The immediate post war period saw more than its fair share of entrepreneurial automotive adventures. Dozens of them sprouted from 1945 to 1950, achieving varying degrees of success and fame. The Keller Motor Company was one of just a hand full that ever reached production, even in tiny numbers. Keller’s one and only product offering was a wood bodied station wagon called the Super Chief in 1949. The Super Chief filled many altruistic needs. It was cheap to buy, economical to operate, and if successful, could bring prosperity to a downtrodden region. But even with all that going for it, it is hard to find anyone, even among car buffs, who has ever heard of the Keller. Like so many of its post-war contemporaries, by the close of the decade, it was gone. Keller’s demise was more literal than most…but more on that later.
Like the first Baby Boomers, the Keller automobile was conceived in 1945, as World War II was in its final days. The aircraft industry of San Diego, California had played a vital role in America’s victory. Among its key players was Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, or Convair. Two of the war’s more indispensable tools, the army air corps B-24 Liberator heavy bomber and the navy’s PBY Catalina reconnaissance seaplane, were built in San Diego by Convair. In the spring of 1945, with peace on the horizon, the production of war machines was winding down. Quite a few of the Convair engineers who had designed and built those complex wepons were about to find themselves redundant. John Leifeld, a former Chrysler man conscripted by Convair during the war years, who had always tinkered with the idea of building a car of his own design, was one of them.
With the explosive release of pent up demand for automobiles about to blow, the time, Leifeld reasoned, was now. his car would be simple and cheap, both to build and to operate - just the thing to navigate the certainty of post-war shortages with ease. He enrolled several of his buddies, who were also talented and newly unemployed. The tiny roadster they produced had an innovative X-frame tubular chassis, a rear-mounted 25hp engine that was covered with a hood that could open from either side. Weighing in at 600lbs and projected to cost $600, Leifeld affectionately referred to the little car as the Iron Monster.
Talented engineers are good at designing innovative products. When it comes to convincing investors to back them with the funds necessary to make them a reality, they are often found lacking. Salesmanship is the difference between a good product and a successful one. Leifeld and his team needed a promoter, and found one in S.A Williams - or rather, he found them. Williams was a small time promotor with a taste for The Deal. As he told the story in a bar one afternoon, in a meeting he’d arranged though the Leifeld’s brother, Williams had been making a good living buying up failing restaurants, fixing them up, and then selling at a profit: A ‘flipper’ before the term was invented. He was involved in other enterprises before that but the details were a little sketchier. This was understandable, since one of those missing was that of a prison time served for a fraud conviction. That tidbit not forthcoming, Williams was able to sell himself to Leifeld as the man to make the Iron Monster a reality.
Things started off well. Using mostly other people’s money, Williams was able to bankroll further development of the Bobbi-Kar, and to build a prototype.
Then he really got to work. Williams was a born publicity hound, as media savvy as a Kardashian. He managed to get all 4 major newsreel producers (the social media of the day) to run pieces on the Bobbi-Kar. Newspapers picked up the story and ran with it. Deposits on both cars and dealer franchises soon came pouring in. By the end of 1945 Williams had raised enough money to lease a shuttered aircraft factory for production space. In fact, it was the very same Convair plant Leifeld and his team worked at during the war.
He was in the midst of putting together a $5.5 million IPO for early 1946, when the California Commissioner of Corporations began asking questions that Williams didn’t want to answer. The IPO was waylaid.
Plans for the Bobbi-Kar were put on hold as Williams went off in search of environs more friendly to his way of doing business. He may have also wanted to be elsewhere should state officials come calling with further questions. It was during that absence when San Diego native George Keller happened to show up at the empty Bobbi-Kar plant. Keller was a veteran executive at Studebaker, until recently that storied independent’s V.P. of Sales. He had left abruptly after a dispute, and now found himself looking for work. Keller was a big man with a big personality. “Big George,” as he was known in the industry, was likeable, honest, aggressive and blunt. The last being the likely reason he was no longer at Studebaker. Leifeld liked what Keller had to say and hired him as a consultant to help him refine the Bobbi-Kar and expand the product line.
Not long after hiring Keller, Leifeld got a telegram from Williams - Pack up the entire San Diego operation onto a railcar and get out here. “Here” was Huntsville, Alabama at a shuttered Bechtel-McCone Aircraft Corporation factory. It seems Williams had convinced the Alabama Chamber of Commerce that automobile production was just the thing to bring that plant back to life and hire back several thousand furloughed workers. Williams had made sure to set the company up with he as the sole owner of Bobbi-Kar’s assets. If the Bobbi-Kar was going to be built, the team was going to have to pack up and follow Williams to Alabama.
Williams, however, had forgotten to tell his Dixie backers about his difficulties back in California. When the truth did finally arrive in Alabama - not long after the railcar in fact - Williams was banned from holding office in a publicly traded company. This prompted a fed up George Keller to lead an internal rebellion to oust Williams. It was for the best, even though the best wasn’t very good. With Williams out, financing dried up, leaving Keller and Leifeld with 40 employees, a 700,000 sq. ft. factory, and no money to pay for any of it. They lacked even the funds to get home.
That is when a local businessman named Hubert Mitchell came to the rescue. Mitchell was a man who wore many hats. In addition to operating a roadside diner, a small chain of movie theaters and a theatrical supply business, he also owned a furniture factory in Huntsville that during the war supplied seats for both scout planes and troop transporters. With not much to scout and no troops in need of transport, Mitchell found himself with 3,000 unused seats and the capacity to make a lot more than that. He took an immediate liking to Keller and Leifeld and their automotive dream. And with the little Bobbi-Kar, he thought he might have found a place to put all those seats.
Like S.A. Williams, Hubert Mitchell was a promoter and a wheeler dealer… but without the rap sheet. Back in the 1930s he claimed to have found the famous outlaw Jesse James - thought to be long dead – indeed alive in an Alabama jail and now ninety years old. Mitchell secured the man’s release and booked him on a promotional tour though the South. Also like Williams, Mitchell saw the Bobbi-Kar as his ticket to the big time. The difference between them was that while Williams sought to enrich himself, Mitchell wanted to bring much of Alabama along with him on the road to prosperity. Not only could this car get his idled employees in Huntsville back to work, the woody station wagon would keep northern Alabama lumber mills humming, while the production of frames and front ends would use the steel from the blast furnaces of Birmingham. With a enthusiastic pitch for making Huntsville the auto making capital of the South, Mitchell was able to persuade a group of local investors to back him in buying out Williams for $30,000. (That apparently didn’t go very far because the man was later convicted back in California of counterfeiting $20 bills)
Because of William’s soiled reputation, the Bobbi-Kar name had acquired a stench. It had to go. Mitchell was impressed by the way George Keller had, through the force of his personality, kept his team together through some pretty tough times. So even though Keller wanted to call the newly organized company Mitchell Motors, Hubert Mitchell insisted on using Keller’s name. The whole operation was now bonded to the sizable reputation and formidable sales skills of Big George Keller, whom he enthusiastically promoted as a modern incarnation of John North Willys, Charlie Nash and Walter P. Chrysler, all rolled up in to one big man.
Mitchell and Keller were quickly able to raise $450,000 from investors and would be dealers enticed by the opportunity to sell this nifty little car for just $848. The funds were used to hire staff, and to advance development of the car. The rear engine roadster was dropped, its 25hp gerbil wheel motor replaced with a more substantial 49hp Hercules 4-cylinder mill. Efforts were focused on the station wagon, as well as a conventional hardtop and convertible.
Keller also opened a Detroit office. This made sense. To keep costs down they would be using many off the shelf parts – the Hercules engine, a Hudson gear box, Willys rear end and Pontiac instruments. The shelves on which those parts resided were mostly in Detroit.
These moves were simple and strait forward. What was not simple was filing for an initial stock offering. Keller Motors needed to raise another $5 million to order tooling and pay for an initial supply of parts. But in the wake of various levels of stock shenanigans on the part of fellow automotive startups, Tucker, Playboy and Davis, the SEC was relentless in its demands for transparency. It took close to 2 years and $130,000 in attorney fees before they were allowed to proceed with the IPO.
In the meantime, Leifeld and Keller were putting the final touches on the Super Chief. They had built perhaps 10 prototypes over those two years. They eventually decided to concentrate their efforts on the station wagon. At the time, Willys was having success with its Jeep station wagon introduced in 1946 - selling about 25,000 per year - and Crosley had just rolled out its own little wagon that quickly become the company’s #1 seller. For Keller Motors the wagon made even more sense. Wood bodies didn’t need expensive tooling, only ash wood from the forests of Northern Alabama, and the skilled woodworkers which Huntsville had in abundance.
By summer’s end in 1949, John Leifeld had managed to put together a makeshift assembly line and do a production run of at least 6 Super Chiefs. Once funding was secured, the plan was to make 7,000 cars in the first year of operations, eventually ramping up to ten times that. But for now, the stock prospectus said Keller would be “in production” and by God, it was. George Keller meanwhile had secured suppliers and signed up over 1,500 franchised dealers. When stock sales finally began at the end of September, Keller Motors looked to be on its way.
By October 4th, Keller Motors had raised $3 million. Success was imminent. A celebration was for planned that evening at the Hotel Algonquin in Manhattan. The food came, the drinks flowed, and the party lasted into the night. The next morning, everyone likely had a hefty hangover. All except one, and he might have preferred it to the alternative. Later that day Big George Keller was found cold in his bed, dead of a heart attack at age 56.
When Hubert Mitchell decided to focus his promotional efforts on the persona of George Keller, it was predicated on the idea that George Keller would be there to lead the company to the promised land. Without him, the shine came off the apple. The reality was that this was an inexperienced management team, with a weak dealer network, selling a woody wagon in a market for woodies that was beginning to show signs of rot. (Plymouth would introduce its steel-bodied Suburban the following year, sounding the death toll for the woody.) In an interview some years later, Hubert Mitchell said that if he had it to do all over again he would have, “built the business and advertising around the car, not any one man.” With the Man gone, the edifice that was Keller Motors crumbled.
Alabama native, Ron Barnett, has done extensive research on the Keller. He determined that a total of 17-18 of them were built in Huntsville – production cars and prototypes. There were also at least two Bobbi-Kars built before the move east. According to Barnett, only three Kellers exist today, including his own that he spent years restoring to 1949 condition. Not many folks have heard of the Keller, but thanks to the efforts of Mr. Barnett, a few more will.
Copyright@2019 by Mal Pearson
Sources and Further Reading:
The Huntsville Times, Sept 5, 1995, Deborah Story. History on Wheels
The Huntsville Times, Sept 13, 1988, Mike Paludan. The Keller
The Huntsville Times, Dec 15, 1976, David Cagle. Hubert Mitchell