Wisconsin today is noted for beer, cheese and Harley Davidson motorcycles – in roughly that order. It was also a minor player in the history of America’s automobile industry when, for the better part of a century, it was home to American Motors Corporation (nee Nash Motors, nee the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company) of Kenosha, a blue-collar community on the Lake Michigan shore in the southeastern corner of the state.
In the early days of the automobile, though, nearly everyone with some mechanical skill and access to the right machinery was trying his hand at building cars and this was as true of Wisconsin as it was of Michigan, Indiana or Ohio. One such industrious denizen of America’s Dairyland was George Kissel of Hartford, Wis., who, with his brother William, founded the Kissel Motor Car Company and for 25 short years built some of America’s finest cars.
Louis and Catherine Kissel were German immigrants who moved to Wisconsin to take up farming and raise a family. In 1882 they settled in Hartford, a small town about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee, where they began acquiring land, built homes to sell, opened a hardware store, a grocery store and started manufacturing farm implements.
In 1905 Louis and his son George started the Kissel Manufacturing Company to build gasoline engines for agricultural applications. That same year George and his brother William built a small, rudimentary automobile and an 18 horsepower engine to power it. The brothers decided to try their hand at manufacturing automobiles and in 1906 organized the Kissel Motor Car Company. Being loyal sons of Wisconsin, the Kissel’s called their early cars “Badgers” but when they learned that two other fledgling Wisconsin auto makers were also calling their products Badgers they adopted the name Kissel Kar instead.
Early Kissel Kars were offered in three different body styles and were priced from $1,800 to $2,150 fully equipped (more than $50,000 in today’s dollars.) In a later product catalogue Kissel also claimed credit for offering America’s first “all-year car” which “changed the habits of a nation by making winter driving popular.” That car, the All Year Gibraltar Sedan, featured a removable hard top that allowed the owner to switch between a weather proof closed car and an open touring car as the seasons changed.
Through the company’s early years its product line and reputation grew. By 1909 it was offering cars with wheelbases from 107 to 128 inches and a new 60 horsepower six cylinder for its larger cars (Ford’s new Model T only made 20 horsepower). Kissels were also winning races, taking first place in a 1910 Los Angeles-to-Phoenix competition by making the 483 mile trip in 15 hours, 44 minutes, besting the second place Franklin by almost four hours.
One of Kissel’s most notable models was the two-seat Speedster, introduced in 1918. Though it was available in several colors, Chrome Yellow was by far the most popular and the car was affectionately nicknamed “The Gold Bug”. In 1919 the Milwaukee Journal’s famed automotive columnist William “Brownie” Rowland toured Wisconsin in a Gold Bug and even raced an airplane in one from Marshfield to Milwaukee. Brownie won the race, though he was given a three hour head start.
Branding their products Kissel Kars was, no doubt, a nod to their German heritage but with the advent of World War I when public sentiment regarding Kaiser Wilhelm and all things German turned sour the Kissels thought it best to drop ‘Kar’ from the name and redesigned the badges to simply say ‘Kissel’. They also added an image of the Roman god Mercury, a logo which they would relinquish to Ford in the 1930s.
Kissels were advertised as being custom built and the company never adopted the assembly line production techniques that allowed car makers such as Ford to mass produce large numbers of cars. This made it difficult for Kissel to compete with popular priced cars and when the Great Depression hit in 1929 the Kissels struggled to meet their financial obligations and were forced to endure a difficult bankruptcy proceeding in 1931, ending automobile production in Hartford.
George and William Kissel retained ownership of the facilities and rebuilt their business as Kissel Industries, manufacturing outboard motors for Sears and Roebuck which sold them under the Waterwitch brand. After George’s death in 1942, William Kissel decided it was time to turn the operations over to someone else and sold the business to the West Bend Aluminum Company which continued building outboard motors for Sears under the Elgin brand.
Chrysler bought West Bend’s marine division in 1965 to form Chrysler Outboard Corporation and produced marine engines there until 1984 when it sold the operation to Bayliner. Bayliner renamed it U.S. Marine Power but sold it to the Brunswick Corporation two years later. Brunswick closed the facility in 1992, ending 86 years of manufacturing history at the site. Though nothing remains of the Kissel’s operations, two new businesses now operate at the approximate location of the former factory, Steel Craft Corporation which makes custom order steel products for other businesses and Sno Way International which makes ice and snow removal equipment.
Kissels never sold in large numbers but were considered some of the highest quality automobiles of their day and were favored by celebrities such as Douglas Fairbanks, Al Jolson, Greta Garbo, Fatty Arbuckle and boxer Jack Dempsey. Famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her mother were the talk of the nation when they made a daring cross-country drive in Earhart’s Gold Bug in 1924, a 7000 mile excursion that included detours into Canada. (Earhart’s car, which she nicknamed the Yellow Peril, is on display at the Forney Museum of Transportation in Denver, Colorado.)
The full history of this short-lived but remarkable company is preserved and displayed in Hartford’s Wisconsin Automotive Museum. It houses a large collection of Kissels, many of them on loan from private collectors, as well as some Kenosha-built Nash cars and trucks. The two-story museum is housed in a former Libby canning factory and is also home to the Southeastern Wisconsin Short Track Hall of Fame. A number of miscellaneous cars are also on display including a 1934 Steyr, Peter Gilbert’s 1989 “Million Mile” Saab 900 Turbo, the only Jensen Interceptor that I have ever seen in person and another Wisconsin-built car, a 1967 Excalibur II, designed by famed Milwaukee designer Brooks Stevens.