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Air-Cooled V-12: Franklin’s Luxurious Windmill

By Michael Lamm: Desperate times, desperate measures, and in that context, the plucky little carmaker from Syracuse, New York, produced about 200 air-cooled V-12s in 1932-33 and then quietly passed away. During the postmortem by those who were now jobless, the question became: Did the person who ordered the making of those final V-12s do it to help save the company? Or did he do it as a deliberate act of corporate homicide?

The person in question was Franklin’s newly arrived vice president and general manager, Edwin McEwen. Those who had to deal with McEwen nicknamed him “The Undertaker.” Not that they ever got to know him well, but they knew him well enough not to like him. And McEwen seems to have done everything in his power to reinforce that perception.

The Undertaker had worked at the Velie Motor Corporation long before it went out of business in 1928; also at the F.B. Stearns Company. Stearns expired in 1930. And although McEwen had nothing to do with the deaths of Velie or Stearns, he ended up with a reputation as an automotive funeral director; a motor company grave digger. In the end, his nickname might have been justified, because he did help bury Franklin.

McEwen had been sent to Syracuse by a syndicate of seven banks. These banks had lent Franklin some $5 million in the late 1920s, when the future looked rosy. Franklin was selling 7100-7500 cars a year back then and hoped to increase plant capacity. The loans would also help develop new Franklin automobiles.

  • The photo (above) shows a period image of the Sportiest body style, the club brougham. Some Franklin V-12s came with sidemounts, but many had a rear-mounted spare in an effort to make the hood look longer.


  • Promotional sketch, probably from early 1932, cheated a bit on the Franklin V-12’s length, height and position of headlights. The design originated at Briggs’ LeBaron division and might have been intended for Lincoln.

As it happened, Franklin expected to sell nearly twice the usual number of cars in 1929–around 14,000–but then came the Crash of October 29, 1929. And by late 1931, when the 63-year-old McEwen arrived in Syracuse to salvage what he could for the banks, the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company and its car-marketing subsidiary, the Franklin Automobile Company, were in dire financial straits. Something had to be done quickly.

Something had already been done just before McEwen arrived. The company pared its offerings to one car line, the Franklin Airman. But since the 1932 Airman stood squarely in the medium price class at $2345-$2595, it didn’t sell well. In 1933, 81% of all cars sold in America were Fords, Chevys and Plymouths, cars in the $500 to $650 range.

So Franklin hastily brought out the 1933 Olympic, a smaller and less expensive series than the Airman. To make the Olympic happen quickly, the Syracuse automaker arranged with the Reo Motor Car Company to buy quantities of a model called the Reo Flying Cloud. Franklin bought entire cars; well, not entire…Flying Clouds minus engine, hood and radiator but otherwise complete. Into those Reo Flying Clouds, Franklin stuffed Airman engines, added Franklin hoods and grille shells, and offered the cobbled result as the Franklin Olympic.

Franklin sold 1509 Olympics in 18 months even though most people realized in 1932-33 that they could buy a Reo Flying Cloud for $995 or pay $1385 an Olympic. The biggest difference was the air-cooled engine with 15 more horses. (In a similar transaction, Marmon also bought Reo bodies to make the 1932 Marmon 8-125.)


  • Fewer than 200 V-12 Franklins were made. They came in four body styles: five-and seven-passenger sedans, limousine and two-door club brougham. The seven-passenger sedan and limo had jumpseats. The limo added a divider window.

The individual responsible for the Olympic decision was none other than Herbert H. Franklin himself, the man who’d been running the company since 1902, the year it sold its first car. Mr. Franklin, referred to by friends and associates as “HH,” was generally well liked. Born and raised on a farm 57 miles south of Syracuse, his formal education never went beyond high school. “College” consisted of first apprenticing at, then editing and finally publishing a small-town newspaper. In the process, he became a proficient writer, with a gift for producing polished, persuasive ad copy. And he also discovered that he had a flair for business in general.

According to Sinclair Powell’s definitive book, The Franklin Automobile Company (Society of Automotive Engineers Press, 1999), in 1893, when he was 27 and still newspapering, HH stumbled across an opportunity to buy a patent for the process of diecasting. He grabbed it, opened a diecasting shop in Syracuse (probably the first in the nation), called it the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company, and soon found himself with more money than he’d ever dreamed of.

Eight years later, HH met a bright young bicycle racer, John Wilkinson, at a local machine shop. Wilkinson belonged to an established, respected, wealthy Syracuse family. Rugged, good-natured, outgoing and athletic, he attended Cornell University, where he starred in tennis, track, baseball and football and, amazingly, finished his coursework with honors. He took a degree in mechanical engineering in 1889, soon landed a job with a local bicycle manufacturer and went on to become a champion cyclist. He also became curious about the workings of internal combustion engines and motorcars.

Before he met H.H. Franklin, Wilkinson designed and built two prototype automobiles. His designs interested a group of New York businessmen, but they couldn’t quite decide whether to put Wilkinson’s car into production. Finally, one member of the group introduced Wilkinson to HH, who took a ride in Wilkinson’s second prototype. That ride impressed HH and persuaded him to shell out $1100 so that Wilkinson could build a third prototype, and this led to the car that went into production.


  • This club brougham was part of Harrah’s Automobile Collection and is currently on display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. Bill Harrah’s father drove Franklins, and his collection contained at least one example of every model year, 1902-34.

H.H. Franklin put his name on the enterprise, becoming CEO and primary shareholder. He gave Wilkinson stock and made him Franklin’s chief engineer. The first Franklin Model A went on sale in June 1902 and holds the distinction of being the first four-cylinder automobile produced in America. The company sold 13 cars in 1902, and from that modest beginning, Franklin went on to become not only a successful car company but one ideally suited the quiet, tree-lined streets of Syracuse.

For 28 years, from 1902 to 1930, the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company thrived, and during much of that time, it enjoyed the distinction of being the city’s largest employer. Some 3200 people worked for Franklin in its heyday. HH ran the business side, but he was wise enough to let John Wilkinson make the engineering and manufacturing decisions. Wilkinson took his responsibility seriously, was revered by his underlings and set quite a high standard in everything he did. He insisted on constant improvement and innovation, and he seemed to revel in the fact that Franklin automobiles marched to a different drummer.

Franklin’s hallmark became air cooling. All Franklin cars used air-cooled engines, all had overhead valves, and most used flexible wooden chassis frames and aluminum bodies.

As the company’s ads and literature explained, air cooling did away with the radiators, hoses, water pumps and headaches of a “normal” engine’s boiling and freezing. Franklin’s wooden frames, along with full-elliptic leaf springs, gave a “baby buggy” ride over the unpaved roads of the day: supple and floaty. And aluminum bodies were part of John Wilkinson’s obsessive quest for “scientific light weight.”

The Undertaker, Edwin McEwen, and H.H. Franklin were polar opposites, totally unalike in personality and temperament. HH was reserved, gentlemanly, even a little shy. He’d been born with a cleft palate and a hare lip, and although he tried to hide these defects behind a bushy moustache, he dreaded speaking in public. On a personal level, though, he was cordial and fairly approachable. But he never married and usually ate lunch alone at a nearby hotel.


  • Franklin’s air-cooled V-12 became one of the first American production cars to use a downdraft carburetor. Ads claimed it was “supercharged,” but in reality it had very mild forced induction at low rpm through ducts that probably reduced power at higher engine speeds.

HH owned a large, comfortable home on James Street in Syracuse’s best neighborhood, yet both he and it were anything but ostentatious. Nor was he particularly civic-minded or philanthropic. His maiden cousin, Gladys Bliss, lived in the house with him and managed his domestic staff: two maids, a cook, a gardener and a chauffeur. She was active socially and gave lively dinner parties, providing HH with a life outside his office.

Author Powell notes that HH liked to play cards, enjoyed golf, dabbled in painting and photography and occasionally took trips out of town accompanied by young women. He introduced them as his nieces. For a time, he maintained a suite at a Manhattan hotel.

And HH traveled extensively. He attended auto shows in New York and Chicago, regularly visited Franklin dealers throughout the country, golfed in North Carolina and vacationed in New England and Europe.

John Wilkinson remained Franklin’s chief engineer until 1924, when he and HH had a falling out. The argument seems to have centered on HH’s insistence on making the 1925 Franklin look more like other cars. The new model, designed by J. Frank deCausse, wore a false grille shell. Wilkinson, who’d always lived by light weight and form following function, noted that the faux grille not only looked out of place, it weighed more than the traditional one-piece aluminum hood/grille that he’d designed. One word led to another, and John Wilkinson ultimately stormed out.

In contrast to HH and Wilkinson, we know relatively little about The Undertaker, Edwin McEwen. There seem to be no pictures of him, and no one ever described what he looked like. Those who worked with him said he had a way of stepping on toes. He was 63 years old when he arrived in Syracuse, and he must have realized immediately that he couldn’t compete with HH for the loyalty and affection of Franklin workers. So he apparently made up his mind to take the opposite tack: to be as ruthless and hardnosed as he needed to be, and if that made him unpopular, so be it.

The banks had given McEwen two conflicting missions. Plan A was to save Franklin as an automaker. If that didn’t work, Plan B kicked in to wring as much cash as possible out of the company. He pursued these goals with a zeal no one could have anticipated, and it soon became clear, especially after McEwen began cleaning house, that Franklin would not survive as a manufacturer of automobiles.


  • Due to cooling and space constraints, the V-12 used two camshafts low in the block, with ohv pushrods positioned outside the vee. Crankcase, oil pan and heads were aluminum, while cylinder barrels were finned chrome-nickel iron.

One of McEwen’s first acts was to fire or lay off as many workers as he reasonably could. He gutted the engineering department and pared the administrative staff to the bone. To help cut costs, H.H. Franklin and other company executives volunteered to work without pay, and that’s what they did throughout 1932-33. McEwen’s own salary apparently came from the banking syndicate, so he wasn’t affected.

According to author Powell, McEwen soon cancelled Franklin’s longstanding contract with its principal body supplier, the Walker Body Company of Amesbury, Massachusetts, which put Walker out of business. Franklin would henceforth build its own bodies, and for that McEwen hired a number of former Walker craftsmen and brought them to Syracuse.

In late 1931, at about the time McEwen arrived there, Franklin planned to unveil the V-12. The car at that stage was to be a stretched version of the 1932 Franklin Airman, with 5.5 inches added to the front of the frame to accommodate the slightly longer engine.

The V-12 itself had been under development since 1928, when HH decided that Franklin needed a multi-cylinder engine to stay competitive. Most automakers in Franklin’s price range were coming out with Straight Eights: Studebaker, Peerless, Auburn, Marmon, Du Pont and others. These would soon be joined by Buick, Hudson, Pontiac, Chrysler, Dodge, etc. A cylinder race was underway, with V-12s and V-16s coming down the road in future Auburns, Lincolns, Cadillacs, Packards, Marmons and others. Franklin didn’t want to get left behind.

But because air-cooled Straight Eights weren’t practical (for reasons we’ll come to in a moment), HH hired an outside engineer, Fred Glen Shoemaker, in 1928 specifically to leapfrog the Eight and develop a V-12. Shoemaker had been an aeronautical engineer at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, concerned mostly with cylinder cooling, ignition systems and flow characteristics in aircraft engines. He was probably familiar with earlier air-cooled V-12s, including one that Renault built as early as 1909.

After HH brought Shoemaker to Syracuse and handed him the V-12 assignment, he worked on it for a year and also suggested improvements to Franklin’s six-cylinder engine. Shoemaker laid the groundwork for sidedraft cooling, where the air flowed across and between the cylinders rather than down from above. He also advocated the use of aluminum cylinder heads and introduced ways to improve cooling-fan efficiency. All of these advances were used in the 1930 Franklin. By then, though, Shoemaker had left for General Motors, where he worked on Charles F. Kettering’s two-stroke diesels. After he left, Franklin’s senior engine designer, John Rogers, took over the V-12 project, but progress remained slow.


  • Air entered the squirrel-cage fan up front, then went through the vee and outward. Baffles kept air volume constant among cylinders. A separate duct from the fan fed air to the carburetor, thus the “supercharged” justification.

Before we proceed, it might be well to examine some engineering basics having to do with air-cooled engines. First, you’re undoubtedly aware that ultimately all automotive engines are air-cooled. That’s because air carries the heat away from a water-cooled engine’s radiator, just as from an air-cooled engine’s fins. Franklin engineers called their system “direct air cooling.” To them, a water-cooled engine used “indirect air cooling.”

Any directly air-cooled engine hides within it several inherent advantages and compromises. The most obvious advantages are: no freezing or boiling. The normal operating temperature of a Franklin engine is 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit, while water-cooled engines normally run at between 180 and 245 degrees. The hotter an engine can run without overheating or detonating, the more efficiently it can burn fuel. Thus the Franklin was a good deal more thermodynamically efficient than the typical water-cooled engine of its day.

Another advantage to direct air cooling comes in weight reduction, since there’s no radiator, no water, etc. As for complexity, that’s probably a toss‑up, because while you do get rid of hoses and waterjacketing, you add ducting, baffles, fins, oil coolers and so forth to an air-cooled engine. Liquid coolants can corrode passages in the block and radiator, but air passages can cake up with oil and dirt, so again this turns out a wash.

However, air cooling carries several disadvantages, too. The cylinders in an air-cooled, in‑line engine need to be spaced relatively far apart, with enough room between them for large volumes of air to flow. This means a long crankshaft, and long cranks tends to whip. That’s why Franklin never produced a Straight Eight (the company did experiment with them and even built one unsuccessful race-car Straight Eight in 1905). It’s also why the company’s in‑line Sixes used seven wide main bearings and why most modern air-cooled auto and motorcycle engines have opposed cylinders with short crankshafts.

Air cooling also limits cylinder bore diameters, because too large a bore traps heat at the center of the piston. The piston heats up and eventually melts. This bore restriction was one reason the Corvair engine couldn’t grow and why Porsche switched to water cooling.


  • Most mechanical components came from outside suppliers. The two-speed differential, for instance, came from E.L. Cord’s Columbia axle company. Warner Gear supplied the transmission, Delco the shocks, and even the engine was cast in an outside foundry.

And by limiting bore diameter, the physics of air-cooled engines also restricts valve size. Small bore means small valves. Small valves cut volumetric efficiency (breathing) and thus restrict power output. Franklin engineers were always fighting too‑small valves, and it was Glen Shoemaker who suggested making the six-cylinder Airman engine’s exhaust valves smaller so the intakes could be bigger.

Another problem: Air-cooled powerplants usually need more exotic and expensive metals than water-cooled engines. Franklin metallurgists tried various different aluminum alloys over the years, along with copper cooling fins.

As mentioned, all Franklin engines used overhead valves, and in the early days, valvetrain noise tended to be a problem. This was caused by the different heat-expansion rates of the metals used. Franklin solved this by using a simple compensating-stud device that maintained valve clearances throughout the engine’s heat range.

Another early handicap involved the cooling fan absorbing quite a lot of power. It’s been estimated that early Franklin fans drew as many as 20 bhp. But again, by 1928 Franklin engineers had come up with scirocco fans attached to the front of the crankshaft, plus baffles within the cooling stream, that drew only four to six horsepower—no more than the fan and water pump of a conventional water-cooled engine.

Air cooling, however, does make an engine louder than water cooling. That’s partly because the water acts as an insulating material and partly because a big fan blasting large volumes of air past fins creates noise.

Those are some of the basic plusses and minuses that Franklin engineers had to deal with over the years. And because most aircraft used air-cooled engines—and airplane engines were known for performance and reliability—Franklin capitalized on that link.

Factory literature stated in 1932, “The Franklin Twelve is fundamentally an airplane type engine, with all its inherent reliability and high power characteristics….” Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Frank Hawks were internationally known aviators who drove and promoted Franklin automobiles. And, of course, the series name Airman capitalized on Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight of 1927.


  • Roomy and richly appointed, the Franklin V-12’s Sedan for Five interior matched any luxury car of that era.


  • The V-12’s instrument panel included pull-out knobs for the supercharger, freewheeling, and the manifold heater. There must have been another control for the Columbia overdrive.

Soon after Glen Shoemaker arrived in 1928, he offered up three possible plans for an air-cooled V-12. All three were to be built on the same-sized crankcase, but the cylinder barrels were to have different internal dimensions. Two of these V-12s were based on the bore and stroke of Franklin’s six-cylinder production engines. The smallest V-12 in this trio displaced 340 cubic inches, and the largest had a capacity of 544 cid. In between, a 398 cid V-12 showed the greatest promise. Like the other two, the 398 kept the five-inch bore centers that all Franklin engines used after 1922. It also had the same bore and stroke (3.25 x 4.00 inches) as an earlier production Franklin Six.

Engineer John Rogers, in studying Shoemaker’s V-12 designs, soon discovered that when it came to building actual running V-12 prototypes, there was no room inside the 60-degree vee for lifters and pushrods. The intake manifold and cooling fins took up too much space. So he ended up with two camshafts nestled low in the crankcase and pushrods running up the outsides of the cylinder barrels.

Most vee-type engines of the late 1920s and early ‘30s used updraft carburetors. The problem with this system is that, in an air-cooled vee engine, an updraft carburetor would have interfered with the cooling airflow. Just before Shoemaker left Franklin, several carburetor manufacturers announced downdraft carburetors, so he chose a Stromberg two-barrel carburetor that stood above and outside the V-12’s cooling system. Shoemaker took air from the fan cage, brought it up through a small, flat duct into an air cleaner and then to the mouth of the carburetor.

Franklin advertised this intake system as “supercharging,” but it wasn’t supercharging in any conventional sense since it delivered a very weak stream of forced air that had very little effect on performance. According to Tom Rasmussen of Odyssey Restorations in Minneapolis, Franklin’s induction system might have increased power ever so slightly at low rpm, but at high rpm, the flat, narrow duct between the fan and the carburetor actually restricted airflow. Rasmussen says that in his experience, the V-12 delivers eight to 10 more horsepower at high rpm with the “supercharger” ducting removed. The factory rated the 398-cid V-12 at 150 bhp at 3100 rpm.


  • Pioneering car collector D. Cameron Peck preferred his Franklin V-12 to other classics and used it as a daily driver, saying it was more cooperative and fun to drive than its rivals.

To equalize cooling to all cylinders of the V-12, engineer John Rogers installed thermocouples to measure the heat at various locations on the heads and cylinder barrels. In a typical air-cooled engine, up to 75% of the heat exits through the head, while much less leaves via the cylinder barrels. Thus the Franklin V-12 took a lot of experimental work to determine the best size, location and spacing of fins on the heads…plus trial and error with cooling-passage baffles to provide equal volumes of air to all cylinders. Normally, the rear cylinders get the greatest volume of air, which “packs up” against the engine cover and then flows forward toward the front. Franklin engineers placed a small wedge-shaped baffle near the fore section of the vee to equalize airflow to all cylinders.

At 60 mph, the crank-mounted, 15-inch cooling fan shoved 5720 cubic feet of air per minute through the vee of the mighty Twelve. But even after the engineers optimized air flow, oil in the crankcase still heated up to around 340 degrees Fahrenheit, this despite a 10-quart sump. The concern was engine durability and longevity. So in the final test version of the V-12, Franklin engineers mounted a little oil cooler in the airstream. The cooler dropped oil temperature to around 240 degrees.

The engine was made up of a cast aluminum crankcase with an aluminum oil pan, individual chrome-nickel iron cylinder barrels and aluminum heads with ni-resist valve inserts. The heads and cylinders were liberally finned. Three test engines were built, of which two were installed in “mules” or prototype cars. The mules were stretched-wheelbase 1932 Airmen.

Franklin hired Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker in 1928 to establish a transcontinental record in the then-new Airman Limited. Baker did indeed set a new record, averaging 42.5 mph on the ungodly roads of that day. As a reward, Franklin hired Baker full time, paid him well and set up an office for him in Syracuse. Cannon Ball’s main function was to generate publicity by setting records and driving Franklin automobiles to odd and unlikely places like Death Valley.


  • The V-12 bodies were made mostly of aluminum. Franklin poached craftsmen from the defunct Walker Body Co. and built the bodies in Syracuse. Franklin didn’t have large stamping presses and had to make larger panels by butt-welding smaller ones together. Much lead was used in the process, and alignments weren’t always up to par. “Dealers Bulletin,” March 31, 1932.

In 1932, Baker drove one of the V-12 mules to Daytona Beach, Florida, then on to California and back to Syracuse. The car apparently performed well enough, although details of the trip seem to be lacking. Baker made some high-speed runs at Daytona, mostly for the fun of it, but he didn’t try to set any records with the V-12 mule.

Testing and development continued, and about a year before McEwen arrived, H.H. Franklin brought in a former colleague, Fred Haynes, to help run the company. Haynes had worked at Franklin before but left to join Dodge, where he ultimately became president. HH rehired him in 1930, hoping Haynes could restore the company to its former health.

By early 1931, Haynes and HH had pretty much made up their minds to produce a version of the Airman with the V-12 engine. In March 1932, two V-12 Airmen were exhibited at the New York auto show: a five-passenger sedan and a limousine. The sedan might have been one of the mules. This marked the first time the public had any hint that Franklin was even working on a V-12, and the fact that the company intended to produce the car made dealers supremely happy.

But due to the sinking economy, nothing really happened with the V-12 program until after McEwen arrived, and once he got there, everything changed. Why McEwen turned his attention to the V-12 no one knows, but he did. It might have been ego or to show HH and the world his ability to move and shake things. At any rate, McEwen dived into the V-12 program, and even as the Airman-based V-12s were being shown in New York, he decided that the car in its final form would not be an Airman clone but rather would emerge as an entirely new and different automobile.

Thus soon after he arrived in Syracuse, McEwen must have gotten in touch with the Briggs Manufacturing Company in Detroit. Through Briggs’ LeBaron subsidiary, directed by Ralph Roberts, McEwen acquired an all-new body design for the V-12. He bought the design only, with no intention of having Briggs or LeBaron build the V-12 bodies. (As an aside, there’s been talk that the LeBaron Franklin design might have originally been drawn up for Edsel Ford as a Lincoln proposal, because it looks like an enlarged version of the 1933-34 Ford.)

McEwen’s decision to scrap the Airman heritage meant that nearly every component would be different from earlier specifications. The Series 17, as the V-12 was called, would now use a 144-inch chassis frame supplied by Parrish, as opposed to the Airman’s 132-inch flexible steel frame. It would use front and rear axles purchased from E.L. Cord’s Columbia Axle Company (Franklin traditionally built its own axles, including housings and differential gears). It would use driver-adjustable, double-acting Delco shocks and semi-elliptic leaf springs instead of the Airman’s fully elliptical springs. And along with other Franklins, the three-speed transmission came from Warner Gear, and Oberdorfer Foundries of Syracuse cast the V-12’s aluminum crankcase and oil pan. In other words, very little about the new car was genuinely Franklin.


  • The V-12 bodies were made mostly of aluminum. Franklin poached craftsmen from the defunct Walker Body Co. and built the bodies in Syracuse. Franklin didn’t have large stamping presses and had to make larger panels by butt-welding smaller ones together. Much lead was used in the process, and alignments weren’t always up to par. “Dealers Bulletin,” March 31, 1932.

So it’s easy to see why HH and his staff weren’t thrilled with the new car. Here was H.H. Franklin, the man who’d run his company his way for decades, being told by a bank employee exactly how to engineer and assemble this newest model. There must have been some very bitter words between HH and The Undertaker, but McEwen knew he held the cards and, in the end, it was he who dictated every line, dimension and component of the 12-cylinder car.

The first LeBaron-styled prototype was hurriedly assembled and stood ready to drive on the chilly afternoon of March 24, 1932. Edwin McEwen inspected it and then ordered John Burns, Franklin’s experimental engineer, and research engineer Carl Doman to give the car a rigorous shakedown run. “Take it to California and back,” he told them.

March 24 was a bitter cold day after a heavy snowstorm, and 3:30 p.m. didn’t seem like the best time to start such a long journey. Why not wait until the next morning? Burns and Doman put this question to McEwen, but The Undertaker stood firm. He ordered Burns and Doman into the car, and away they drove toward California.

The pair made the round trip in a little less than two weeks, and they quickly discovered all sorts of problems. The car’s front brakes grabbed violently, and Doman wrote later that, “…in high-speed driving, with sudden application of the brakes, the car would dive left or right with great severity. If care was not taken, the car would many times have turned over.” The brakes wouldn’t be fixed until the trip was nearly over.

Meanwhile, rain water gushed in through the doors, a tie rod slapped against the oil pan, the springs were so soft that on a rutted dirt road Doman was thrown up off his seat and cut his scalp on a roof bow, the carburetor ran rich and the engine burned a quart of oil every 50 miles. On the other hand, Burns, who did most of the driving, averaged 84 mph across the Mojave Desert and experienced no heating problems in Death Valley.

The test car reached Los Angeles on March 31, turned right around and arrived back in Syracuse on April 7. The next morning at eight o’clock, Burns and Doman drove to Franklin headquarters and were immediately summoned to McEwen’s office. Wrote Doman in 1954: “…he [McEwen] started to criticize everything we had done on the trip…including accusing us of being out on a joyride, when we had been to California and back in approximately 13 days, slept little, and worked on the car every minute that we could spare to keep it going.”


  • Edwin McEwen, otherwise known as The Undertaker, cut Franklin’s workforce to the bone. Engine assembly was done by the relatively few people who were left. “Dealers Bulletin,” March 31, 1932.

By the time Burns and Doman got back to Syracuse, the factory already had 49 more V-12s in various stages of “production.” All Twelves were built very much by hand, and although a factory brochure stated that major body stampings were turned out by Franklin’s “large sheetmetal presses,” Franklin presses could produce only small stampings.

Body assembly occupied the top floor of Franklin’s main plant, and here a group of workmen handformed the body over ash-wood framing. Each front fender, rather than being stamped whole, was made up of four or five separate small stampings butt-welded together. Door skins similarly consisted of at least two stampings.

According to Franklin restorer Thomas H. Hubbard, “The reveals around the windows and some of the mouldings are formed entirely of lead.” Estimates put the amount of lead in each body at 300 pounds, although there’s really no way to tell. In the course of restoring several V-12s, Hubbard found bodies with large sections of the wood framing scorched where the metal had been leaded over. Exterior locks were set into different parts of the doors on different cars, and bodies could be off dimensionally by more than an inch, side to side.

As produced, the Franklin Series 17 V-12 automobile, sometimes referred to as “The Banker’s Car,” McEwen being seen as a bank employee, weighed some 6000 pounds, 1800 pounds more than the Airman-based V-12 prototypes. Burns and Doman had been disappointed because the previous V-12—their Airman V-12—had much livelier performance than the one they’d driven across the country.

Last-minute fixes, though, turned the Franklin V-12 into quite a decent automobile. Engine tolerances were tightened up to produce the industry norm of 750-1000 miles per quart of oil instead of the previous 50. Nearly all V-12s came with a Columbia two-speed “Double High” rear axle. The Columbia’s top ratio of 3.4:1 boosted fuel economy, helped acceleration and gave a claimed 100-mph top speed at 3470 rpm. A number of owner/restorers, among them D. Cameron Peck, preferred driving their Franklin Twelves to other classics in their collections, saying the Franklin V-12 handled better, had a more comfortable ride and was simply more fun on the road.

Among its lesser engineering nuances, the car had ball-bearing spring shackles, 15-inch Lockheed hydraulic brakes, thermostatic hood-front louvers and freewheeling, which purportedly saved fuel and made it possible to shift without the clutch.


The Series 17 came in four body styles: five-passenger sedan, seven-passenger sedan, limousine and two-door club brougham. The seven-passenger sedan and limo had jumpseats. The limo added a divider window.

The Franklin V-12 arrived in dealer showrooms in late April 1932, priced at $3885 to $4185, and sales took off with a painful thud. The reason wasn’t just the Depression. For those prices or less, a buyer could browse among a number of V-12s, including Cadillac, Lincoln, Auburn and Pierce-Arrow. The last Franklin V-12 was built in the winter of 1933 but didn’t get sold until the late spring of 1934, and even then at $1000 less than the 1932 price. Today only 18 Twelves survive, according to the H.H. Franklin Club Incorporated.

Around Thanksgiving of 1933, Edwin McEwen wasn’t feeling well and checked into a Syracuse hospital. He returned home a few days later, contracted pneumonia and died in January 1934. His two years at Franklin were probably as awful and frustrating for him as for everyone else, and in the end he’d done nothing useful to help the company survive. The H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company went into bankruptcy on April 3, 1934.

Herbert H. Franklin was 67 when the company shut down, and despite its failure, he managed to live comfortably in Syracuse and never had to work again. He petitioned the bankruptcy court to pay him $45,272 in back wages and eventually settled for about 10 cents on the dollar, same as most other claimants.

HH had always been outside the automotive mainstream, but he admired Henry Ford, so when he could no longer requisition cars from the Franklin motor pool, he bought himself a new Ford. In April 1956, after suffering a series of strokes, HH passed away at home. He died in relative obscurity a few months short of his 90th birthday.

Assets of the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company were ultimately bought by Ward Canaday, the Toledo entrepreneur who soon also bought the assets of the bankrupt Willys-Overland Company. Canaday sold off Franklin’s real estate and plant machinery and put the money into Willys-Overland. A few years later, he guided that struggling automaker into the profitable manufacture of wartime and postwar Jeeps.

The Franklin name was acquired by Air Cooled Motors, a company founded by former Franklin engineers Ed Marks and Carl Doman. Air Cooled Motors made aircraft and helicopter engines during the war, and the 1948 Tucker Torpedo used a Doman-Marks air-cooled Flat Six converted to water cooling. The Carrier Company bought the Franklin plant for back taxes and manufactured air conditioners there for many years.

Today, the H.H. Franklin Foundation, endowed by restorer Tom Hubbard, operates a museum and library in Tucson, Arizona. The H.H. Franklin Club Incorporated, headquartered in Cazenovia, New York, sponsors an annual Franklin Trek, and its 850 members keep the flame burning that HH and John Wilkinson lit just over a century ago.

For research and technical assistance, the author thanks the following individuals and institutions: Sinclair Powell, Ann Arbor MI; Walt Gosden, Floral Park NY for most of the photographs; Skip Marketti, The Nethercutt Collection, Sylmar CA; Tom Rasmussen, Odyssey Restorations, Minneapolis MN; Bourke Runton, H.H. Franklin Foundation & Museum, Tucson AZ; the H.H. Franklin Club Inc., Cazenovia NY; Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Corners MI; and Richard Lentinello, Special-Interest Autos, Bennington VT. Portions of this article appeared in Collectible Automobile magazine. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Lamm.

28 responses to “Air-Cooled V-12: Franklin’s Luxurious Windmill

  1. Brilliant article! Thanks for relating the story of a marque that had great potential to survive the Depression and achieve greatness again. Nuts to the ‘bean-counter’ who drove Franklin into the ground devastating the lives of perhaps thousands.

  2. Wonderfully informative article!

    Thanx for detailing how that V-12 was air cooled, that was my first question. Though three hundred+ degree oil redefines the term cool, apparently it worked well enough to get cross country, no mean trick in the late ’20s.

    Freewheeling drive train? That was innovative. It would be a plus on an unsynched gearbox if one wanted to shift to neutral to take advantage of no engine braking on shallow hills.

    • There was an oil cooler between the V of the cylinders, it looked like a small radiator (like you would find in a heater core under the dashboard in a 1930s car) and was in fact made by Harrison Radiator Company who supplied may water cooled cars with radiators in that era.

  3. Thanks. I particularly like the old factory ‘line’ photos. Work seems different back then. Probably still work, tho

  4. Michael Lamm always covers his topics to the last detail. This is the best Franklin article I have ever read. Thanks very much for posting it. Ed Minnie.

  5. A fascinating and fact-filled article about a rare automobile. It is reminiscent of Mr. Lamm’s great work in the earliest issues of Special Interest Autos. In almost 40 years of attending car shows, I have seen exactly one Franklin V-12 ( a gorgeous Club Brougham) at Chesterwood in Stockbridge, Massachusetts more than 20 years ago . Now I know why.

  6. One of the best aticles Old Motor has ever published.

    I’m thinking it may also be the longest.

    Michael Lamm has ascended to the pinnacle of automotive historians. He’s matched by few and exceeded by none, based on his vast body of work. IMO of course.

  7. Thank you for posting this insightful and interesting article about an innovative American marque. Very well written and enjoyable to read.

  8. At last year’s SAE World Congress, their history committee sponsored a presentation by Sinclair Powell on John Wilkinson and the history of the Franklin automobiles. I shot video but we can’t post links here, so just go to YouTube and search for “history of franklin air-cooled cars”.

  9. In addition to the museum in Tucson, the Gilmore Car Museum near Kalamazoo, Michigan houses the Franklin Automobile Collection, which includes cars, engines and archives of The H. H. Franklin Club. They have Franklin cars from just about every period of the company’s history.

  10. In that picture of the dashboard it says the throttle was controlled by a knob.
    There was no gas pedal?You went faster or slower by pulling a knob in or out?
    Me no comprende.

    • The hand throttle was a very early & quite primitive “cruise control”, Use the foot throttle to reach your speed, then pull out the hand throttle to hold that speed. “Cruise Control” … well, sorta.

      • The hand throttle was also a great “third foot” in the days before automatic transmissions, especially on a steep uphill stop. The engine speed could be brought up while one foot was on the brake and the other on the clutch. Starting up the hill from a stop was almost guaranteed without stalling.

  11. Wonderful story. Thank you.

    I’ve always had a slight interest in Franklin, but never enough to fully pursue it. This article gave a great insight. Thanks again

  12. Magnificent cars. Horsepower matched to transmission gearing, freewheeling, and Columbia 2 speed make these one of the more impressive driving cars of the 30’s. I recall one evening in 1992 when a group of us went out in a largely unrestored example and broke 100 mph for a second (if the speedometer was correct) on a Syracuse highway.

    And, most people have never seen one to realize its size – it dwarfs most 30’s cars.

    PS. I followed this drive with another – a midnight drive in an 1904 at lperhaps 50 mph (nothing better than holding the flashlight to drive around the lake in Cazenovia)

  13. This is definitely one of the finest articles run yet here on the old motor. Thank you David G and thank you Michael Lamm! While about an era newer than my primary interests, it is nevertheless an excellent piece on the ending chapter in one of the finest independent automakers in all of automobile history.
    When I was very young (probably not yet 4), my dad decided that he wanted to restore an “antique” automobile. The car he chose (although never restored) was a 1932 Franklin Airman sedan. He sold it a few years later, but I still remember the car fairly well. It made the article more interesting to me to associate it with the development going on at that time for the V-12. A bit modern perhaps. But it would be a car I would love to have.
    I still often think about that Franklin and wonder what became of it. I do hope it is well restored and cared for.

  14. A fantastic article – it is great that an “independent” make like Franklin is being remembered in 2015. I think that the complete life story of Edwin McEwen would be a worthwhile project, considering the impact that he had on Velie, Stearns-Knight and Franklin.

  15. I have ( or had, I can’t locate it now) a used car priced guide for Boston area, late 1941. Retail on these fine Franklin V-12’s was $45. Well over 90% loss in value from new. What a shame!

  16. The use of lead to fair the body joints is frequently mentioned in the article – which is a great read BTW.
    How did they get lead to bond to the aluminum? Was it a special alloy or am I missing something?

  17. In addition to the body styles mentioned at last one hearse was built which was owned by an undertaker in Providence, R.I. It went out west and eventually became a parts car for the restoration of other V-12s.

  18. I am a little young to fully appreciate the Franklin automobile, but my dad was a big fan of them as was his dad who owned 3 or 4 in the 20s and 30s. I knew that the depression had a negative effect on the company, but this history lesson was very informative and interesting.

  19. My teenage friends discovered a Marmon Roosevelt in a neighbour hood garage that was part of an estate. It had less than 20,000 miles. We drove daily for more than 3 years. What a car. Power, reliabiility and comfort were the hallmarks of the Marmon. Just wish we had managed to keep and preserve it for our grandchildran

  20. Superb article on the history of Franklin, perhaps somewhat spoiled for me by the author’s presumably personal ideas on bore limitations in air-cooled engines. Pratt & Whitney made aero engines with six inch bores that didn’t melt the centre of the piston, so did Curtis Wright and Bristol in England. The latter used four valves per cylinder in the 1920s to minimize exhaust valve sizes to get better heat transfer into the heads with longer valve seat length comparedtona single. So saying the Corvair engine couldn’t have been made larger in bore is not supported by any engineering I know of (and I is one, a mech engineer). Kind of ruined the remainder of the article for me because it seems like quite the old wives’ tale mixed in with the actual facts so well related.

  21. Tom Green

    Great article on a unique car. Have toured the Tucson museum.
    Franklin, to my recollection had a dealership in Berlin Germany.

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