The H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company built the most successful American direct air-cooled cars from 1902 to 1934. John Wilkinson was the engineer who built the first Franklin car and whose design principles combining high quality with lightweight materials giving Franklin automobiles a distinct reputation for dependability and long life. All Franklins utilized air-cooled engines and double elliptical springs on all four wheels. Their legacy has been one of successful innovations and, of course, the unusual vehicles that survived.
The Franklin automobiles were cooled by direct airflow. A fan was attached to the crankshaft and the air was directed by metal housings to the tops of the cylinders and through copper fins. They proved to be superior to liquid-cooled engines, especially on long journeys at high speeds. There were no radiators and thus, looked different from other American vehicles. By 1923, the company conformed to the contemporary look of other vehicles by placing a fake radiator at the front of the vehicle. This upset John Wilkinson, the chief engineer and designer for Franklin, so much that he left the company in protest.
Weight saving methods were implemented in the construction of Franklin automobiles. Franklin used high-grade, lightweight aluminum instead of the popular, cheaper, and proved cast-iron material. They became the largest consumer of aluminum. The full-elliptic springs and a flexible wood frame were used to create a soft ride for the occupants. Other features, well ahead of their time, used by Franklin by the 1920s included full-pressure lubrication, electric choke, and automatic spark control. The Franklin Airman was named after the famous Charles Lindbergh. Amelia Earhart and Lindberg, both famous aeronautical individuals, could often be found in front of Franklin advertisements. The company compared their vehicles to airplanes due to the use of air-cooled engines and the use of these celebrities helped reinforce their beliefs with the public.
As the twenties came to a close and the start of the thirties began, the world entered into The Great Depression. Franklin closed out 1929 with record sales and an optimistic outlook for their future, despite wall street's warnings and predictions. In 1930 Franklin introduced new styling and power with their Series 145 and 147 which rode on wheelbase sizes of 125 and 132-inches respectively. In the front was a radiator, which was more a decoration than a functional piece of the automobile. It featured shutters that allowed air to come into the engine. The shutters were controlled automatically by a thermostat connected to the number-one cylinder. That cylinder, and the rest of the engine, continued Franklin's tradition of air-cooled, six individually cast cylinders, and overhead valves. The company had abandoned the four-cylinder units after 1914. The six-cylinder engine displaced 274 cubic-inches and was capable of nearly 100 horsepower.
The luxury market was a difficult place to compete, especially when the number of capable buyers soon dwindled. Franklins large chassis remained an excellent platform for coachbuilders, such as Derham, Dietrich, Locke, and Brunn, to work their trade. New for 1930 was the Pursuit, a dual-cowl phaeton that had a very smooth and graceful body that was void of door handles.
Franklin claimed that thier share of the luxury segment had improved 100-percent in 1930 when compared with 1928. However, the Depression meant that Franklin's total production was less than half its 1929 total. Just like other marques, Franklin went down-market in search of refuge. They were hopeful that a small car, with a lower price, would stimulate sales and bring production levels back to where they had once been. Their hopeful savior was dubbed the Series 141, also known as the Transcontinental Six, which was introduced in May of 1930. It was available in a variety of body styles such as a closed coupe, convertible coupe, four-door sedan, and victoria brougham. It had a 125-inch chassis and a base price of $2395 which was well out of the reach for most consumers. Production failed to reach expectations, and only 5744 examples were sold in 1930.
For 1931, Franklin did what others were doing and dropped their prices. The Transcontinental was now $1800. The DeLuxe Six could be purchased for around $2400. Franklin was making all the necessary changes, even improving the horsepower for their engines, but sales were still dismal, now reaching just 2851.
For 1932, Franklin officially entered the cylinder wars. Cadillac and Marmon had their sixteen cylinder unit and Duesenberg had an eight that was producing over 300 horsepower. Franklin introduced their air-cooled V12 that displaced 398 cubic-inches and produced 150. Though they claimed it was supercharged, it was not; it had a duct from the cooling fan that helped push air and act like a supercharger.
The Twelve had been planned for 1931, but it was not ready until 1932. The real issue was Franklin was experiencing financial difficulties and banks were becoming protective of their investments.
When it made its debut in 1932, it was a completely new car - original plans had been to place the engine in the DeLuxe Six chassis. Its styling was new, as were many of its design principles. The suspension was comprised of semi-elliptics and an I-Beam. Franklin even switched their production methods, from long-time coachbuilder Walker of Massachusetts to perform the work in their Syracuse factory. Lebaron was tasked with creating the designs. The result was a chassis that measured 144-inches and distinguished by a 'Vee'd' hood-cover and an angular windshield.
The car was extremely attractive, yet sales were slow. Around 200 examples were produced in the first model year. Sale of the Airmans was also slow, with around 1700 units constructed.
For 1933, Franklin made a desperate move by creating the Olympic, a low priced line aimed at a wider audience. Franklin and Reo were in similar situations, so the Olympic was built on Reo's new 118-inch wheelbase Flying Cloud powered by a Franklin six-cylinder engine. Around thirty chassis were produced by Reo a day, with Franklin able to keep pace. The cars carried a price tag of about $1380 for the coupe and sedan, and 1500 for the convertible coupe.
Sadly, it was too little, too late. In 1933, 1218 examples were produced and 109 in 1934. Only 98 examples of the Twelve were produced in 1934, and 468 Airman Sixes.
The Franklin Company was purchased and manufacturing was switched to producing air-cooled engines for airplanes. Helicopter engines were added in the 1940s and near the close of the decade, water-cooling was added to power the Tucker automobiles. Production of aircraft engines continued into the 1970s.
The long and glorious history of the Franklin marque is one of craftsmanship, ingenuity, and experimentation. Unfortunately, they were unable to survive the effects of the Great Depression and the slow economy. By Daniel Vaughan | Oct 2007