By Gerald Perschbacher
December 15, 1924: The Gardner Motor Car Company took a giant step forward with its new straight-eight engine. Little did the company realize that the cars they made were to be declared Full Classics more than more than eight decades later.
The Gardner automobile has a rich history. By 1890 in St. Louis, famous as the pioneers' and travelers' the Gateway to the West, the Russell Gardner family was operating full swing in the transportation business, claiming the title of largest exclusive maker of buggies. Those were the horse-drawn version, of course, since the automobile industry was still prenatal in America.
But as the automobile business came into being and grew, the buggy business was slipping. It nearly bottomed out around 1915. The Gardners (basically father and two sons) ventured into the car business when an agreement was struck with William C. Durant, soon after he was toppled as chairman of General Motors, his corporate creation. Some evidence to the contrary, by mid-1915 at the latest the Gardner family became the largest suppliers of bodies
For Durant's most recent venture, Chevrolet. It was the Model Four-Ninety (selling for $490) that was their gold strike, and a deal was made for the Gardners to be sole distributors up and down the Mississippi River. THAT was a HUGE market. Soon the operation that was buggy-turned-auto became a model of efficiency that Durants asked the rest of his company and outlets to emulate.
When the First World War sucked America into the fray, elder Mr. Gardner saw his boys go into the military, and he was not to be left holding the work bag for the entire business. The company sold its plant to Chevrolet. Happily, the war concluded sooner than most people expected, and by 1919 the three Gardners were willing to re-enter the car production business. This time it was under their own name. The Gardner automobile was the result.
Four-cylinder Lycoming engines power those early models. Those vehicles were good, reliable, and priced a step above the modest Model T Ford and Chevrolet Four-Ninety. Sales numbered in the thousands per year, which was sufficient for a wisely run company to flourish.
But something more was in store for Gardner. The family saw the virtues of the straight eight engine and went for it, big-time, right as the Christmas selling season was reaching its peak in 1924. Hence, the announcement that introduced this article.
Inline offerings were set before the public as a touring car and a brougham, "each to sell for $1,995," the company announced. "The new models will be displayed at the New York automobile show." This was no small stuff! "Both are five-passenger cars with long low-swung bodies mounbted on a 125-inch wheelbase chassis with a 7-inch frame housing and 6 cross members, two of which are of the tubular type. Balloon tires were included -- an innovation of the era that quickly took hold.
There had been a six cylinder version of the Gardner which was quite a fine car in itself. But the eight, well, was a dandy!
Among the notables are the series 75 and 80, plus the additional 85 and 90. These were said to capture "the spirit of today and the mode of tomorrow," said the factory (which by then had redeemed its former car plant from Chevrolet for more than one million dollars as that brand moved to a new factory several miles away but still in St. Louis).
The eights were "distinguished by coach=work fo that unmistakable dignity heretofore found only in a few costly cars. They are trimmed, appointed and equipped with the good taste of the Paris mode. And inside are the comforts of home!" Least expensive among those eights was the 75 sedan at $1,490 f.o.b. factory. Even on that model the trendy Fedco Theft-Proof numbering system was engaged.
The L-head eight was by Lycoming and had 226 cubic inches delivering 65 horsepower. The Series 80 was a little classier model, as were the 85 and 90 above it.
For the 85 and 90, the company said, "The age of mechanism, easy handling, luxurious comfort and complete accessories are all exemplified…to a degree of excellence and sophistication that is found only in the highest priced cars here and abroad….They invite minute comparison with the most expensive cars in every detail of looks, decoration, color and performance."
By this time, Gardner officials were opening discussions with the leaders at the competitive Moon company of St. Louis, in an effort to lower costs by combining select departments. Was merger on their minds? Perhaps. But more realistically, survival.
Gardner intended to stay in business and proved its worth by succeeding versions such as the Model 148 with its "Yellow-head motor," also by Lycoming (by then with 246.6 cubic inches delivering 100 horsepower). This came for 1931 and marked the company's last hurrah in the car business. That is, except for a convoluted series of events that proposed its inclusion in the making of the Ruxton front-drive automobile.
Wise as they were, the Gardners backed away from that inclusion and launched their own front-drive Gardner meant to see in the $2,000 field. Only one was made, but it made a bit of a splash when it dove into an auto show. Perhaps it was too much too late, since Wall Street had dived and was creating such a suction that the Great Depression was in its early swirl.
Happily, the liquidation of Gardner company assets was not entered in red ink. It was one of the very few companies that came out a winner, even in its final stage. Now those in-line eights are rare marvels on the field with other Full Classics that have -- and always will--turn heads and speed the hearts of the most discriminating car collector.
(All rights reserved by the writer; not to be duplicated without permission.)
In 1928, the line of Gardner automobiles was led by the inline eight, powered by Lycoming.