Catalog Cars

by: Tim Weadock

November 07, 2012

Of all the items offered through catalogs over the years, the automobile was one we might consider unusual today. We’re not talking about battery-powered Hot Wheels or Power Wheels that your toddler uses to race up and down the driveway. We’re talking about fully functioning automobiles. Here’s a look, both past and present, at cars available by mail. 

Sears Motor Buggy

Sears Motor Buggy

From a tiny mailer first distributed in 1888 that sold jewelry and watches, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog quickly grew to contain a wide variety of items, including firearms, saddles, tools, toys, farming equipment and, eventually, cars.

In 1908, Sears commissioned manufacturer Alvaro Krotz to build the first “Sears car,” which the company promoted in the catalog with a full-page advertisement. The year it debuted, the Sears Motor Buggy had a price tag of $395. Shoppers could chose catalog number “21R 333,” which included fenders, or catalog number “21R 444,” a fenderless model that sold for $25 less.

The high-wheeled car also featured a two-cylinder engine with either 10 or 14 horsepower. Chassis were offered in Carmine Red or Brewster Green with a black runabout-style body fitted on top. The product line was expanded in 1910 to include a variety of models (G, H, J, K and L). Enclosed bodies and trucks were introduced in 1911. Production of the Sears Motor Buggy ceased in 1912, when it was discovered that production costs exceeded profits.

Montgomery Ward Modoc

In 1896, Montgomery Ward was the first catalog retailer to feature an automobile, an electric car produced by the American Electric Vehicle Company. The electric runabout provided seating for four passengers and reached a top speed of 14 miles per hour. Montgomery Ward used the cars for promotional purposes only and didn’t market them to consumers. This model was discontinued by 1902.

After Sears exited the auto market, Montgomery Ward emerged with the Modoc to fill the void. Named after a local Indian tribe, the Modoc was manufactured in Chicago, Illinois, as was the Sears Motor Buggy.

The Modoc was outfitted with a four-cylinder 30/40 horsepower engine, a three-speed transmission, a touring body and a self starter option. Pricing fluctuated as Montgomery Ward struggled to avoid the same fate of its rival, Sears.

Montgomery Ward brashly touted the Modoc as “the car without weakness” in its catalog. Consumers must have disagreed. In 1914, the Modoc was effectively moved to the clearance rack and discounted to $800. Production stopped by the end of the year.

Allstate Series 4 & 6

Sears Allstate

Sears’s interest in automobiles hadn’t waned following the demise of the Motor Buggy. Opportunity knocked when Sears executive Theodore Houser asked Henry Kaiser to create a new motor car for the retail giant.

On November 20, 1951, the joint venture launched the Allstate automobile. The new car was essentially a rebadged Henry J Fastback Coupe with a revised grille. The cars were built on demand with 2,363 produced in total.

Facing strong competition from the Big Three, Kaiser and Sears pulled the plug on the Allstate in 1953. Sears had provided ample marketing muscle, but in the end the lack of a dealer network and trade-in program sealed the car’s fate.

Nieman Marcus Edition Contemporary Collectibles

Nieman Marcus

Today, only one department store chain is known for selling cars in its catalog—and what luxurious vehicles they are. Since 1995, Dallas-based Nieman Marcus has maintained the tradition of showcasing a highly anticipated automobile from the coming model year in its annual Christmas Book gift catalog. Alongside other opulent offerings such as $100,000 chicken coops and $85 tins of candied apricots, limited-edition sports cars with models ranging from the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro to the Jaguar XJ and McLaren 12C Spider (planned for winter 2012) can be ordered with a simple call.

Last year Nieman Marcus offered ten examples of the 2012 Ferrari FF Shooting Brake. Each car had a numbered identification plaque, “Grigio Caldo” (Warm Grey) exterior finish and Nieman Marcus luggage. A trip to the Ferrari Winter Driving Experience in Aspen, Colorado, helped to justify the $395,000 price tag, which included a $95,000 premium for the special edition. Despite the cost, the car sold out in 50 minutes. With its unique automotive “ultimate fantasy gift,” Nieman Marcus has established a niche all its own.

 

Comments

  1. jeffery dutton jonesboro arkansas

    you may want to check your dates on the first sentence. their first mailer was likely earlier than 1988

  2. Jon Hutchens San Diego, CA.

    Regarding Sears Motor Buggy in 1912. In what industries are profits higher than production costs? This would mean that your profit is more than 100% of production costs. Sweet business. Maybe I missed something here.

  3. Me AZ

    You forgot to mention that American Express offered the gold plated DeLorean in the membership rewards catalogue.

  4. Yeroc bham, wa

    Hey Jon, If your profits are higher than production costs than your business is, well profitable. The exact opposite was happening with the buggy. It costs more to make one than Sears could sell it for.

  5. Roger Des Moines, Iowa

    Yeroc - Jon's point is correct. "Profits" (gross/net) are what's left over AFTER the costs of production are subtracted from revenues (gross/net). To put this into context with the article, the article says " Production of the Sears Motor Buggy ceased in 1912, when it was discovered that production costs exceeded profits." We don't know what the production costs were, but if the vehicle sold for $395 (per the ad shown above), it would be profitable to sell it for $395 ONLY IF it cost less than that to produce and sell (selling costs are considered part of the total cost that needs to be recovered before any profits are realized). Most businesses today that are successful long term (that is, they are profitable enough to sustain themselves over many years/decades) will have net profit margins of between 5% and 8% (retail electronics in 2009) or perhaps between 7% and 12% (retail clothiers, also 2009). In a manufacturing business, a typical gross profit margin in the low 30% range drops to between 6% and 8% after inclusion of capital costs (machinery and equipment essential to the production process). My guess on the Sears Motor Buggy is that Sears couldn't sell it for more than, let's say, $395 and found that they were paying Alvaro Krotz perhaps $350 for the buggy and then having to pay more than $45 additional for selling and transportation costs. Likewise I'm guessing, but it's entirely possible that the $395 sales price covered all costs and netted Sears perhaps $25 net profit when they first started selling the buggies through the catalog but over the period of time during which they did so, costs increased but they either couldn't or didn't increase the selling price. And yes, I am an accountant - I had a career working for both manufacturing businesses (textiles, HVAC equipment), and wholesalers (HVAC equipment).

  6. tpm Ma.

    apparently I read something different I thought it stated that the Sears Motor Buggy ceased in 1912, when it was discovered that production costs exceeded profits. I agree with Yeroc.

  7. Dick Rose 28604

    WHY did you leave out the Crosley ! My Dad bought one at the appliance store and I drove it for a couple of years ! I wish I could find a picture of a 1940 Crosley/ I had one it was a convertible and really a neat little car.. (I'm 86 now)I had it when I was 15 YO...

  8. Glenn Arlt Traverse City, Michigan

    We mustn't forget the cousins to these cars, automobiles which were only available by mail order with no dealership network at all! From 1917-1923, the Birch Motor Cars Inc of Chicago sold "assembled" cars with Hierschell-Spillman, Lycoming or LeRoy engines, depending upon the year and power rating and whether the engines were four or six cylinder types. Many cars were simply "assembled" from components built by specialty companies in this era, and therefore service could be had anywhere. There were other mail-order cars in the same era, other than this also.

  9. Lonnie Meadows Everett, Washington

    It's nice to see some of the history of the mail order automobile! I remember the Henery J. It looked like someone took a Kaiser and Caddillac, put them together in a dryer and fused them together, scrunk them and Wala, the "Henery J" came out! Crosley was another special car along with the "King Midget"! They were economy cars, before they even used that term for an automobile.

  10. roy thomas san antonio texas

    a lil authors embellishment was exhibited in the allstate story. the reality was that henry-j offered an economy model with no trunk opening or trunk lid-----the public didnt want it, so, the price was greatly discounted to sears, they bought the entire production, and marketed it at a low price as the sears allstate [also the name of a popular motorscooter of that era]. the henry-j has a trunk lid, the allstate does not.

  11. George Sprance Middle Island, NY

    Dick, Check this out. http://www.newsmagazinenetwork.com/2012092824600/americas-first-compact-car-returns-to-west-county/. My uncle actually bought one at the Herald Square Macy's in Manhattan.

  12. George Sprance Middle Island, NY

    Dick, Check this out. http://www.newsmagazinenetwork.com/2012092824600/americas-first-compact-car-returns-to-west-county/. My uncle actually bought one at the Herald Square Macy's in Manhattan.

  13. Dennis Burcham Benbrook,Tx

    My dad bought a 51 Henry J brand new when I was 6 years old. It was the model that didn't have a trunk lid or roll down rear windows. Mom, Dad, Grandma and us 3 kids rode from Iowa to the Smoky Mountains in it in August. What fun with no air conditioning. He traded it for a Kaiser Traveler in 1952. What neat cars they were! Neighbors had a Crosley Wagon and a Lincoln Zephyr!

  14. Mark Romanowski Grand Blanc, MI

    Would have been nice to know how many survivors of these vehicles, if any, still remain in collections or on the roads...especially the Kaiser from AllState. I could see that car all pumped up on steroids iwith fat tires in some obscure collectors garage after being purchased for $1500 cause the original owner didn't know what he had.

  15. Tom Underwood Louisville, KY

    Although it wasn't through a Department Store, VW experimented with selling "factory direct" New Beetles through an online ordering system. The available models had only two unique colors: a Robin's Egg Blue and a Solar Yellow/Orange. The production run for the experiment sold out, but the dealers had a stroke. End of experiment. Still see one or two of the "Internet Specials" around on the road.

  16. Denny Napier Roseburg OR

    I'm old enough to remember when the Allstate came out. My local Sears store in Wisconsin had a display promoting the car but I have never seen one on the road. There was one on eBay Motors a few years ago. Most of the surviving Henry Js have been made into dragsters or customs.

  17. Eloise Katterhenry Wapakoneta, OH

    King Midget automobiles were manufactured in Athens, OH and sold thru ads in Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. There is a International King Midget Car Club and an Ohio King Midget Car Club. We have regular meets and a yearly jamboree. Fun car and fun people.

  18. Dave Southern Mississppi

    I currently own a 1952 Sears Allstate street rod and it is for sale. Anyone interested? Here is the link: http://www.henryjcars.com/forsale/forsale.html The website says the car is in FL but it has been moved to Southern Mississippi.

  19. dave California

    I remember when I was a kid (circa early 1970's) that the big Sears Catalog had rebuilt VW Bug engines pictured for sale. My Dad had a VW and actually rebuilt his own engine rather than buy the rebuilt one, I learned a lot, as I assisted Dad. I got that car when I learned to drive, and still have it today, insured by Hagerty

  20. Stephanie Angelis Seaford, DE

    My dad and uncle were the first Kaiser Frazer dealers in the State of NJ (1946-1955). The building, as built, still stands at 95 Morris Street, in Morristown. My husband owns a 1951 Model F515 Frazer, and I own a 1951 Kaiser Deluxe Club Coupe. There are loads of Kaisers, Frazers, Henry J's and Allstates still on the road in the US, as well as in other countries. For more info, go to www.kfclub.com (Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club International). As for the Allstate, it was never offered through the catalog. It was made especially for Sears Roebuck by Kaiser Motors (which was originally Kaiser-Frazer, and eventually became Kaiser Willys). The Allstate was only sold in stores located in the southwestern US. It was a cheaper version of the Henry J, which, by-the-way was originally manufactured with no trunk lid. The Henry J was produced from 1951 to 1954. The Allstate was only produced in 1952 and 1953.

  21. Stephanie Angelis Seaford, DE

    My dad and uncle were the first Kaiser Frazer dealers in the State of NJ (1946-1955). The building, as built, still stands at 95 Morris Street, in Morristown. My husband owns a 1951 Model F515 Frazer, and I own a 1951 Kaiser Deluxe Club Coupe. There are loads of Kaisers, Frazers, Henry J's and Allstates still on the road in the US, as well as in other countries. For more info, go to www.kfclub.com (Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club International). As for the Allstate, it was never offered through the catalog. It was made especially for Sears Roebuck by Kaiser Motors (which was originally Kaiser-Frazer, and eventually became Kaiser Willys). The Allstate was only sold in stores located in the southwestern US. It was a cheaper version of the Henry J, which, by-the-way was originally manufactured with no trunk lid. The Henry J was produced from 1951 to 1954. The Allstate was only produced in 1952 and 1953.

  22. T. Struck Montana

    Cars weren't the only mail order wheels you could by from the catalog. In the 50s and 60s they also sold Allstate Motorcycles and Mo-Peds. The motorcycles were made in Austria and came in a 175 cc and 250 cc models. My bother still owns one of the 250 cc models.