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
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’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
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.