This 1905 Mitchell Runabout, also known as the “Light Car,” is on display at the Racine Heritage Museum in Downtown Racine. The original price was $750.
BY JIM MERCIER
When you think of American automobile makers, Detroit is probably the first city that comes to mind. There was a time, however, when Racine was considered a formidable automobile manufacturing center as well. In fact, one of the world’s first automobiles was made here back in 1873, when Rev. John W. Carhart built a crude steam-powered vehicle that he drove on the streets of Racine.
Around the turn of the last century, automobile manufacturing mushroomed in cities throughout the country as the horseless age began, and Racine was no exception. Before long, automobiles with the “made in Racine” designation began to appear on the market. Some of the names may not sound familiar, but they all left their mark on Racine’s rich industrial history.
Perhaps the largest and best-known Racine automobile manufacturer was the Mitchell Motor Co. Production of the famous Mitchells began in 1903 by the Wisconsin Wheel Works, manufacturers of bicycles and motorcycles. In 1910, the company merged with the Mitchell-Lewis Wagon Co. to form the Mitchell-Lewis Motor Co.
Mitchell automobiles proved to be very reliable. The company’s use of assembly-line techniques, innovative mechanical improvements and extensive sales promotion helped grow the company into a leader in the automotive industry. By 1914, Mitchell’s two Racine plants covered over 30 acres and employment reached several thousand people.
In 1915, Cadillac came out with a V-8 engine, and Mitchell soon followed suit. Unfortunately, problems with the cooling and lubrication systems emerged, forcing Mitchell to drop the V-8 option by 1917. The company’s reputation was damaged and sales dropped drastically. Sales continued to slump, until the company was forced into bankruptcy in 1923.
Nash Motors of Kenosha bought the defunct Mitchell plant, and began to produce their Ajax and Lafayette models there until 1938, the last cars to be made in Racine.
Next month, we’ll dig into a few more Racine automobile manufacturers…some you may have never heard of! Stay tuned.
Local historian Jim Mercier is an avid collector of Racine historical memorabilia and displays some of his collection in the Racine Business Center’s Spirit of Entrepreneurs exhibit.