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The Hamlin Front Drive and the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Company

Updated – The innovative Hamlin “Front Drive Special” in the lead photo ran in the 1926 Indianapolis 500. It is a part of the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Co. story that is covered in today’s feature.

Both Lee Stohr and your Editor went to work searching patents from the same period the “Mystery Car” was built in and honed in on the only patents to be found that appear to share the same DNA. Both originated from the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Co.

The Company was in business between 1919 -’29 in Chicago and Harvey, Illinois; the names of all of the principals are not known, but Edgar R. Holmes apparently had a stake in it. The company was renamed the Hamlin Motor Co. in 1930 during an attempt to bring out a new front wheel drive car.

Update – At the bottom of the post by historian Craig H. Trout about what he has learned about Hamlin-Holmes “Principals” and the story of E.R. Holmes. Craig is working on an upcoming book about the history of “Coleman Motors.”

front wheel drive 2

The side view drawing (above) and the front view (below) show the details of a Hamlin-Holmes Motor Co. design that originated as early as 1919. A patent application for it was filed by Edgar R. Holmes on Jan. 31, 1920, and was granted on April 3, 1923. Both drawings show the same basic type of construction as the “Mystery Car” front wheel drive and use a beam axle with yoked ends and conventional drag link-actuated steering with the spindles connected with a tie rod.

The application drawing (below) for a patent filed on Nov 12, 1921, by Clifton R. Roche and granted on Dec. 14, 1926, was assigned to the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Co. This second design also shares same the method of construction with a center-mounted differential (#25); its details are similar those used in the “Mystery Car.”

Roche was granted over a dozen automotive patents between the mid-1920s and the early-1940s and he appears to have been a professional automotive engineer.

Nothing concrete has been found that ties these designs and the patents by Holmes and Roche together with the “Mystery Car.” Hopefully someone with more time to research this might be able to connect the dots if there is some type of a connection?

front wheel drive 1

A few years later the Hamlin “Front Drive Special” was entered in the 1926 Indianapolis 500 race by the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Co. as a way to keep its design’s and name before the public. It was built by Louis Chevrolet and his brother Arthur at the “Frontenac Ford” Company headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.

This racing car like other “Fronty” Fords was based on a Model “T” Ford chassis, and used a Ford engine block equipped with a special crankshaft, connecting rods and pistons. This supercharged engine used the new “Fronty”Ford d.o.h.c. 16-valve racing head and was backed up by a Ford transmission. The power plant connected to a stripped standard Ford rear axle differential center section that in turn drove the lightweight front wheel drive design through half shafts.

hamlin special front drive 2

  • The Hamlin “Front Drive Special” at Indianapolis in 1926.

Press reports state that the “Special” retired from the 500 with an “engine failure” that may have been due to the “Fronty” 16-valve cylinder head casting’s fragile nature. The new and undeveloped car and engine were outclassed and never really performed well due to these factors in the big “AAA” races. Earlier 8-valve “Fronty” Ford’s had finished the 500 several times with one placing in the 5th position in 1923.

At a race meeting on the flat Hawthorne course in Chicago driven by Tom Alley, the car did manage to set a 53-second lap in contrast to Ralph DePalma’s 48 1/5 second qualifying lap. That performance gave Ralph the pole position in the feature race that he won driving a Front Drive Miller racing car costing five times as much as the “Fronty” Ford.

hamiln front drive special 3

  • Note the low-hanging carburetor (changed later) that fed a “Rootes” type supercharger.

Hamlin-Holmes “Principals” and the story of E.R. Holmes

By Craig H. Trout: In terms of “who the principals were” in the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Company, it is my understanding from my own detailed research that skilled machinist/draftsman/self-taught mechanical engineer Edgar Rufus Holmes (1878-1951) of Denver, Colorado found an investor in the form of Frank Benjamin Hamlin (1866-1941) of Chicago, Illinois in September of 1919, and together, they incorporated the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Company. “E.R.” Holmes, as he preferred to be called, contributed his own “front pull” (front drive) axle, and Frank B. Hamlin provided the financial backing.

E.R. Holmes had worked first as a machinist at the F.M. Davis Iron Works in Denver in 1902, by 1908 had become president of the Edben Engine Company (motorcycles), in 1909 designed a very light-weight rotary aircraft engine, and then in 1910, founded the “E.R. Holmes Motor Company,” along with younger brother Harleigh Randall Holmes (1881-1963), who had also worked at F.M. Davis Iron works for a short time.

Hamlin-Holmes Prototype

  •                                                         Hamlin-Holmes touring car prototype.

Getting back to our story, E.R. Holmes and Frank B. Hamlin formed the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Company in September 1919 (the investor, of course, got top billing!), and the first Hamlin-Holmes car was built in Denver and was touted as being one of the first “front pull” (their preferred term) cars, and used the front drive axle patented by E.R. Holmes in 1920. The operation soon moved to Detroit, and then eventually to Harvey, Illinois, building at least (12) prototypes between 1919 and 1929, to include the above -mentioned race car in 1926. At least one, if not more, of the Hamlin-Holmes car prototypes and a truck prototype was actually built back in Denver in 1922-23 at the Plains Iron Works, the new name of the old F.M. Davis Iron Works at 8th & Larimer streets.

E.R. Holmes was a man of varied and eclectic interests, and he continued to help his younger brother, inventor Harleigh R. Holmes with his own Holmes Motors Company in Littleton, Colorado (1920), which then moved to the Plains Iron Works (new investors) in 1922 to become the “Plains Truck,” and ironically was then being built side-by-side with the Hamlin-Holmes car & truck prototypes. In 1923, the Plains Truck operation moved back to Littleton, and in 1924, became re-branded as the “Coleman Motors Company” (after investor A. E. Coleman) and then building the legendary “Coleman Truck,” which remained in production until 1987.

Hamlin-Holmes Radiator Badge

  •                                                              Hamlin-Holmes radiator emblem.

E.R. Holmes remained periodically on site at the Coleman plant in Littleton through much of the 1920s as a skilled machinist, mechanical engineer and draftsman, with his signature appearing on many of the very early Coleman mechanical drawings of time. So in addition to being an active “principal” in the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Company, he was simultaneously very much on staff at his younger brother’s Holmes / Plains / Coleman truck building operations, sometimes in direct competition with himself and his own car & truck prototypes.

I don’t know much about investor Frank B. Hamlin, but E.R. Holmes was literally a “human hat tree,” wearing many different hats all at once – anything that would fully engage his very inventive mechanical skills and very active mind.

By the way, that “might” be E.R. Holmes on the far right in th top photo, it looks very much like him. I have always assumed that E.R. Holmes also contributed in some way to the “Coleman Specials” race cars of 1929.

23 responses to “The Hamlin Front Drive and the Hamlin-Holmes Motor Company

  1. Interesting article about a different design. I thought the Cord L-29 was first front wheel drive but then again I am just a lowly artist.

  2. Before that infamous Seldon patent car was ACTUALLY built (closer to 1910), Walter Christie was building and racing front wheel drive cars, beating many of the best cars of the day. Christie and his monsters held numerous world records, even beating Henry Ford out of one well earned spot by a fraction of a second on the same day, but in a different location. Newspapers announced Ford’s record because it was earlier in the day, in time to reach the press. The record for Ford was never official because before it became official, Christie had beaten it.
    There were numerous other largely unknown builders of front wheel drive, and even four wheel drive cars and trucks before 1910.
    Thank you David G! More wonderful stuff.

  3. According to the Motor Age report, ‘one of the standard Ford connecting rods let go.’ The same issue of the magazine provided full technical details of the car.

    (David, I can add these details if you wish.)

  4. You would think that a 16 valve Fronty with the benefit of a blower and race veterans Louis and Arthur Chevrolet laying there hands on it, would be enough for a competitive racer. Not having front brakes, a decent driver, and does it even have a gear box, might be its downfall. I’d hate to race 500 miles wondering if I was going to do in my carburetor with rocks kicked up in turns. The good news is that the white walls (inner and outer) would sure look spiffy in a concours.

  5. Are those balancing weights on the spoke of the right front tire in the first and second photos? One can be seen on the rear wheel in the second photo as well.

  6. The following details were taken from Motor Age of June 3, 1926:

    The Hamlin Front Drive Special was built by Chevrolet Brothers and contains a great number of Ford parts. A Ford engine with standard transmission and clutch is used, it being reversed in the car so that the transmission is immediately behind the radiator. Rods from the pedal members on the transmission run back to pedals in the driver’s cockpit, so that ideal seating conditions are obtained.

    The control used in the Ford has been retained except that the brakes are reversed, the pedal control actuating the brakes on the rear wheels, which are the new Ford type, while the lever operates the regulation transmission brake.

    Ford rear springs are used both at the front and rear. The front axle which carries the differential has a short pinion shaft carried on two ball bearings and this shaft engages with the square hole into which the square shaft of the universal joint would fit on a standard Ford car.

    The engine is supported at three points, the rear support being at a cross member in about the center of the car, made from a standard front cross member. The engine slopes down two or three inches at the rear, so that oil from the front or transmission end will flow back to the pump.

    Pressure lubrication to all parts is used, but there is no scavenging pump as in many of the race cars, a large sump being used instead, and the oil runs into this and is re-circulated by the gear type pump.

    The engine has a bore of 2⅞ in. obtained by cutting out the Ford block and putting in sleeves 3/16 in. thick, which give adequate cooling due to the uniform wall thickness. The stroke is 3½ in. A standard 16” valve Fronty-Ford cylinder head is used and a Rootes type supercharger is installed at the rear of the engine and is driven by gears from the crankshaft.

  7. In your lead photo of the 28 car, did anyone notice the drivers right heel showing, just ahead of the step pan ? It might be pressing on the brake pedal.

  8. Two of the gentlemen in the lead picture above are my grandfather and father. While we have known about the car to some extent, and I believe have a copy of that picture, my sister and I have just become aware of the online information about it within the last few days through a friend of my sister. I will be looking at any information online and will be communicating with my siblings as we are interested in knowing more about it. I believe my brother has some material relating to the car as well. Ethel Hamlin

    • Referring to the statement that Hamlin-Holmes Motor Co. was renamed the Hamlin Motor Co. in 1930
      I can add the following: I am collecting old automotive stocks and I got in my collection a stock
      from Hamlin Motor Company dated 17th January 1925. It is handsigned by F. B. Hamlin as president.
      This shows that apparently the renaming took place some years earlier or that Hamlin Motor Co. existed
      in parallel to Hamlin-Holmes Motor Co.

        • I have stock certificates dated from 1919 and 1920 for the Hamlin Oil Corporation signed by F. B. Hamlin as President, and George E. Bowen as Treasurer for 750 shares.

  9. i have a picture of the car as the ray day piston special its dated spring 1932 it was racing mot likely at langehorne pa. the car currently resides tampa st.pete auto museum if i figure out how to include pics i’ll forward to the old motor

  10. my gandfather was a mechanic in south phila. my picture has my grandfather next to the car the front differential is i’ts identifying feature .funny thing is it looks like a miller

  11. The Hamlin Special in the Tampa Bay Museum is not the Hamlin Special raced in the 1926 Indy 500. It has a Model A block and a Roof OHV head. Both are FWD The Tampa Museum is now calling the car perhaps an early Miller which it is not.

  12. can jim collins give his info to me i kinda agree the car at tampa does seem to wide to be the original car, i get cars get rebodied but it does look suspect. i would like to gather more info

  13. I am the daughter and grand daughter of Frank B. Hamlin and Ralph Hamlin. I have pictures of my father and grandfather sitting in the car. My brother has sets of the blueprints of the car.

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