Unrestored but still operable after 66 years - this Indiana made 1906 Leader
In the early 1900's when average people considered the "horseless carriage" a freak of the mechanical arts and a public menace, there were also those who did not share the general skepticism. One of the visionaries who believed in the future of the "gasoline buggy" was Luther Frost of Indiana, builder of the Leader Automobile. A rare 1906 survivor is pictured here.
In the state of Indiana alone there have been, over the years, 208 brandname vehicles manufactured, beginning with the Haynes-Apperson in 1894 and ending with the Studebaker in 1963.
Among the young Hoosier entrepreneurs was Luther Frost, a Purdue University engineering graduate, who lived in McCordsville, into an automobile factory. In the spring of that year he revealed his plans to build 25 automobiles. They would be called "Leaders", a reflection of Frost's personal philosophy.
The cars built the first two years in McCordsville operated on internal combustion, four-cycle engines with two cylinders and a planetary transmission. They were chain driven and had a top speed of 25 miles an hour. They sold for about $1,000.
The new Leaders were test driven on a gravel road between the villages of McCordsville and Greenfield. Frank Apple, then a boy of ten, recalls watching the road test from his front yard, hoping the driver would offer him a ride. His parents watched from the safety of their front door, hoping the driver wouldn't.
Apple, now a retired farmer, also recalls the real test of the new car was its ability to climb hills. A popular spot to prove the climbing ability of the cars was a steep hill, locally known as "Goat Mountain".
In 1906 the Leader firm constructed a steep ramp at the Indiana State Fair on which to demonstrate the vehicle's hill climbing proficiency. The car was popularly advertised as the "hill climber".
All 25 of the Leaders were sold before the end of the first year and more than 100 of the vehicles were built in 1906.
After two successful years manufacturing the Leader in McCordsville, Luther Frost looked about him for larger facilities and additional financial backing. He found both of these in Knightstown, Ind.
In 1907, the Columbia Electric Co. (the name the company still retained) moved to Knightstown. There a larger and more elaborate car was built. The new models used an F-head, four cylinder engine and a sliding gear transmission.
Specifications for a 1911 Leader called for a Schebler Model D carburetor; a dual system ignition with Remy magneto; and a cone clutch of extra large size, faced with chrome leather with springs underneath to prevent seizing. The specifications also called for a shaft drive with housing over the propellor shaft. The price for the 1911 Leader with regular equipment "including lamps, horn, tools, etc." was $1,485.00 and with "Mohair top, dust cover, windshield, speedometer, Prest-O-lite tank", $1,625.00.
A few years after the factory moved to Knightstown, Frost was forced to leave automobile manufacturing because of poor health. The factory continued for a while and finally shut down.
Just why the factory closed is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps larger manufacturers made the automotive industry too competitive for the smaller firm to survive. Some say that without the genius of Luther Frost the business simply could not continue.
The exact date of the factory's closing is somewhat uncertain. In March, 1912, the Knightstown BANNER ran an article stating that the Columbia Electric Co. had a deal pending with the Fisher Gibson Co. of Indianapolis for 500 cars. The article said that the car to be built would be 20 horsepower, in two models, a runabout and a touring car, to retail at $900, fully equipped.
"It is to be put on the market to compete with other cars of this price," the BANNER article continued.
In November the local newspaper reported a rumor that the Leader factory "which has been closed for some time" would soon start operations again. Other local sources say that the plant never reopened. According to state corporation records, the Columbia Electric Co. filed its last annual report in August, 1913.
As with other Indiana-made automobiles, the Leader has virtually disappeared from the scene. The Greenfield Banking Company in Greenfield, Ind. recently located a 1906 Leader and brought it back to Hancock County for display in the bank lobby, as part of the bank's centennial year celebration.
The 1906 Leader, which has never been restored, is still in operable condition. It is owned by Paul Grimes of Evansville, Ind. manufactured in the McCordsville factory, the car bears the number "27".
Grimes' grandfather, Lorenza Myers, a farmer in Wallace, Ind., a small community in Fountain County, purchased the car new in 1906. Myers drove the car more than 10,000 miles before retiring it permanently to a garage in 1911 where it has remained except for a few brief outings.