Fort Worth

There once was a time when Fort Worth had that new-car smell - from auto makers

General Motors plant in Arlington to be powered by wind

The GM Assembly Plant in Arlington gets half its electricity from wind and by 2018 will be fully wind powered officials say.
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The GM Assembly Plant in Arlington gets half its electricity from wind and by 2018 will be fully wind powered officials say.

For a brief time a century ago, Fort Worth was a Dixie Detroit as new cars were shake, rattle and rolling off two assembly lines.

On May 12, 1916, the Star-Telegram had announced that General Motors, lured to town by the promise of tax breaks, would build a Chevrolet plant in Fort Worth. In April 1917 the auto plant, in a huge U-shaped building with dozens of big windows, opened on the south side of West Seventh Street just west of Trinity Park.

In May 1917 the Chevrolet plant rolled out its first roadster, which was promptly wrecked by Star-Telegram vice president and general manager Amon Carter Sr. (Carter was said to be an avid motorist but a terrible driver).

In 1920 the plant employed 500 workers and assembled 4,700 cars.

But in 1922, when General Motors lost some of its tax breaks from the city, it closed the plant and announced plans to sell the property. The Chamber of Commerce hoped the building would find a new life.

It did. In 1924 Montgomery Ward leased the building and moved from its East Seventh Street location downtown. Montgomery Ward occupied the old Chevy plant until the new Ward’s building was completed on the other side of West Seventh Street in 1928.

The Chevy building was demolished in the 1980s.

Meanwhile in Dallas, in 1917 brothers Will and James Vernor formed the Texas Motor Car Association and began selling stock.

The Vernor brothers raised enough money by 1918 to build a factory on the Cleburne Pike (now McCart Street), and the city of Fort Worth agreed to extend streetcar service for the 125 employees in that then-remote area.

The factory built cars and trucks called “Texan” (“first in endurance, durability, and speed”), which were designed for Texas driving conditions with oversized tires (33 inches) and oversized engines (a beastly 35 horsepower). The cars had a wooden dashboard, a rumble seat and a sticker price of $1,000 ($17,000 today). At its peak, the Texan factory turned out 20 cars and trucks a day.

The Elkhart Carriage and Motor Car Co. of Elkhart, Indiana, which manufactured the Elcar automobile, supplied coachwork for some Texan cars.

Despite poor sales in the automobile market nationally in 1921, the Texas Motor Car Association was optimistic, expanding the Fort Worth factory and opening a branch in New Orleans.

But that optimism was short-lived. By 1922 the company had ceased production, hurt by a factory fire, the post-World War I flu epidemic and competition from Ford’s Model T and Chevy’s Four Ninety model (named for its original list price).

In 1922 the Monkey Grip Rubber Co. took over the Texan factory and sold off the remaining inventory at reduced prices.

About 2,000 Texan cars and 1,000 Texan trucks were built. Only a few survive. One of them is on display in the building that housed the Texan factory, which today is the home of Martin Sprocket and Gear Co.

Mike Nichols blogs about Fort Worth history at www.hometownbyhandlebar.com.

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