Above: Templar Sportette
by Stephen Dafoe
Reprinted From The Scottish Rite Journal March April – 2006
The “Templar Vitalic Top-Valve Motor,” a luxury car of its day, put out a whopping 43 horsepower at 2,100 RPM – equal to a John Deere garden tractor or a small dirt bike.
When one hears the name Templar, one often conjures up an image of those white-mantled knights who were at the forefront of the battles during the Crusades. If one is a member of the Masonic Fraternity then the mention of the word Templar is more likely to paint a picture of that York Rite body best known for its fancy sword drills and plumed haberdashery. What one is unlikely to think of in connection with the word Templar is a luxury automobile, but this was precisely the name given to a short-lived but impressive American built automobile called – The Templar. During its entire seven years of existence, the Templar Motor Company only produced 6,000 Templars, of which only 30 are believed to exist today.
Few things related to Templarism could be more obscure than this car produced between 1917 and 1924, an era when America was enjoying post-war prosperity and phenomenal growth in all sectors, including Freemasonry. It was at this time that many of Freemasonry’s most majestic edifices were built. Buildings such as the House of the Temple, the George Washington National Masonic Memorial, and the Detroit Masonic Temple were all built then and are a reflection of not only the state of Freemasonry but also of the optimism in society as a whole. Things were flashy and classy and had a touch of elegance that we do not see today. It was an era that was perfect for the birth of a car such as the Templar.
In 1916, during the middle of the First World War, a group of Cleveland investors took it upon themselves to start an independent car company called The Templar Motors Company, taking the name of the new firm from the aforementioned medieval warriors.
The original officers of the company were, M. F. Bradley, W. J. Hunkin and D. C. Reed, who served as President, Vice President and Treasurer, respectively. While a newspaper article of 1989 on the history of the firm notes that all three men were prominent in community affairs in Lakewood, we have no idea if they were themselves Templars or even members of the Masonic Fraternity.
The company erected its first factory in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1917, which at that time consisted of three modest wooden buildings. The first Templar rolled of the new assembly lines in July of that year. In today’s automotive world the Templar would be referred to as a sports car, but in the days that the Templar Motor Company was designing and building cars, it was referred to as a small car; in fact a Superfine Small Car as the company’s advertising proclaimed.
There is no car better built, more finely finished of more completely and elaborately equipped than the Templar.
It offers, in a car of distinctive beauty, the advantages of light weight, easy riding and control, with corresponding economy in operating and tire expanse.
The touring car, which affords ample accommodation for five passengers, has a high gear range from three to sixty miles an hour, with an easy pull in hill climbing, which is a delight to those accustomed to driving high power cars.
High powered indeed. Although the majority of the Templar’s parts were manufactured by outside contractors, the high-powered engine was of original design and manufactured right in the Lakewood factory complex. The Templar featured a four cylinder, overhead valve engine called the Templar Vitalic Top-Valve Motor, which put out a whopping 43 horsepower at 2,100 RPM. (For those less mechanically inclined, 43 horsepower is equal to a John Deere garden tractor or a small dirt bike.)
Initially the company offered four models of Templar ranging in price from, $1,985-$2,225, which is $33,000-$38,000 in today’s currency. Considering that back in 1917 the most expensive Model T Ford sold for about $645, at nearly four times the price of Brother Ford’s product, the Templar was no inexpensive model. It truly was a luxury automobile with each car having twenty-seven coats of paint and wheels made of naturally polished wood. Of course the car came with many options not found on competitor’s models: a folding Kodak camera and compass, tire pump, electric search light, and many other high-tech toys of the day.
While 1918 saw only 150 Templars roll off the Lakewood assembly line, the conclusion of the Great War would see an increase in demand for the Templar, and in 1919 1,800 Templars rolled off the company’s production line. Naturally this increase in demand necessitated an increase in price for this truly unique automobile and the car now retailed between $2,185 for the five-passenger Touring or four-passenger Sportette models and $3,285 for the two-passenger Touring Roadster and five-passenger Sedan models. The company also had a mid-range model called the Victoria Elite, which sold for $2,225.
Despite less than capacity production, by 1920, the Templar Motor Company claimed to have 106 dealerships spread out over 32 states and 15 countries. In that same year, the Templar Motor Company ranked fifteenth among automobile manufacturers in the United States. This is quite an accomplishment considering that there were over forty American automobile manufacturers during the 1920s.
The year 1920 also would bring new accolades to the Templar Motor Company beyond their increased production and sales rankings. In that year, Erwin George Baker, known as Cannonball Baker, set a number of speed records using a Templar. The Hoosier speedster specialized in cross-country racing and set many records in a specially built version of the Templar Sportette, named The Recruiter. According to Hemmings Motor News, Baker made several important record breaking runs with the same car. Among them were New York to Los Angeles in 4 days, 5 hours, and 43 minutes, New York to Chicago in 24 hours, 5 minutes, and Tijuana, Mexico, to White Rock, British Columbia, in 1 day, 20 hours, and 14 minutes. After his Templar endorsement was finished, Baker went on to place 11th in the 1922 Indianapolis 500 and was the first commissioner of NASCAR.
Small successes aside, the years following the war seemed troublesome for the company, with a number of setbacks leading to its ultimate demise. Parts were hard to come by and many of the company’s parts contracts had been locked in at wartime prices. Although 1920 saw 1,800 units produced, the automotive year between the fall of 1920 and 1921 saw production drop to less than a tenth of the previous year. This drop in sales prompted the company to cut its prices in the summer of 1921 by over $500 per model, which did little to salvage or reinvigorate declining sales figures. Price cuts of another $400 per model issued that fall also did little to help matters much.
As if declining sales were not enough, the company faced another set back in December 1921 when a massive fire caused a quarter of a million dollars damage to the assembly plants. With true Templar perseverance the company forged on to produce more cars, and in the spring of 1922 they were back up in production and churning out 8 cars a day even though the facilities could produce nearly three times that figure.
The final death bell was rung in the same year when the company was put into receivership for an unpaid invoice and literally snuffed out completely when the bank took over the company for default on a loan. At the end of the ordeal 20,000 investors lost over $6 million.
So ended the era of the Superfine Small Car a vehicle, which many auto historians contend was the greatest of the independently built American motor Cars.