The history of the Cole Motor Car Company begins with its founder, Joseph Jarrett Cole, (1869–1925) who was born, March 23rd 1869, on a farm near Connersville, Indianapolis. After graduating from high school and then attended the Richmond Business College. He settled in Indianapolis in 1888. Cole started working in the carriage business as a salesman (1888-1896) for the largest carriage building company in the world, The Parry Manufacturing Company. He operated in Philadelphia, Toronto and Saint Louis. While in Saint Louis he was approached by The Joseph W Moon Buggy Company (Later to become The Moon Motor Car Company) to take on the southwest area of Texas to sell their carriages and coaches (1896-1904). Working on a commission basis Cole was soon ready to take the next step. In November 1904, Cole purchased a fifty per cent interest in the Gates-Osborne Carriage Company of Indianapolis for a reputed $25,000. He became president, a position he held all his life, and changed the name to The Cole Carriage Company on December 4, 1905. The company was known for its full range of vehicles.
Cole began to think seriously again about building an automobile in early 1908. The first The Cole Solid Tire Automobile was ready for inspection on October 9, 1908. The car was designed by Cole and Charles S Crawford (who later worked for Stutz). It was a modern high‑wheeler with solid rubber tyres built for the road conditions of the day. Legends continue that the vehicle had no brakes. It is said to have been discovered when he tried to slow when going around the ‘Soldiers Monument’, in downtown Indianapolis, and so the car was driven around the monument until it ran out of fuel. A second car was finished and presented to the directors of the company on June 1, 1909. This second automobile must have made quite an impression as the board agreed to change the company’s name to The Cole Motor Car Company on June 22, 1909.
The Cole automobile was never made for the working class but aimed mainly at the middle classes. The buyers they had in mind would appreciate a more reliable manufacture would mean that it would be reliable in use. With reasonable prices, and enough power for country roads it was hoped it would appeal to doctors and other professionals who customers and clients would be enthused to purchase one for themselves. The solid tyres meant it would be free from the cost and delay caused by puncture repairs and replacements. The wheel base was 87 inches. The front wheels measured 36 inches and the rear ones were 2 inches larger. It had a two-cylinder, four-cycle, air-cooled engine. Producing 14 horsepower it weighed 1200 lbs. and cost $750.00. They rented premises for the new company at 750 East Washington Street, Indianapolis. Although the car was not by any means a market leader they had a new design in progress which was far more sophisticated and would make Cole a market leader for the next decade.
- 1909: Cole becomes the first manufacturer to test each and every automobile on the road and tunes-up under actual driving conditions.
- 1910: Cole is the first manufacturer to fit Firestone tyres with demountable rims as standard equipment.
- 1911: Another first when four doors are made standard equipment on Cole cars. Cole cars competed in various races around the country, Vanderbilt Cup, Elgin Road Race most famously winning at with Endicott at the wheel 1st October 1910, and including the first auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911. Some of the early cars could reach speeds of more than 65 mph. One Cole motor was mounted in a biplane which in 1911 flew from California to Florida. Cole Motors conceived new and creative ways to advertise. A gas-filled balloon, Cole cigars, and even a baseball team to boost their sales. Soon, Cole realised they needed manufacturing space. The company constructed a four-story, reinforced concrete plant in 1911 covering 66,000 sq. ft. of space on the southwest corner of Market and Davidson streets in Indianapolis. As demand increased, Cole decided to expand in 1913 and then again in 1919. The main building remains to this day at 730 East Washington Street, Indianapolis.
- 1912: Adopts the Prest-O-Lite self-starter as standard
- 1913: Cole cars become known as "The Standardized Car." J. J. Cole believed that a supplier who specialized in making only one or a few parts could do a better job than a major manufacturer trying to make all components themselves. He reflected his belief by adopting the phrase "The Standardized Car" for his product, meaning that Cole used components that were ‘the standard for quality in the industry’. Among the advertising campaigns the company ran, one that merits mention, happened on July 26th 1913 when they ran a six page advert in the Saturday Evening Post, making it the largest car advert ever taken to that date.
- 1915: Cole introduces the first V-8 engine with detachable heads.
- 1923: Uses balloon tires as standard equipment on the Volante model.
- 1924: Has the first balloon tyre equipped car to pace the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. For a time, Cole was the second largest manufacturer, in total sales, in its price range with only Cadillac being larger. Having had many years of growth, both physically and in popularity, Cole began losing money in the recession that followed World War I. This recession brought a nationwide decline in all business activity not just automobile sales. The success of the mass-produced car which was low cost had a dramatic impact on volume sales of Cole cars and others of that class. Although production stopped completely in October 1924 sales of held stocks continued.
In January 1925, while his company was still solvent, J. J. Cole chose to liquidate rather than risk the remaining assets of the company. The Cole Motor Car Company manufactured a total of nearly 41,000 automobiles. Each model was made with the best materials available, by a workforce whose craftsmanship had grown in the 15 years they had been employed and the designs used were market leaders for that time. Joseph Jarret Cole died in 1925 at the age of 56.
(Text from 'Cole, The Man, The Motor', copyright P Johnston 2013, photographs courtesy of Library of Congress Archive and P Johnston)