of 2 7/88 x 4 1/2in, installed in the 6-55 chassis, with a wheelbase of 10ft 5in or 10ft 10in, which enabled customers to enjoy multi-cylinder motoring for just 300 dollars more than if they had bought the 9ft 9in-wheelbase Lycoming Six. And for 1928 there was the big luxury Kissel 8-90, with the 8-75 engine bored out by 1/16th and the compression-ratio raised. This, in Speedster form, with a claim of 115bhp and 100mph, was the car that had made me curious when! had first heard of it.
But did the Kissel ever come to London, England? Oh boy, it sure did! This came about because by 1924 the American Motors Export Corporation, with premises at 292 Regent Street, W1, had decided to import these cars. They started bringing over the 27/6hp model, with its 4326cc six-cylinder engine, the chassis of which they priced at £415 with Delco Remy ignition, Stromberg carburettor and wooden wheels with detachable rims. Complete five-seater Kissels started at £560, and the long-stroke engine (84.1 x 130.2mm) called for an annual tax of £27. The Press was provided with a test car the following year, which turned out to be a big saloon, with a wheelbase of 10ft 1in and gear-ratios as high as 14, 10.4 and 4.49 to 1. It returned 17 to 18mpg of petrol on British by-ways, and the body was described as very comfortable, more so than that of most American saloons. Acceleration was prompt and smooth, top speed about 60mph, and there were locks not only for the doors and ignition-switch but also for the gear lever — which possibly appeared rather unnecessary in the crimefree British Isles of those 1920s. During one road test of XW 3744, the release springs for the o/s front contracting brake became inoperative, but it was reported that the binding band had no effect on the steering, and the smoothness and positive action of the Lockheed “anchors” received much praise. Releasing some of the fluid from the offending brake cured the problem, anyway. The springing was slightly hard, the steering a bit heavy on full lock and it had no castor-return action. There was a luggage rack, with metal strips on the back panel of the body to prevent luggage damaging the paintwork, and the use of fixed cycle-type front “fenders” which did not join the running boards allowed low mounting of the ugly side-located spare tyre and rim. This £675 Kissel would pull up from 40mph in 110 feet, and the agents had nine other body styles on offer. In 1925, also, a stand was occupied at Olympia by both six-cylinder and straight-eight models, the latter with such features as a flywheel at each end of the crankshaft, the oil supply controlled by the throttle, and less usual then, an oil-cleaner and carburettor air-cleaner. The 4711cc saloon cost £1125. But it must have been the Speedster or Roadster which caught the eye, as they say, of the sporting fraternity. But was its Yankee appearance, emphasised by the fixed cycle-type mudguards used for the other models, its cutaway cockpit-sides, its bagged hood prominent behind the seats, the little sidesteps for entry and exit and the pull-out rumble-seat and American style bumpers, a prelude to playboy motoring? Or was it, remembering how American owners alleged that this Speedster would cruise all day, every day, at 85mph, a challenge to British and European sportscars? The bag of golf clubs carried on one side were somewhat off-putting (some other American two-seaters had a horizontal tunnel for the stowage of these clubs) but Sydney Dawson automatic chassis lubrication, wire wheels and alloy pistons and con-rods seemed a bonus. The price-tag was £650, which seemed very reasonable.
We shall never know. Because what the importers must have hoped would be a golden era was all over by 1926, except that Savoy Motors Ltd, of Great Portland Street, had by then acquired the agency, perhaps hoping to sell off new cars that had failed to find buyers. In the USA, too, things were not going well. The Kissels were mainly too high-priced and the post-war depression years had not helped; a 750,000-dollar mortgage had been needed at that time. The published output was 2123 cars in 1923, 803 as new models were being prepared in 1924, 2122 in 1925 as the new sixes and eight sold well. But then a possible merger with Nash (not Frazer Nash) failed to work and a financially sound one with Packard was refused. The production figures then deteriorated: 1147, 1068, 889, 221, 93 and 16, as annual outputs, down to 1931. These were of private cars, but the Company held on by making trucks, taxis and hearses etc. Even the 1929 “White Knight” 8-126 Speedster failed to save the day, and after some commercial deals had made no headway, the Receiver was called in in 1930. George Kissel died suddenly in 1942 and Will didn’t want to continue a business which had been reduced to making a variety of engineering products and even chairs, and he sold out to the West Bond Aluminium Company.
So died a rather individual motor-car. I do not know whether or not the Kissel house colour of canary yellow (or Desert Sand) helped; during the war “kar” was dropped, as sounding too German. WB