In the earliest years of the Twentieth Century, Detroit had yet to established itself as the center of America’s automobile industry. Cities like Indianapolis, Cleveland and Springfield, MA were still in the running for the nation’s car-making capitol. Buffalo, New York also had aspirations. The E.R. Thomas Company, makers of the Thomas Flyer that won the 1908 New York-to-Paris ‘Great Race’ around the world (it took 169 days) made its home in Buffalo. So, too, did Pierce-Arrow, one of America’s finest marques for the first third of the century.
Alas, automotive preeminence was not in the stars for the City of Good Neighbors. Within a few years of the Thomas Flyer’s triumph of endurance, the E. R. Thomas Company could not endure incompetent management and a changing marketplace. Pierce-Arrow had more lasting success. It was a further twenty years before the storied marque would collapse under the weight of the Great Depression.
More than a decade after the last Pierce Arrow, Buffalo would again become the center of automotive universe…or at least a small corner of it…for a very short time.
The immediate post-war period was a time of tremendous optimism. After many years of slumber through depression and war, the American consumer was awakening. And, like wildflowers after a first spring rain, thousands of promising new enterprises took root. Exploding demand was greeted with an array of innovative new products. A good many of these were of the four wheeled, internal combustion variety. Dozens of automakers sprouted during the first few years after the war.
Of these newcomers, the two biggest were Kaiser and Crosley. Both firms had founders who were already titans of other industries. Builder of dams and ships, Henry J Kaiser, and Powell Crosley, the “Henry Ford of Radio,” had abundant financial resources, extensive manufacturing experience, not to mention ample political connections. They were both able to quickly ramp up to full automobile production, and be generating profits within a year or two. Crosley would produce over 70,000 cars in its 6+year run. Kaiser would build over a half million cars through 1954.
Most of the rest were flights of fancy, formulated by dreamers, nerds or charlatans. True, some of their cars were notable contraptions. There was the Scootmobile, made from the auxiliary fuel tanks of war surplus bombers, and the unrelated Air Scoot, a folding car that weighed just 72lbs. The Gordon-Diamond had its 4 wheels placed in a diamond pattern on the chassis, while the Hoppenstand was a minicar with an air-cooled engine and a hydraulic torque converter at each of its conventionally placed wheels.
In between the serious enterprises and the preposterous pipe dreams were a handful of startups with real possibility. The best known was Tucker; a heroic quest by a charismatic dreamer, who thought he could lead the American auto industry on a great leap forward. He failed of course. But the story was so compelling they made a movie about it. Even without Hollywood’s help the fabulous Tucker Torpedo would still have been the most memorable car of the immediate post-war period.
Not as well remembered, but having just as much potential, was what would become the third most successful car company to ever hail from Buffalo. The Playboy Motor Company was founded by a trio of locals. Louis Horwitz was a former Packard rep and the current owner of the area’s largest chain of used car lots. Norman Richardson was a highly skilled local mechanic who refurbished many of the cars on Horwitz’ lots. Richardson had a buddy named Charles Thomas (no relation to the Flyer), a former engineer for Pontiac who had once built a car of his own design called the Thomas Coupe. Soon after Richardson introduced Thomas to Horwitz, the three concluded that together they possessed the experience and knowhow to design and build a compact car that they could sell to the tune of 100,000 annually. They were wrong in the end, blinded perhaps by the heady optimism of the times. But for a while at least, they gave it one hell of a ride.
The three partners, led by Horwitz, scraped together $50,000 to build their first prototype. Thomas designed the car, which featured an innovative fully independent suspension that supported a unit-body frame. Power came from a 26hp, rear-mounted 4-cylinder engine mated to an automatic transmission. The body was designed for maximum manufacturing efficiency. It used only 3 dies for the sheet metal; one for all 4 fenders, one for the 2 doors and one for both the front and rear panels. This gave the car a symmetrical, strangely pleasing look. Built by Richardson in his workshop, it was completed in early 1947 and ready to show.
The Playboy was designed for economical operation and to be sporty to drive. It was aimed at younger drivers, women, or families who needed a second car. Playboy wasn’t the only player in this potentially lucrative niche market - Crosley, Keller and Davis immediately come to mind. But it was the Playboy’s combination of economy, innovation and style that seemed to offer the greatest chance of success.
Success seemed to be on everyone’s mind on February 18, 1947. That’s when the Playboy was introduced to the world at much publicized event in Buffalo. Response was so overwhelmingly positive that Louis Horwitz took the show on the road. Despite the crudeness of Thomas’ prototype, people flocked to the little roadster wherever it was shown. In a practice that would eventually prove to be the Tucker’s undoing, deposits were taken from would-be dealers and distributors. Unlike Preston Tucker, however, Louis Horwitz was completely forthcoming about his company’s lack of production facilities or access to materials, or having any supplier contracts. The promise of selling 100,000 of these darling little cars, at a promised price of just $985, was too good to resist.
By the summer of 1947, Playboy Motors had raised enough funds to lease a small, antiquated factory formerly used by the Brunn body company. They hired 125 employees to hand-build another 17 prototypes. In order to start production as quickly as possible, the rear-engine design was ditched in favor of a more conventional front engine, rear drive layout. Power now came now from a 48hp Continental 4-banger (They later switched to Hercules 49hp units, and finally a Willys-supplied 60hp “Go-Devil” four)
In another cost saving move, the first prototype’s fabric convertible top was replaced with what would turn out to be the Playboy’s defining feature - a first of its kind folding steel roof that retracted completely into a well behind the front seat. While the mechanism did not work as well as Charles Richardson had hoped when he designed it, the Playboy’s hard topped convertible did beat the famed Ford Skyliner to market by 8 years.
That first batch of “production” Playboys enabled the company to attract a nationwide network of dealers. Credit was secured to make a down payment on much larger war surplus factory in nearby Tonawanda, NY, and to order body dies. But another $17 million was needed to initiate full scale production. For that they would need to go to the capital markets. By the summer of 1948 the company had initiated a stock IPO, which quickly attracted $10 million in subscriptions. Everything seemed to be coming together for Playboy.
And then things fell apart.
Right about the time the Playboy IPO was gaining steam, the Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation into alleged shenanigans by that more famous automotive startup, Tucker. Headlines screamed, accusations flew, and investors fled. Preston Tucker’s dream morphed rapidly into a nightmare.
And not just for him. Poor Playboy was caught in the undertow. Within a month the startup had been abandoned by three quarters of its stock subscribers. The offering was withdrawn and the partnership of Buffalonians began to fracture. While Louis Horwitz got to work on a new scaled down Playboy Motors, one that could be profitable producing just 12,000 cars a year and require only $3.5 million in capital, Richardson set to work building a pair of prototype Playboy station wagons that might expand the car’s appeal.
All the while Charles Thomas was in secret negotiations with fellow automotive entrepreneur, the much richer and better connected Henry J. Kaiser, to sell him the design for the Playboy car. (which Thomas held the rights) Kaiser wanted to build an affordable “people’s car,” to balance his existing lineup of luxurious full sized cars. The Playboy offered him a way to do it cheaply and with a bit of flair. Kaiser’s offer was more than reasonable given the state of affairs at Playboy. Horwitz and Richardson would get a cash buyout of $333,000. Thomas would get a similarly valued consulting contract to get the Playboy into production under the Kaiser name. This arrangement likely offered the last best chance to get the Playboy into full production. It would have also spared us the homely little compact (called the Henry J) that Kaiser built instead.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Horwitz rejected the deal and convinced Richardson to side with him. Funding, however, never materialized for Horowitz’ Playboy 2.0 scheme. The company slid into bankruptcy early in 1950.
Playboy built a total of 97 cars over its 3-year saga. In the end, Tucker, much more famous because Hollywood made a movie about it, sold but half as many cars. Small solace for the boys from Buffalo.
The legacy of the Playboy did manage to survive, although not in a way that the its founders might have imagined. In 1953, a young publisher from Chicago named Hugh Heffner was struggling to find a name for a new men’s lifestyle magazine he was starting. A friend of his, a Mr. Eldon Sellers, recalled a company his mother worked for that had gone bankrupt a few years prior…
Is it a stretch to call it irony that a car best known for its unique folding top, was the inspiration for a magazine that celebrates toplessness?
Copywright@2019 by Mal Pearson
Sources and Further Reading
Personality Profile: Louis Horwitz, by Matthew Litwin. Hemmings Classic Car, April 2015
The Dead Ends Kids, by Ken Gross. Special Interest Auto, April 1982
The Strange, Short-Lived Saga of the Playboy, by Kyle Cheromcha. www.theDrive.com, September 29, 2017
The Playboy of Buffalo, by David Kaplin. www.BuffaloHistoryGazette.com, October 7, 2010