Car Men, Conmen: Three of Automotive History’s Most Infamous Frauds
Not so long ago, the auto industry was a place where an enterprising soul with real vision could realize great fame and fortune by feeding the public’s seemingly insatiable need for new and truly innovative cars. These notorious three were no less visionary, they just failed to deliver — but not before building their way to riches on big promises and other people’s money.
Edward Joel Pennington
Pennington (far right) taking a carload of investors on a ride.
Upon his death in 1911, the New York Times called him an “erratic promoter” who over the course of his life conned thousands into investing money into his visionary schemes. Born in 1858, Pennington held many questionable patents for mechanical devices ranging from ignition systems to airships that never got off the ground. He is also is credited as the first to use the term “Motor Cycle” in a 1894 advertisement promoting his version of a gasoline-powered bicycle — the first gas-powered motorcycle the world had ever seen...or not seen, depending on reports.
Pennington supposedly demonstrated the machine in Milwaukee in 1895, but old media accounts appear conflicted on whether or not the thing actually worked. History would seem to suggest that it didn’t, at least not well enough to impress any American investors.
Harry John Lawson, one of the first in England to throw his money into the burgeoning “horseless carriage industry,” did ultimately buy the rights to produce Pennington’s motorcycle and created two prototypes of his own before abandoning the project for unknown reasons. Together with Lawson (who himself was convicted of fraud in 1904), Pennington moved into the world of cars in 1886 when he began promoting the design of and generating cash orders for an eponymous automobile that would ultimately never be delivered.
Glen Gordon “Gary” Davis
Gary Davis had a scheme. Around 1945, the former California car salesmen managed to befriend Indy 500 legend and millionaire Joel Thorne who had a quirky-looking three-wheeled custom car in his garage that he called “The Californian.”
In a post-war world where demand for cars was high, Davis immediately saw a vehicle that would grab the public’s attention. After somehow managing to pry the vehicle away from Thorne, Davis then took a page from “The Book of Pennington,” had another prototype built and, in 1947, took the cars on a cross-country roadshow to convince investors and dealerships to invest 1.2 million dollars into his fledgling Davis Motorcar Company based in Van Nuys, California.
Delivery of Davis automobiles was supposedly set for 1948, but Davis had a couple of major problems. For starters, employees and engineers at his assembly plant weren’t getting paid. While on tour in Detroit, one of his prototype vehicles was stolen. Davis would later make conspiratorial claims that the Big Three automakers were trying to “Tucker” him by locking him out of purchasing the raw materials to build his cars.
In the end, only 13 cars were ever built before employees filed suit, investors cried fraud and the court found Davis guilty, sending him away to prison for two years.
The Archie Andrews of old car infamy shared almost nothing with the comic book character bearing the same name. He did, however, have an uncanny and almost comic “reverse” Midas touch when it came to his involvement with anything related to cars.
Described by Hemmings writer Jim Richardson as “a wealthy Chicago song-and-dance man who fancied himself a carmaker,” Andrews’ pattern of con-artistry always began with lots of big promises and a stock grab that would permit him a powerful controlling interest in the company that he would soon drive into the ground.
In 1929, the front-drive Ruxton became the first of three major casualties after Andrews took a controlling interest in its manufacturer and promotion. By all accounts, and in addition to being rich, Andrews was also an insufferable know-it-all who entered into a series of doomed deals revolving around the production of the Ruxton.
The companies he contracted and quickly grew impatient with — Moon Motors of Missouri and Kissel of Hartford, Wisconsin — both found themselves in hostile takeover situations with the stock-grabbing Andrews who thought he could do better. Moon’s President C.W. Burst reportedly barricaded himself in his office in a protest while the Kissell brothers attempted to fight back by filing receivership. Both companies failed, leaving Andrews looking for the next company to run into the ground.
Enter the Hup Motor Car Corporation where Andrews had long occupied a place on the board. After the Ruxton debacle, Andrews decided he needed more control of Hupmobile and bought and conned his way into a chairmanship role. That unfortunate year saw car production plummet. Angry Hupmobile stockholders blamed Andrews and brought in the courts in a successful bid to remove him from leadership. Andrews died in 1938 at age 59.
[editor's note: We covered Liz Carmichael and the Dale last year in our newsletter. You can read more about that story here.]