The Night That
The Franklin Died

Richard Franklin Bishop   

© Copyright 2012 by Richard Franklin  Bishop 


Photo of a 1930 Franklin convertible.

I was born in Richland, Michigan, on 9 November 1930, in the middle of the U.S. Depression. In 1934, together with me, the youngest at the age of 3, my Family moved to Kalamazoo County and my Father began operating a middle-sized Farm of 240 Acres. I grew up there, graduated from Mattawan High School over in Van Buren County and went on to College, right there in Kalamazoo.

After my first year of college, I continued the Family tradition of “working my way through College” and worked nights at the XXXX Fishing Tackle Company making Fishing Reels and together with their Sister firm, the XXXX Products Company, making small Automotive parts. I split a shift with another college student, i.e., I worked 8 hours from 16:00 hours until midnight 3 times one week and then two nights the next week. This averaged out to be 20 hours a week which the College, evidently, did not object to, if your grades did not slip.

Apparently, the XXXX Companies did this not only from the “goodness of their hearts” but their factory actually profited from this “reduced” cost labor arrangement and so, as a result, they kept a standing offer open to college students for night-shift work. The jobs were eagerly snapped-up by the students who made sure, by being super-reliable, that they hung onto these “plum-jobs.

Because we were part-time employees, we didn't have to pay Union Dues and this made the jobs even more juicy. You see, although there had been established a "Local - 3619" of the United Steel Workers (CIO), the XXXX Companies always had been family-run entities over the years and relations with the employees were very amicable and, seemingly, never had needed "outside-help" to keep relations smooth between Management and the rank & file.

Organized Labor in the CIO Parent Union didn't see it that way and on September 7th, 1948, during Labor negotiations, called for a strike affecting about 700 full-time employees. This was unusual because only 30-40 per cent of the employees were Union members; definitely not a majority. A judge ordered that no more than 150 Union members could "picket" at one time. On 11 September 1948, the XXXX Company declared that, because of the "minority" standing of the Union, it was ending its contract with the CIO and invited the Pickets to return to work.

One night when "break-time" came around for my shift, John Smith, another Student splitting a shift, said to me: "Come with me into the parking lot; I want to show you something." I accompanied him outside and he showed me a vehicle that was unusual, to say the least. First off, it was a huge, handsome convertible, parked right up-close to the Factory building, but the style was of at least twenty years past. The paint, as best I could tell in the dimly-lighted parking lot, was a faded, dark forest green. It was in pristine condition; apparently driven every day, and had not been (as the vogue is now) “fully” restored. John knew the owner who was a full-time Plant worker who now happened to be on the night-shift. He showed-up out there while we were on break and I was introduced to him. In our conversation, he allowed as how it was a 1930 FRANKLIN; a big "Series 147" Roadster Convertible. His next sentence floored me. He said: "What looks like a radiator is a sham because the motor is an air-cooled aircraft engine just introduced that year."

Well, you could have "knocked me over with a feather" because I had never even heard of a FRANKLIN car and certainly not about any American automobile whose engine was air-cooled (years later the Chevrolet Corvair and the foreign Volkswagen and Porsche became very popular sporting that feature). I guess, because my middle name is Franklin, it sort of "grabbed me" as an item of intense interest since cars had already become important to me.

For me it was love at first sight. I had already owned an ancient 1925 Ford Model-T Coupé and (being so naive) almost fancied myself as a "collector," so I asked him, half in jest: "How much do want for it?" He said laughingly: "You couldn't afford it!" Then, he just smiled to himself and would not answer any further questions about it and also would not open the hood (I wish I could have looked under the hood. For 64 years, now, my curiosity has never been satisfied about how the "side-draft" air-cooling works). All this secrecy made me somewhat doubtful about the statements made in this situation.

I later checked around in the Kalamazoo Public Library and our Library at Western Michigan College of Education (now Western Michigan University). My doubts disappeared when I found out that, indeed, there was such an automobile known as: FRANKLIN The Car Beautiful, manufactured for a period of about a third of a Century starting in 1902 - 1934 -- mostly aimed at the high-end of the Market; competing with such posh luxury-car names as Auburn, Cadillac, Cord, Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, etc. And, since the beginning, the Franklin engines had been all air-cooled. And if the model looked like it had a traditional Radiator, it was faux (false, sham).

And yes, all along, they also had manufactured Aircraft engines and good ones too (since 1937 under the Firm name of Aircooled Motors). They manufactured Truck and Industrial engines, as well; the air-cooled motors all continued to be marketed under the FRANKLIN name. During WW II they had manufactured engines for 14 different types of aircraft and helicopters. In 1945, Aircooled Motors had been sold to Republic Aviation Company who wanted it to produce engines for their light amphibious "Seabee" aircraft.

I also found out, to my great astonishment, that in the early days there had been no less than nine other vehicles (and maybe more) equipped with air-cooled motors in the U.S.A. (Chase Truck, Fox, Frayer-Miller, Holmes, Knox, Marion, Metz, Premier, and Timken) but by 1933-34, only FRANKLIN had survived. Wow, now I understood that this was really a rare "find" in ancient cars and already, after 20 years, must have been worth tens of thousands of Dollars in the antique/classic car market. It's no wonder he said I couldn't afford it. But, I digress.

And so, one afternoon in October 1948, as I reported for my shift at 16:00 hours, I found the doors to the Plant blockaded by: (1) Hard-core Union Members from the CIO Headquarters in "The Motor City" who had been sent over by the Union Bosses to supervise the campaign to "Strike" the two XXXX Companies (together with their underlings whom the Newspapers called "Goons"), and (2) several XXXX Company Employees who had been proselyted "on the sly" by the Union and were already avid sympathizers with the act of "Striking" the two XXXX Companies. They were accompanied by a full range of large placards calling the XXXX Company "unfair" because things were not going their way in the deadlocked negotiations.

We college students, bent on reporting for work, took a dim view of anything that delayed "punching-in" on the time clock (there were pay penalties for lateness). And all the XXXX Company Employees who hadn't rolled over to "let the Union scratch their bellies" (still in the majority), were even more incensed about the people standing in our way. These human obstacles became more and more obnoxious as we pressed on in a group towards the doors. We ignored them because, as yet, there had been no legally "called" Strike and therefore we were not in the act of "crossing" an authorized "Picket Line," i.e., as would be composed of "a line of persons - striking workmen - stationed outside a place to protest its operations." The blockaders were very arrogant and sneered at us and called us "Scabs," anyway.

The Hero of that day was Leon Jones. He was a tall, handsome, muscular black man who was a U.S. Army veteran of WWII. Personable, helpful and always lively, he was in his mid-thirties and a happily married man. He kept we Students regaled with stories of his Military days and all the "cool" things he and his Army buddies did to pass the time. He was a "sharp" dresser and always had his sunglasses handy and wore his gabardine "Hollywood Wrap-around" topcoat on cool days. Organized Labor, Unions and their Dues didn't particularly interest him, and so they were not part of his world. I had great respect for him and he reciprocated by inviting me to his humble home to meet his wife and to listen to a boxed set of Norman Granz' JATP (Jazz At The Philharmonic) 78 RPM vinyl records.

This day, a couple of Union "toughs," while mouthing foul oaths, picked on him to start a shoving match to slow-down our group from entering the Plant. That was a big mistake on their part because he turned into a whirling dervish and "decked" them both. Joe Louis couldn't have done it better ! (Years later, Mohammed Ali said something very apt: "Flit like a Butterfly; Sting like a Bee"). While their Buddies were caring for them on the ground we all went on into the Plant.

Well, of course that wasn't the last of it. These disputes continued on for several weeks. It all came to a head on 1 December 1948 continuing on to the night-shift when there was a nasty altercation inside the parking lot grounds of the Plant. Some "Goons" got inside the security fence, and proceeded to demolish cars; even setting them on fire using Very Pistol flares. Plant Security (and some night-shift Employees) battled them back out of there into the waiting arms of the Kalamazoo Police Department. There were persons of both sides scattered in the dimly-lighted parking lot scuffling by the light of red flares.

As luck would have it, I was not on-shift that particular night and so I read all about it in the Newspaper the next day. The Kalamazoo Gazette said there were 300 "raiders" who had tried to wreck the Plant. It was called a "Riot" and the Governor of Michigan had dropped everything and made a visit. The Chicago and Windsor Newspapers had headlines such as: "CIO Admits Factory Raid" and "Goons Raid Kalamazoo Shop." There were injuries and luckily no one was killed. But the shock of these events was doubled for me when I read in the fine print that one of the automobiles totally destroyed by these wanton acts was a 1930 FRANKLIN ! My, my, just ponder for a moment over the priceless things that are destroyed in times of war or insurrection.

There was a lesson here for Organized Labor. Such efforts were doomed to failure when only a modest fraction of the Employees acquiesced to the Union movement to "Strike." There was never any "majority" membership organization of a Union here. Without a legally-functioning Union "Local," there could not be arbitration of a "deadlock" and, least of all, was there any possibility of a legally "called" Strike. This attempt at putting a Union umbrella over the two XXXX Companies failed miserably and some of the out-of-town Union "card-carrying" visitors were jailed for a while for their ill-gotten efforts. After the mess was cleaned up, we heard no more about Organized Labor in these parts and the Unions, apparently, resumed their role of “sleeping Giant, somewhere else. (In June 1949, eleven persons were indicted by a grand jury. In September 1949, the strike was declared illegal by the court).

And I ceased thinking about antique cars for all of about 3 months until I, being young and fickle, fell in love again and played "collector" once more and bought a 14 year old 1936 Cadillac V8 Model 36-75 4-door Sedan. It was a "fun" auto to own. But, placed alongside of the ancient 1925 Ford Model-T Coupé, it was not especially unique; just one of the 18 other automobiles I have owned. And (sigh) none of them would have "held a candle" to the FRANKLIN. Oh, oh, I digress again.

I once asked my Father how I came to have a middle name like Franklin. He said that the person with that name was a good friend. I further asked him if that person had anything to do with manufacturing automobiles. He said: "No." But, I still think about THE FRANKLIN whenever I have to use my full name on some document. And I still get a twinge about “what might have been” -- if only I could have gotten my hands on that uncommon 1930 luxury car. It really did die in vain.

I'm sure we all would be astounded by what it would be worth now, had it been spared. My guess is that would be in five figures like a similar model I saw in the Internet at the H.H. Franklin Club, Inc.\Cars For Sale Page. Wow, I still just love the style ! The owners of this beautiful “fully restored” 1931 Franklin Model 151 Convertible Roadster were recently asking $ 48,500.00 for it.

And just look at what the rare Duesenbergs are selling for now-a-days. If you would compare the 1930 Franklin Series 147 Roadster Convertible, whose rarity would be based on the fact that it was one of the first automobiles, ever, to be equipped with an air-cooled aircraft engine, then it’s easy to see that it would be cheap at double the (above) price!

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