The Illinois Quad Cities: A Different Kind of Motor City

Before it was the Farm Implement Capital of the World, the Illinois cities of East Moline and Moline had ambitions to lead the nation’s adoption of the automobile. Was the Quad Cities close to earning the title of Motor City?

Like Detroit, neighbors Moline and East Moline, today part of the Quad Cities, were a burgeoning technology hub in the early twentieth century. Their economic growth was being powered by new applications for the internal combustion engine. The gasoline engine, small and powerful, offered new possibilities, and thousands of companies looked to capitalize. And while small stationary engines were being adopted by farmers across the country, leading farm equipment manufacturers John Deere and the Moline Plow Company connected themselves to the automobile.

A 1905 advertisement for The Moline.

In 1899, three years after Henry Ford tested his first automobile, the Quadricycle, Samuel Arnold tested an electric automobile of his own design on the streets of Moline where “surprise greeted it wherever it went,” according to The Weekly Mail. Arnold claimed his car reached twenty-miles an hour and could run seven to ten hours on its dry cell battery. Although he promised production, it never came to fruition.

While Henry Ford was looking for investors in Detroit, William E. Clark was on his third venture in East Moline in 1903, now selling two versions of the single-cylinder car he called the Blackhawk. It too failed.

Ford found his investors and introduced the Model A.

In East Moline, Clark next collaborated with Charles Deere, the president of Deere & Company and son of plow maker John Deere. The newly formed Deere-Clark Motor Company bought the machinery of the non-related, and very bankrupt, Clarkmobile Company of Lansing, Michigan, and shipped it to East Moline. Deere-Clark first offered the five-passenger Type A, followed by the Type B touring model, as well as limousine models of each. But Clark still could not catch a break. A machinist’s strike, lack of capital, and Charles Deere’s death in 1907 sealed the company’s fate. Charles Pope, another Deere executive, help reorganize the company into the Midland Motor Company, and had a more successful run through 1913.

In the meantime, the entrepreneurial race of automobile manufacturers reached its height, with a reported two-hundred and ninety-two manufacturers in 1908. That year, in Detroit, General Motors was formed through the merger of Buick, Cadillac and the Olds Motor Works. And then everything changed when the Ford Motor Company debuted the Model T.

And almost overnight, the race seemed over.

Back in Moline, Willard Velie, the grandson of John Deere and proprietor of the Velie Carriage Company, made the decision to put his fortune on the line and transition to automobile production. The Velie 30 debuted at the Boston Automobile Dealers Association show in April 1909, soon carving out a reputation for its reliability and style. By 1915, a long line of Velie automobiles included the Big Four (four-cylinder), Big Six (six-cylinder), and the Biltwell. (In 1916, a Biltwell tractor joined the line, though only a handful were ever built). For the time being, Velie automobiles were sold through John Deere sales branches, but strong sales soon allowed the company to go out on its own.

Carmakers Seduced by the Tractor Business

Did East Moline and Moline threaten Detroit’s stranglehold on the automobile industry? Not really. But it did impact another emerging technology that had also captured Henry Ford’s imagination and attention—the farm tractor.

Things got interesting when Detroit automakers began to invest in farm equipment manufacturers. In 1919, John Willys of the Overland-Willys company, the nation’s second largest automaker at the time, acquired the Moline Plow Company, including its Stephens line of automobiles (built in Freeport, Illinois). The Moline Plow Company was also the maker of the successful Universal Tractor in neighboring Rock Island, Illinois. The tractor industry reached a turning point in 1918 and 1919, with hundreds of entrepreneurs scrambling for position. The trend was familiar to automakers, and many wanted a piece of the action.

In 1918, General Motors acquired the Samson Tractor Company, but unexpectedly found tractors to be an insurmountable challenge. General Motors lost $33 million over the next five years in its effort to compete with Henry Ford’s Fordson tractor.

While John Willys merged tractors, automobiles and farm implements, rumors began to circulate that Henry Ford was close to the acquisition of John Deere. Deere representatives had been visiting Ford for several years, and representatives of the two companies were frequently together at farm shows. Deere was in development of a plow and a line of implements designed specifically for the Fordson tractor (yes, even while Deere was selling its own tractor, the Waterloo Boy). And yes, the relationship had grown so close that Ford built Deere engineers their own drafting room at his Highland Park factory so that they would “come up often to work there.”

Deere denied the pending acquisition, and history tells us it never occurred. Willard Velie, now a successful automobile manufacturer, purchased land in East Moline next to the John Deere Harvester factory, but his Biltwell tractor would never go into production.

Then everything changed, sparing neither automobile nor tractor manufacturer. In 1921, an economic recession gripped the nation. Bankruptcies skyrocketed. Velie’s tractor factory was cancelled, the Moline Plow Company fought for survival, and even production at the Ford Motor Company and Henry Ford & Sons (a separate company that made the Fordson tractor) offered rock bottom prices to keep sales moving.

The Velie Motors Corporation held on until 1928, never surpassing its peak year of 9,000 vehicles in 1920. East Moline’s R&V Knight, a company formed in 1920, held on for a few years ending production in 1924.

The Velie evolution. From carriages, to automobiles to airplanes.

By then, the area today called the Quad Cities had cemented a new identity. The Farm Implement Capital of the World had emerged as a leader in farm tractor development, and Chicago-based International Harvester’s acquisition of the now vacant Moline Plow Company tractor factory in Rock Island signaled a new beginning. A local newspaper noted that acquisition was yet another indicator that “days of depression appear to be left behind.”

In the end, Detroit claimed the automobile, and East Moline, Moline, and Rock Island, claimed the farm tractor, and just about everything else needed on the farm. Both contributed to the reinvention of American life, as newly paved roads and more productive farms gave people the ability to travel and feed a growing population.

Moline and East Moline Automobile Manufacturers

The following information was compiled from Karl Rosenbusch’s article City on the Mississippi: The Cars of Moline, Illinois.

Samuels Electric (1899) Arnold Samuels built a 2 ½ horsepower electric car in 1899. Larger scale production never occurred.

Deere-Clark Motor Company (1906-1907). This company grew out of William E. Clark’s earliest production effort in 1897, then again in 1901, then followed by production of the Blackhawk in 1903. Charles Deere, the president of Deere & Company and son of plow maker John Deere, invested in Clark and formed the Deere-Clark Motor Company in 1906.

The Moline Automobile Company (1904-1913, 1913-1919) was formed in 1904 by engine manufacturers William H. VanDerVoort and Orlando J. Root. The Root and Vandervoort Engineering Company (R&V) supplied stationary engines to John Deere, but declined when Deere asked them to design an engine for their first tractor. They wanted to focus on automobile engines, and in 1920 sold out to the Moline Plow Company, now owned by automobile manufacturer John Willys. The R&V engines were used in a series of Stephens automobiles, a subsidiary of the Moline Plow Company, built in Freeport, Illinois.

Stephens (1917-1923) Although manufactured in Freeport, the Stephens Salient Six and other cars were powered by R&V engines beginning in 1918. Stephens built as many as 25,000 vehicles over its six years of production.

R&V Knight (1920-1924) After selling out to the Moline Plow Company, William VanDerVoort and Orlando Root began a new line of automobiles called the R&V Knight.

Midland Motor Company (1908-1913) Formed from the former Deere-Clark Motor Car Company, John Deere executive Charles Pope invested in the revamped company with a new line of automobiles.

The Velie Motor Vehicle Company (1909-1916) and The Velie Motor Corp. (1916-1928) The most successful area automaker, Willard Velie, John Deere’s grandson, transitioned his carriage company into an automobile manufacturer. Velie reached the height of production with 9,000 cars in 1920. In 1916 it developed a farm tractor (the Velie Biltwell), and in 1926 began building airplane motors. A Velie participated in the first races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Moline Pump Company (1907) used an engine of its own design in its Moline factory, but built less than ten cars called the Illinois.