Transcontinental

DeVaux    BicycleAuburn

June 2, 1896. New York City. Sponsored by the Comet bicycle wheel company, Norman DeVaux, a nineteen year-old cycling enthusiast from Canton, Ohio, sets out to ride across the United States with a friend, John LaFrance. The standing record for a transcontinental bicycle crossing is just over forty-one days; DeVaux and LaFrance hope to make it in forty. Though the Good Roads movement is thriving, it hasn’t yet translated into very many good roads: the 3600-mile route that DeVaux and LaFrance plan to follow—most of what will eventually become the Lincoln Highway—is little more than a series of rutted wagon tracks and cow paths, lacking signs or services of any kind.

 

Ten days after leaving New York, DeVaux and LaFrance passed through Chicago, and on July 8 “two tired and dusty wheelmen” arrived in San Francisco with an elapsed time of 37 days, 14 hours, and 30 minutes—having averaged the astonishing rate of nearly a hundred miles a day over almost entirely unpaved roads. Following the epic ride, Norman DeVaux determined to become a bicycle mechanic and went into business with his brother in Toledo, entering numerous bicycle races as well. In 1900 the New York Times referred to him as “the noted road rider of the West.”

Over the course of the next year DeVaux married, sold his interest in the store to his brother, and acquired E.G. Eager & Co., a retail bicycle parts business. The previous owner had just become the Toledo representative for The “Mobile” Co. of America, an early steam automobile manufacturer. Intrigued by the new form of transportation, DeVaux taught himself to be an auto mechanic and is said to have been involved in building the first Cadillac. A salesman by 1903, he discovered that he enjoyed fast driving over long distances. Two years later he raced a one-cylinder Cadillac the 260 miles roundtrip between Toledo and Cleveland in well under twelve hours.

DeVaux befriended the president of Buick, William C. Durant, who was then in the process of building General Motors. In late summer 1906 DeVaux was a driver on the team that drove a two-cylinder Buick touring car from New York to San Francisco in an attempt to break the existing transcontinental automobile record of thirty-three days. At times the “autoists” had to drive along railroad tracks, diving suddenly down the embankment whenever a train appeared. The trip included a grueling twenty-hour stretch in Wyoming that left DeVaux “all but a physical wreck”; he then lost track of where the road went—he had no signs to follow—and drove the Buick off course for fifty bumpy cross-country miles. He telegraphed: “Could walk faster than I have been able to drive the car on account of the condition of the highways.” The team nonetheless broke the transcontinental driving record by nine days.

DeVaux and his wife decided to stay in San Francisco, which was rebuilding after the earthquake and fire. He started out as a factory representative and the west coast distributor for Buick before taking a position with the City Hall Automobile Company, in the process of which he obtained his California “chauffeur’s license.” The City Hall dealership initially sold the American Mors car; beginning in 1907, it also offered the Auburn, named for the location of its manufacturing plant in Auburn, Indiana.

To generate enthusiasm among potential buyers skeptical of the durability of automobiles, DeVaux concentrated on headline-grabbing endurance drives, including a trip between Oakland and Fresno—two hundred miles he covered in 11.5 hours, including a couple of meal stops. The consummate salesman, DeVaux went down to Fresno at the wheel of an Auburn and returned the next day in an American Mors. In 1908 he shattered the speed record between San Francisco and Fresno, making the trip in seven hours and sixteen minutes, better than two hours below the existing record.

In early 1909, DeVaux expanded into Oregon and established an Auburn dealership in Portland. But toward the end of the year he switched back to Buick, leaving the Auburn agency to be managed by Robert Simpson, who hired Eugene Ely as a salesman and mechanic. When Charles Hamilton brought his aeroplane to Portland in March 1910 (see 13 Feb 16 post), DeVaux agreed to race a Buick against it for a $100 cash prize. Although the track was likely to be muddy, DeVaux expressed confidence in his ability to vanquish the flying machine—but Hamilton won the race, beating one of DeVaux’s employees.

By early 1911, DeVaux was working as the west coast representative for Reo automobiles (later REO) in San Francisco when he ran into Ely, whom he had known since their 1909 racing days and who was by then under contract to fly for Glenn Curtiss. Subscribing to the popular theory that automobiles and aeroplanes would soon be manufactured jointly, DeVaux suggested a scheme wherein (1) he would take the west coast franchise for Curtiss aeroplanes, (2) Ely would appear in Reo cars in connection with his flying exhibitions in California, Oregon and Washington, and (3) the two of them would split the profits on the sale of all Curtiss aeroplanes on the west coast. After Curtiss tentatively approved the arrangement, DeVaux served briefly and unofficially as Ely’s manager in May and June 1911.

He never took the proposed Curtiss franchise, but later that year he was reported to have purchased a new eight-cylinder Curtiss machine, and shortly after Ely’s death (on 19 October 1911) DeVaux formed a management company in the Bay Area called DeVaux Aviators. The company’s chief pilot was Frank Bryant, a former Auburn racing driver whom DeVaux had known since 1908, if not earlier. The two continued to associate in flying exhibitions until 1914.

Beginning in 1915, DeVaux returned his focus exclusively to the automobile industry. He went to work for Chevrolet, which was led by former Buick executive Durant, the force behind DeVaux’s epic 1906 cross-country drive. The Chevrolet operation proved such a success that Durant decided to open a west coast assembly plant in Oakland. DeVaux became president, general manager and half-owner of the Chevrolet Motor Co. of California. With the outbreak of World War I, he registered for the draft at age 41 without requesting deferment, although he had a wife and a ten year-old daughter. He wasn’t drafted.

When Durant left Chevrolet in 1920 to produce his eponymous automobile, DeVaux followed, using the shares of General Motors stock he had received for his Chevrolet interest (then valued at $4 million) to purchase shares in the new Durant company. He quickly worked his way up to presidency of Durant Motors of California, and in 1921 he assisted Durant in the manufacture and distribution of the Star automobile, an inexpensive model intended to compete with the Ford Model T. The venture was a failure.

The Great Depression effectively put an end to the Durant brand, whereupon DeVaux bought out the plant in Oakland and started his own manufacturing company. His business partner was Colonel Elbert Hall (whose Hall-Scott engines had once powered Captain Tom Baldwin’s Red Devil biplanes). The company offered the “DeVaux sedan” at the price of $705. Unfortunately, consumers with money to spend on new automobiles could afford more luxurious models, while those without much cash were content to buy used vehicles. In the end, after DeVaux had sunk some $17 million of his own money into the business, fewer than five thousand automobiles were produced, and the company went bankrupt in 1932. Today the DeVaux sedan is a rare collector’s item, with only a hundred or so known to exist.

Mired in the Depression, DeVaux hit upon the idea of manufacturing an American car for export. The sole “De-Vo” unit built as a sales model in 1936 was shipped to South Africa (it was discovered nearly three decades later and eventually restored), but the market wasn’t there, and DeVaux never produced or sold another unit. He joined the Hupp Motor Car Company and helped to develop its Skylark model. Despite healthy pre-orders, production was delayed until 1939; ultimately only three hundred or so were manufactured. Hupp failed in 1941.

With America’s entry into World War II, the 64-year-old DeVaux left the automobile business for good. He moved to Arizona with his wife Myrtle and was involved in copper and silver mines for nearly twenty years, achieving some success with the Reymert Mine near the town of Superior. Norman and Myrtle DeVaux, once among the wealthiest couples in America, “lived like hermits in an unpainted shack in a hot, barren canyon.”

Myrtle died in 1955. By the time DeVaux reached his eighties, his daughter in Florida was concerned about him living by himself. After years of resisting, he packed his belongings in 1964 and made one final transcontinental drive—this time solo, and seeking no record. Three months after arriving in Florida, Norman DeVaux died at the age of 87.

Image of 1896 bicycle from http://www.machine-history.com/sites/default/files/images/Bicycle%20of%201896.jpg. Auburn advertisement at http://www.earlyamericanautomobiles.com/advertising.htm Many details of DeVaux’s post-1911 life come from “If Only in Another Time…The Story of the DeVaux-Hall Motors Corporation” by Keith R. Jones, an unpublished 1999 paper furnished to the author by DeVaux historian Gary Yelle, who also provided the image of Norman DeVaux.

 

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Transcontinental

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