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White Motor Company

an automobile manufacturer that began as a sewing machine manufacturer

The White Sewing Machine Company was founded by Thomas H. White, George Baker, and D'Arcy Porter in Templeton, Massachusetts, in 1858, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1866. The company prospered, and all three of White's sons -- Walter, Rollin, and Windsor -- joined him in the business.

In 1900, Rollin White patented a semi-flash boiler for a steam powered automobile he had designed. Unable to sell his steam car idea to other builders, he and his brothers built their own work shop in a section of the sewing machine factory. Fifty automobiles had been built by the end of that year, but Thomas White convinced his sons that the cars should be thoroughly tested before being put up for sale. After three months of testing, they were ready for sale in April of 1901. The White Motor Company was formed as a division of the White Sewing Machine Company that same year, with Walter as president, Windsor in charge of marketing, and Rollin in charge of manufacturing and design.

1902 White Steamer
1902 White Steamer

The White Steamer was an immediate success, and that success was bolstered when Rollin won a ten-mile race at in a Steamer at Detroit's Fair Grounds in 1901, and again in 1902, when he drove a specially designed racing car in the Glenville Track in Cleveland. In 1904 Rollin won a gold medal at the St. Louis World's Fair for his steam engines, which were used in trucks called Stanhopes. White Steamers also took part, very sucessfully, in endurance tests of the day.

Rollin White in his 1903 White Racer, which broke the 5-mile record at Cleveland
Rollin White in a 1903 White Racer

By 1906 the White Motor Company had far outgrown its parent company, and it was split off as a completely separate entity, The White Company, that same year (with Windsor as president and Walter as vice-president). It introduced its first vehicle under that name in 1909.

The White Company logo

The 1909 model White Steamer gained special status when President William Howard Taft selected it as the official Presidential Automobile. Taft was not the first President to ride in a White Steamer, however, as Theodore Roosevelt had ridden in one while visiting Puerto Rico in 1902; he also became the first sitting President to ride in an automobile at that time.

the 1909 White used by President William Howard Taft
the 1909 White used by President William Howard Taft

White began producing gasoline powered automobiles in 1910, and stopped production of steam automobiles in 1911, after having made and sold 9,122 White Steamers.

In addition to gasoline powered automobiles, White also began making trucks in 1910. In 1912, The White Company teamed with Riddle Hearse and Ambulance Company of Ravenna, Ohio, to manufacture the chassis and Riddle the bodies. This was due to a fire that partially destroyed the Riddle Factory in 1911, and the White Company was just a short distance away. White sold these vehicles through their dealerships.

1913 White-Riddle Ambulance
1913 White-Riddle Ambulance

1915 White-Riddle Hearse
1915 White-Riddle Hearse

1916 White Model 20 Moving Truck
1916 White Model 20 Moving Truck

In 1916, Rollin White left The White Company and formed the Cleveland Motor Plow Company to manufacture a tractor he had developed. The company's name was changed to Cleveland Tractor Company in 1917, and Cletrac was devised as a trade mark in 1918. As had his Steamer, Rollin's tractors quickly became very popular, and remained so until 1944, when the company was purchased by Oliver Corporation.

Despite the loss of Rollin, The White Company continued to prosper. By the time the United States entered the First World War sales of White trucks had overtaken those of White automobiles, and the company ceased producing automobiles altogether in 1918. By the end of the war White had manufactured 18,000 trucks for the U.S. Army. Many of those trucks were sold off as army surplus after the war, and White quickly became one of the world's largest producers of trucks.

Like many other manufacturers of "luxury goods," the White Company suffered a serious drop in sales during the Depression. The company merged with Studebaker in 1932, but independently reorganized as the White Motor Corporation two years later. Spurred by military orders for its trucks during World War II, White was again on top of the world truck market by the end of the war. During the postwar period, White Motor acquired leadership in the heavy-truck and the farm-equipment fields by purchasing small truck makers and small farm-machinery companies, including, ironically, Oliver Corporation.

1952 Sterling White Dump Truck
1952 Sterling White Dump Truck

The last "original White" to run the White Motor Corporation was Walter, who died in a traffic accident in 1929. Although the company continued to enjoy tremendous sales and profits into the 1970's, decades of mismanagement had by then begun taking a toll. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1980, and all of its truck-producing facilities (except for the one in Cleveland) were purchased by Sweden's AB Volvo the following year. White sold its Cleveland plant in 1983, and the White Motor Corporation ceased to exist in 1985. Volvo retired the White brand in the late 1990s.

WEB SOURCES
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History ech.case.edu
History of Early American Automobile Industry www.earlyamericanautomobiles.com

SEE ALSO
St. Louis World's Fair
President William Howard Taft
Theodore Roosevelt
First World War
World War II

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The Robinson Library >> Technology >> Motor Vehicles

This page was last updated on May 15, 2017.