Richmond’s part in the early automobile and racing industries
Did you know that Richmond played a part in the early automobile industry and the early automobile racing industry?
James Allen Kline (1874–1944) , a bicycle maker in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, became fascinated with automobiles and the future of transportation when he witnessed a demonstration of a horseless carriage—a steam-powered car called a “Locomobile”—in New York City in 1899. He placed an order for the car and then devised improvements to it. By 1905, Kline and several partners were building a competing model, the York car, later called the Pullman. In 1911, a group of Virginia business leaders persuaded Kline to move his operation to Richmond. Two years later, “Kline Kars” were being produced at a new factory on the Boulevard (on the site of the current Greyhound bus station).
The Kline Car Corporation of Richmond produced about 2,500 vehicles before it closed in 1923. Only two survive. One of the two is on display in the Story of Virginia exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society—a 1918 Kline Kar, a seven-passenger touring car, Series 6–38 (2007.118). Tim Crowder of Richmond found and restored the car. It was purchased through the Paul Mellon Fund and was a partial gift of Debbie and Tim Crowder.Before Henry Ford’s assembly line, automobiles were custom made in small shops throughout the nation. The first Virginia-made car, the “Dawson,” was built in Basic City (now Waynesboro) in 1901. The “Piedmont” was manufactured in Lynchburg and both the “Virginian” and “Kline” in Richmond. The only surviving vehicles by any of these companies are the two Kline Kars.
Between 1910 and 1916, motor vehicles registered in the commonwealth went from 2,705 to more than 37,000. The overall road system in Virginia was poor and road construction would become an important political issue in Virginia in the 1920s. For more information on Transportation in Virginia, see this link on the VHS website: http://www.vahistorical.org/twp/transportation.htm
OTHER DRIVING-RELATED OBJECTS IN THE COLLECTION
The VHS has several unique artifacts in its collection associated with the early automobile industry and racing. We have a pair of early driving gloves (essential without windshields to protect from the wind, dirt, and debris of unpaved roads) and several “Devilseye Reflector Rings.”
Early automobiles had headlights but no turn signals. Drivers had to use hand signals to indicate to other drivers their intentions to turn or slow down. They could purchase Devilseye Reflector Rings to make their hands visible.
When I first heard the term “reflector rings,” I imagined a round disk, but these were actually large red rings worn on the fingers at night. When you held your hand outside the car, the rings reflected from headlights behind you or in front of you or to your left, allowing other drivers to see your signal.
Interestingly, current automotive retailers refer to some lighting accessories as “Devils Eye.” A Devilseye Reflector Ring is currently on display in the Virginians at Work exhibition along with a detachable top from a 1920 Kline Kar coupe.
THE BEGINNING OF RICHMOND RACINGVirginia’s first automobile race took place at the Norfolk fairgrounds in 1904. Norfolk is also credited with having the first automobile on Virginia’s streets as early as 1899. Richmond’s first race was held in August 1907 at the new fairground track, west of the city on North Boulevard (just a few miles away from the VHS), where The Diamond is now located. This site was across the street from the Kline Kar factory, where the Greyhound Bus station is located. Automobile racing became an annual feature of the state fair, with automobile and motorcycle racing on the last day of the fair, known as “Automobile Day.” The 1912 race featured “Jimmy,” a race car manufactured by the Kline Car Corporation. Kline became involved in Richmond racing as soon as he came to Virginia and remained so for the next thirty years. The other Kline Kar that survives is a racing car. I believe it’s privately owned in England. The success of the Kline Kars, “Jimmy,” and later, the “Jimmy Jr.,” designed and built in 1910, and named for Kline and his son, attracted attention to the Richmond racing scene. Kline was a promoter of the Labor Day Auto Races held in Richmond and served as president of the Richmond Automotive Trade Association. In 1945, the Richmond fairgrounds moved to “Strawberry Hill” in northeast Richmond. For you NASCAR fans, the first race took place on April 19, 1953, at the new Richmond fairgrounds, known as Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds (now the site of the Richmond International Raceway, constructed in 1988).
The VHS has a set of racing signal flags used in early automobile racing. These measure approximately 24 inches square and are attached to short poles (36 inches long). A metal plate attached to each flag pole indicates its purpose. These signal flags seem to be similar to the ones used in major racing leagues today. For instance, the metal plate for the black-and-white checkered flag reads “You Are Finished,” and the red flag plate reads, “Red – Stop – Race Is Halted.” Four more signal flags in the collection are a blue flag (“Entering Last Lap” [2006.124.2]), a green flag (“Green – Start – Course is Clear” [2006.124.3]), yellow flag (“Yellow – Caution – Hold Your Position” [2006.124.6]), and the white flag (“Stop – Next Lap For Consultation” [2006.124.8]).
The society also has two racing signal flags that do not have any identification plates, including a black flag (2006.124.4), which for modern racing indicates a penalty of some sort, and a yellow flag with a dark blue or purple disc (2006.124.7), for which I found no modern equivalent. If you know, please contact me.
Because there was no standardization to the signal flags, some tracks printed them on racing programs. The VHS has programs from the Suffolk and Norfolk races in 1922 and 1924, both of which listed different meanings for their signal flags.
I hope this has given you some tidbits of information on Richmond’s contributions to the automobile industry and racing in the early twentieth century. Please come to the VHS and see the Kline Kar, and while you’re here, check out our other exhibitions.
My thanks to fellow VHS staff members, William Rasmussen and Eileen Parris, for their contributions to this blog.
Rebecca A. Rose is the Registrar at the Virginia Historical Society.