“Young Johnnie Steele has an Oldsmobile, He loves a dear little girl, She is the queen of his gas machine, She has his heart in a whirl.” Few songs capture the nostalgia of the birth of the “horseless carriage” than the 1905 musical composition, “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” written by Gus Edwards and Vincent P. Bryan and published by M. Witmark & Sons. Ransome Eli’s Olds Motor Vehicle Company came into existence in 1897.
An excerpt from Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbit,” (1922) further states: “It was a night of lovers. All along the highway into Zenith, under the low and gentle moon, motors were parked and dim figures were clasped in revelry.” An examination of some old Johnson City directories between 1911 and 1921 reveals some early and virtually forgotten automobile businesses:
A.J. Hurlbut & Co. (121 Spring), A.J. Wakefield (200 W. Main), Burrow Motor Co. (339 E. Main), Dahl & Johnson (320 E. Main/227 W. Main), E.D. Hanks Motor Co. (119-121 E. Market), East Tennessee Motor Co. (320 E. Main), H.R. Parrott Motor Co. (Ash Street), Johnson Auto Co. (320 /339 E. Main), Johnson City Automobile & Machine Works (corner of Roan and Millard), Johnson City Buick Co. (339 E. Main), Lewis-Brown Sales Agency (123 E. Market), Model Motor Co. (117 E. Market), Morris Motor Co. (115 S. Roan), Southern Auto & Welding Co. (206 W. Market), Standard Auto Repair Co. (207 Boone), Summers-Parrott Hardware Co. (Buffalo at Ash) and Wood Motor Company (308 E. Main).
An interesting article in an October 1960 Hobbies Magazine told of an antique automobile display called “Come Away with Me Lucille – The Gay Days of Motoring, 1897-1912.” It featured 12 antique cars from the late 1800s. The hazards and hardships seen in the display vividly illustrated the safety concerns and lack of comforts of those beautiful but experimental relics of yesteryear.
Several “dangerous” vehicles were identified that included a 1906 Cadillac, one cylinder, ten H.P., selling price $1050; a 1900 Columbia Electric Surrey (with the fringe on top); and a child’s Electric Runabout of 1907.
Others on display were the 1898 Leon Bollee Tricar, 1899 Locomotive Steamer, 1903 Pierce Motorette, 1903 Autocar Tonneau, 1904 Knox Surrey, 1904 Franklin Touring Car, 1906 Success Auto Buggy, 1911 Buick Runabout and a 1912 Spache Cyclecar. Their attractive finishes, plush upholstery and shiny brass made it difficult to believe that the future of the automobile industry was so uncertain. One man reportedly had his car fabricated in the shape of a horse. Also, Henry Ford twice considered selling his company.
The display also included a wide array of motoring artifacts and parts of early automobiles, ranging from a compilation of horns and headlamps to milady’s vanity case. The article humorously said “this luxurious case, equipped with every conceivable necessity for repairing the effects of the journey, is significant for it was not until nearly 1912 that primping and powering ever took place outside the sanctity of the boudoir.”
“Come away with me Lucille, In my merry Oldsmobile, Down the road of life we'll fly, Auto-mo-bubbling, you and I.”
The “Johnny Steeles” of today must find alternative “merry automobiles” for going “auto-mo-bubbling” with their favorite “Lucilles.” Sadly, the Oldsmobile motored off into the sunset on April 29, 2004 after 106 years of operation.