WMU News

David Lyon pens automobile history of Kalamazoo

Oct. 29, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- Maybe it's his father's fault.

If only David Lyon's father had bought his teenage son an antique car, maybe his son's interest in old automobiles would not have grown into an obsession.

"It started when I was a teen," explains Lyon, professor emeritus of psychology at Western Michigan University. "I never got anywhere cajoling my father into buying a Model T. I've just always been interested in antique cars."

Lyon's initial hankering for antique cars has grown into a passion. Area residents can check out the latest outpouring of Lyon's love of old cars Saturday, Nov. 2, at John Rollins Booksellers in Portage, where he will give a presentation and sign copies of his new book, "The Kalamazoo Automobilist," recently published by WMU's New Issues Press. The event is set for 7 to 9 p.m. at the bookstore, located at 6414 S. Westnedge Ave.

Lyon retired from WMU in January 1999 after 35 years of service as a faculty member, department chair, interim dean and director of collective bargaining. He says his book project didn't start out as such. In fact it was more of a detour. It all goes back to a rainy day in 1986, when Lyon decided to poke around in WMU's Archives and Regional History Collections.

"I was walking around campus," Lyon recalls. "It was pouring. I thought I'd see what was in the archives and looked up some things on Kalamazoo and cars. I just kept going back."

The more Lyon looked into Kalamazoo's automobile history, the more questions he had. Finding answers was about as hard as finding a magneto for a 1912 Buick. Much of the time, he flipped through old newspapers to try to fill in the blanks.

"I used to wear bifocals," he says. "Now they're trifocals."

Lyon uncovered many interesting tidbits about Kalamazoo's automobile history. Most people don't realize how prominent a role car building played in the city's manufacturing legacy.

"Certainly Detroit has the richest history," Lyon concedes. "But Kalamazoo has the longest independent automobile manufacturer in Checker. And there were many others."

All of them are gone, but certainly not forgotten. Lyon's book chronicles the many failures of Kalamazoo-based carmakers put out of business by mass production methods developed by Henry Ford, poor economic times and just bad management.

"Michigan Buggy failed in a terrible way," Lyon says. "If you looked into it, you would read that they went bankrupt. But there was more to it than just that."

Lyon's book fills in the gaps. Michigan Buggy started building horse-drawn vehicles in 1883, developing its first automobiles in 1909. The company actually built a very good car, but it couldn't compete and the company went out of business in 1913. It was also rocked by a financial scandal not unlike some modern-day corporations.

The city's first "horseless carriage" actually dates back to 1891 when Kalamazoo inventor J.B. Rhodes created an operable steam wagon that could be propelled down the streets of the city. Other inventors followed, including the Blood Brothers, the Fuller family, Frank Burtt and brothers-in-law Frank Lay and Henry Lane.

Lyon's book describes Kalamazoo's role in the frenzy some dubbed "horseless-carriagitis," an obsession that resulted in the creation of a new invention that would transform the world-the automobile. The book chronicles Kalamazoo's part in that saga from Rhodes' early invention and Michigan Buggy's rise and fall to the birth and subsequent death of the city's reputation as home of the beloved Checker taxicab.

Though Lyon's writing pursuits are something new, his many other automotive-related activities are not.

Today, he is the proud owner of several very old automobiles. One, a 1909 Economy High Wheel Buggy even looks like a horse-drawn carriage. But an engine is inconspicuously hidden under the seat. His others include two Buicks built in 1910 and 1912.

Lyon and his wife, Jane Ann, go touring with the cars, checking into a hotel and using it as a sort of base camp, as they tour the area to see the sights.

"We travel the back roads and try to relive the old times," Lyon says. "We putz along at 20 or 30 miles an hour and life even seems to slow down a little bit."

But Lyon's fondness for antique cars isn't simply a case of nostalgia. There's something inherently special about the cars.

"They're simple," he says. "They don't have any of the stuff on them that modern cars have. There's no battery, no fuel pump. There's just something engaging about a car built in 1910. They're intriguing; they're quaint."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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