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Autolite: (4) Parent Firm

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In 1911 Clement O. Miniger,a native of Fostoria,Ohio, and pharmaceutical salesman, heard of two South Bend, Indiana men who had invented a device to replace gas-fired head lamps with electric lamps for automobiles. He was impressed with the potential of lighting autos electrically, and brought the men and their invention to Toledo, Ohio. Here he began to manufacture a product called “Auto-liter.” This item became poplular instantly. His first company was set up in a Michigan Street storeroom in Toledo, and then moved to a location near the old Cherry Street bridge. Approximately 1,000 people were employed.

It now became evident that the automobile had a great future, and Mr. Miniger urged his engineering staff to develop an electric starting device to replace the hand crank. This was accomplished and the company “Auto-liter” was on its way.

About the same time, John Willys brought to Toledo the Willys Overland Company and manufactured the Willy automobiles.

Mr. Miniger sold the Auto-liter plant to John Willys and the former being an ambitious man, regained control of the company in 1918. Immediately he undertook a series of expansion, which included the antecedents of the corporation which stretched back to two small companies making buggy lamps. In 1934, with manufacturing of automobile lights being big business, Electric Autolite merged these two companies and another to establish its corcoran Brown Lamp Division in Cincinnati.

In 1898, the National Lead Battery Company was formed. Almost 30 years later, in 1927, Electric Autolite gained controlling interest in this company. It enlarged and operated under the name U.S.L.Battery Company. The same year Electrlic Autolite also purchased the Prest-O-Lite Battery Company and Prest_O-Lite, Ltd, in Toronto. Other battery plants were located at Niagara Falls, New York; Owosso, Michigan; Atlanta, Geogia; Vincennes, Indiana; Oklahoma City,Oklahoma; Oakland, California; Toronto, Canada; and a new plant at Los Angeles, California. Foreign companies were situated in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Paris, France; Brussels, Belgium; Barcelona, Spain; Christchurch, New Zealand; and Johannesbvurg, South Africa.

In addition to the battery plants acquired, Electric Autolite brought the Starting and Lighting Division of the American Bosch Magneto Company, and purchased a wire and cable plant at Muskegon, Michigan, which later was moved to Port Huron, Michigan.

In 1934, during the depression, Electric Autolite merged with the Moto-Meter Gauge and Equipment Company of LaCrosse Wisconsin. Moto-Meter made precision industrial gauges and thermometers, molded plastic parts, and complete instrument panels containing speedometers, oil pressure gauges, gasoline guages, heat indicators and ammeters. Its lithographing, etching, and plastic division at Bay City Michigan made dials, name plates, and decorative units for automobile manufacturers and industry.

Electric Autolite continued to grow. In 1935, the Alemite Die Casting company, Woodstock, Illinois, was acquired and, in addition the component parts for Autolite, it manufactued such items as radiator grilles, door handles, and other automotive hardware.

In 1936, a bumper plant in Springfield, Ohio was purchased and then moved to a new plant at Sharonville, Ohio, while Springfield made hub caps and spring covers.

THAT YEAR (1936) ALSO MARKED THE ENTRY OF ELECTRIC AUTOLITE INTO THE SPARK PLUG FIELD, WITH THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE PLANT AT FOSTORIA, OHIO.

Foundry operations ran in Fostoria, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; and Mt Vernon, Illinois, for the production of gray iron castings, which were used largely by other Autolite divisions.

In Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, practically all of the electrical units which were manufactured by United States Electric Autolite were produced for the Canadian market. A production line for the asembly of spark plugs was also set up in the plant.

After the merger of Electric Autolite and Moto-Meter Gauge and Equipment Company, Champlain Street, Toledo, became the site of the new corporate headquarters. About the same time, the company experienced a most devastating strike, when the United Auto Workers demanded recognition.

In 1954, Royce G Martin, who was then chairman of the Board and President of the Electric Autolite, died, and the company entered a period of uncertainty, as Mr. Martin had not designated a trained heir to succeed him Several unsuccessful attempts were made to revitalize the company and return it to its former status in the automotive industry. Also at that time, a change was made in the name, removing the hyphen from “Auto-lite” to Autolite.

Around 1959, the financier and industrialist, Gordon W Wattles of New York, began acquring stock through Mergenthaler-Linotype Company of New York. Mr. Wattles dominated the latter which, in turn, controlled the Electric Autolite.

“The winds of change” were noticeable in the automotive industry, and in 1961, the Ford Motor company of Dearborn, Michigan purchased the trade name “Autolite”, along with the Spark Plug Division at Fostoria, Ohio and the Owosso Battery Plant at Owosso, Michigan. The remaing portion of the Electric Autolite was renamed “Eltra Corporation.” The main Eltra Plant was located on Champlain Street in Toledo, and in 1962, after continuous labor troubles and the deterioration of manufacturing equipment, the plant was dismenbered and reorganized with its subsidiary, Prestolite, whose headquarters of four divisions was in Toledo. Jobs were transferred to Bay City Michigan; Woodstock, Illinois; East Point, Georgia; Oakland, California, and a new plant was built in Decatur, Alabama.

Eltra’s Prestolite set up engineering, accounting, and research departments at the new Hamilton Street headquarters in Toledo.

In July, 1979, Allied Chemical acquired the Eltra stock and became sole owner of Eltra Corporation and Prestolite.

In the early daysof theautomotive industry, theindependent parts suppliers were able to sell their products directly to the car manufacturers. The strength of Electric Autolite was the fact that it produced a great variety of automotive parts and accessories, which were sold to everyone and anyone. In these days, Willys Overland of Toledo was a prime customer, and Electric Autolite furnished the majority of parts for the ignition, as well as other accessories for the autos.

When the Electric Autolite merged with Moto-Meter Guage and Equipment Company, Mr, Martin, along with Harold E. Talbott, brought to Electric Autolite the Chrysler business. It was management’s opinion that a strong independent manufacturing company catering to all was the way to maintain an effective and healthy organization and, thereby, expanded its manufacturing line to over 400 procucts. Everything was done to promote the name of Electric Autolite and bring it to the public’s attention. The company had, among other things, thr chief promotional ideas to carry this out:

First;
(a) Three years in a row, the company promoted in New York, automobile shows on television, which were known as the “The Praade of Stars”, the idea being to expose Autolite products to potential original equipment and national accounts;
(b) To tie in original equipment customers by exhibiting new cars on television, and in every Autolite location; and
(c) To build pride of workmanship in its employees.

Second;
(a) To produce the live television mystery show, “suspense”, to Promote Electric Autolite Procucts. This show had an outstanding commercial of the company’s products marching in various formations.

Third;
(a) During World War II, a Radio show was sponsored by the company called “Everything For The Boys”, starring Dick Haymes and Helen Forest, which was slanted primarily to entertain the armed forces.

After Mr. Martin’s death, Electric Autolite was faced with the loss of Chrysler’s business, inasmuch as a trend had developed in the entire automotive industry to manufacture its own componet parts and to require competitive bidding on all purchased parts. Electric Autolite needed volume in order to compete withthis trend. Manufacture of some parts was based on the volume generated by Chrysler volune, meant large losses. Also, Electrid Autolite’s advertising and marketing patterns were wrong. Original equipment sales were emphasized, by advertising the Autolite trade name on the parts. Plagued with high labor costs in obsolete plants and a history ofbitter labor labordisputes, Electric Autolite closed Toledo manufacturing operations, and moved the manufacturing of certain products to existing plants within its oranization and also started operations at Decatur, Alabama.

An interesting sidelight: A situation developed when Electric Autolite closed the Toledo-Champlain Street Plant. Aproximately 40 persons exercised ther corporate seniority rights, transferred, and commuted to the Fostoria Spark Plug Plant until their retirement.

Electric Autolite embarked on a divestiture program, selling part of its manufacturing, such as starting motors, generators,regulators, and distributors, to Chrysler, and the Spark Plug Plant Battery Plant,and the tradename, “Autolite” , to Ford Motor Company. This could be attributed to Chrysler and Ford wanting to sell their commodies as original equipmnt replacement parts with a name on them they controlled, and not encounter identical articles, with the same name, sold by chain stores, marketing associations, and auto parts replacement companies.

The former owner, Electric Autolite, became known as the Eltra Corporation and now sells the same parts under the name “Prestolite”, Which are as satisfactory as the ones promoted as orginal equipment.

 

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