Another Obscure Wisconsin Car Maker: J. I. Case

case radiator

Chances are you’ve never seen this radiator cap, and probably never will.

In the earliest days of the twentieth century it seemed that nearly anyone with the mechanical skills and access to machinery tried his hand at building automobiles.  Jerome Increase Case didn’t live quite long enough to see the dawn of the automobile age but the company that bore his name would, for a brief time, play a minor role in the history of car manufacturing in Wisconsin.

Hoping to find his fortune in America’s burgeoning west (what we now call the midwest), Case moved to Wisconsin in 1842 in the hopes of manufacturing a threshing machine for harvesting wheat.  Like so many successful entrepreneurs, he started with someone else’s design, made a number of improvements and in 1844 established the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company in Racine, Wis.  His business partners continued operations after his death in 1891 and, seeing an opportunity to cash in on the increasing popularity of the automobile, bought Racine’s Pierce Motor Company* in 1910.

case model x

1923 Case Model X. Originally sold to a Colorado farmer and Case dealer.

Case immediately changed the name of the car from Pierce-Racine to Case but initially changed little else, including the unique T-head 4-cylinder engine.  By 1914, however, Case had expanded the model range to include the Model R rated at 25 horsepower, the Model S at 35 horsepower and the Model O at 40 horsepower.  R and S models were left-hand drive while the O, which was discontinued in 1915, was right-hand drive.  In 1916 Case changed to a 4-cylinder L-head engine of its own design and in 1918 switched to an inline six that it bought from the Continental Motor Company.

case engine

Unique T-head engine features two 2-cylinder, cross flow heads connected to a common shaft. Intake is on this side of the engine, exhaust on the opposite side, coolant is piped in from the top.

Case took a brief run at auto racing, entering the Indianapolis 500 in 1911, 1912 and 1913.  None of its cars finished the first two years but a Case entry placed eighth in 1913, the last year the company would compete.

Case automobiles were more expensive than mass-market cars from Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge and though they were also better equipped (standard equipment included a jack, tools, a tire repair kit, an electric horn and even an eight-day clock!), their higher prices would put them out of the reach of many car buyers and annual sales were never particularly strong.  The company’s best year was 1916 when it sold a little over 3000 units and in 17 years of production Case built only 27,000 cars.  Since its agricultural products were far more important to its bottom line, Case got out of the automobile business in 1927.

1914 case

Unrestored 1914 Model S. Believed to have been originally sold in Illinois, it was stored in a barn in upstate New York for 50 years.

Today you are probably more likely to be struck by lightning than to see a Case automobile as only about 150 of them are believed to exist.  The two pictured here were on display at this year’s Rock River Thresheree, an annual celebration of vintage farming and steam technology.  Case was the featured brand and members of the J. I. Case Collectors Association brought a large assortment of Case machinery.

case tractors

Two early Case tractors, featured products at the 2013 Rock River Thresheree.

About That Eagle

old abe

Not just any eagle, that’s Old Abe, a Wisconsin legend.

Case adopted this eagle as its company logo in 1865.  This isn’t just any eagle, though, it’s a representation of Old Abe, the eagle that was adopted by Company C of Wisconsin’s Eight Infantry Regiment which was mustered in 1861 to fight in the Civil War.  Old Abe traveled with Company C and inspired the men through 37 battles.  It is even rumored that southern soldiers put a bounty on Old Abe’s head.  The bird survived the war and was returned to the state capitol where it died of smoke inhalation during a fire in 1881.  The remains were stuffed and remained on display until a fire destroyed the capitol building in 1904.  Old Abe lived on, though, as the emblem of the J. I. Case company until 1969.


* Pierce Motor Company was not related to Pierce-Arrow in any way.

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