How Franklin Cars Work


The Franklin Six Pirate was the epitome of late-1930s luxury.
The Franklin Six Pirate was the epitome of late-1930s luxury.

Franklin has the special distinction in being one of the few U.S. automakers to achieve real success with air-cooled power. It was featured on the very first Franklins of 1902, which immediately won a reputation for high quality and innovation that would carry on right to the end of the company in 1934.

Weight-saving construction received particular emphasis. In an age when cast iron was the standard stuff of engine blocks, pistons, and cylinder heads, Franklin used high-grade, light-weight aluminum. At one time, Franklin was the world's largest consumer of aluminum. Equally unusual were the cars' all-around full-elliptic springs, which provided a smoother ride and much reduced tire wear than most competitors' half-elliptic suspensions.

A flexible wood frame also softened the ride. By 1920, other advanced technical features such as full-pressure lubrication, automatic spark control, and electric choke were long-familiar Franklin fare. So too were six-cylinder engines; Franklin abandoned fours after 1914.

Franklin's commitment to "aircooling" got a boost when Charles A. Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight in 1927. After all, the Spirit of St. Louis had an air-cooled engine, and Franklin advertising eagerly pointed up the paral­lel. The company then began using the name "Airman" on some 1928 models to honor the Lone Eagle. All Franklins that year adopted four-wheel Lockheed hydraulic brakes and a steel chassis. Standard "silent second" synchromesh was further innovation for 1929.

Like many Detroit producers, Franklin entered the '30s with optimism despite Wall Street's recent, ominous crash. That was understandable. The company had enjoyed record sales in 1929, and interest in both aviation and air-cooling was at an all-time high.

Reflecting Franklin's rosy outlook was its 1930 line of "145" and "147" models with new styling and power on respective wheelbases of 125 and 132 inches. Both were announced by a handsome new radiator, which Franklin always termed a "hood front," believing that a conventional radiator was essential to sales. This now had shutters governing the amount of incoming air, with shutter opening controlled automatically by a thermostat connected to the number-one cylinder.

Per company tradition, the new engine had six individually cast cylinders and overhead valves, but differed in having cooling air directed to the sides of the block from left to right -- an arrangement soon known as "side-blast" cooling. The six delivered 95 horse­power from 274 cubic inches.

The 1931 Six Speedster showcases Franklin's innovative "side-blast" cooling parts.

Franklin had always been a luxury make, so its chassis were a logical basis for many custom bodies, typically by Derham, Dietrich, Locke, and Brunn. Among the more memorable 1930 open styles was Dietrich's four-door Pirate, available as either a five-passenger phaeton or seven-seater touring. Its most striking feature was running boards fully concealed by flared door bottoms.

Also new that year was the Pursuit, a dual-cowl phaeton that lacked external door handles in the interest of cleaner appearance. Upholstery in the Pursuit's front compartment wrapped up and over the outer edge of the doors a la aircraft cockpits of the day.

Dietrich also conjured a popular four-door, four-seat speedster with an abbreviated body ending midway over the rear wheels. Most of these were closed styles with permanent canvas tops, but a full-convertible option was offered at extra cost.

As you might expect, famous pioneer aviators like Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Frank Hawks chose Franklins as their personal cars, something else the company was only too eager to publicize. But though Franklin had its sporty models, it never sold cars on that basis. Most of its customers were physicians, attorneys, business executives, and other professionals, so paint colors were usually conservative and blackwall tires were the norm.

Franklin was ahead of the industry by selling more sedans than open cars before 1920, and sedans remained the models of choice in the '30s. Franklins may thus be described as conservative, elegant, and fairly expensive. The owners were loyal, and Franklin had many repeat customers.

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Sinking Franklin Creates Cheaper Models

The Franklin Airman Six reminded buyers of the company's aviation pedigree.

Franklin claimed its share of the "fine car business" was up 100 percent in the first quarter of 1930 versus the comparable 1928 period. Trouble was, the Great Depression had all but killed the "fine car business," so Franklin's 1930 ­calendar-year sales came to less than half its 1929 total. Seeking desperately to maintain production levels, Franklin introduced the "Transcontinent Six" (Series 141) in May 1930. Like the "145," it offered a closed coupe, convertible coupe, victoria brougham, and four-door sedan on the 125-inch chassis.

The sedan was the cheapest car Franklin offered, but even its $2395 price was four times the cost of a new Model A Ford. In those days, remember, such sums equaled a nice annual salary. With all this, model-year production was dismal: just 5744.

Offerings were promptly pared for 1931. Transcontinent returned with its previous body styles at prices trimmed to just $1800-$1900. Up in the $2400-$2700 area was the DeLuxe Six, a four-model group sporting rakish clamshell fenders and beautiful flowing body lines by Ray Dietrich on the 132-inch wheelbase. The six was coaxed up to 100 brake horsepower for all models.

Advertising continued to stress engineering links with aviation via florid phrases such as "riding like gliding." But the Great Depression had set in with a vengeance, and Franklin's model-year production withered to 2851.

Then Franklin hatched a startling idea: an air-cooled V-12 -- a mighty thing with 398 cid and 150 bhp. Franklin advertised its V-12 as "supercharged," but in reality it had a ram-air effect, courtesy of a duct from the cooling fan.

The Twelve was originally planned for the 1931 DeLuxe Six chassis, but was delayed to '32 by financial problems. Franklin had failed to meet payment on certain notes, and the banks sent in managers to protect their investment. Company president Edwin McEwen also decided some changes were needed, so the Twelve bowed as an entirely new and larger car for 1932.

It resembled previous Franklins only in being air-cooled. The traditional full-elliptics and tubular front axle gave way to semi-elliptics and an I-beam. Instead of bodies built by Walker of Massachusetts, Franklin's longtime supplier, Twelve coach-work was hand-crafted at the company's own Syracuse factory.

LeBaron was responsible for the styling, distinguished by a sharply Vee'd "hood cover" extending back to a jaunty angled windshield. By the standards of 1932, the Franklin Twelve was truly exotic and magnificent to the eye. On a 144-inch wheelbase chassis, its size alone was impressive.

But sales were far from that: an estimated 200 for the model year, plus another 1700 or so six-cylinder Airmans on the 132-inch wheelbase chassis. Franklin's situation was now quite desperate.

Accordingly, the firm issued an even cheaper line for 1933. Dubbed Olympic, it resulted from a hasty agreement with Reo, another automaker facing imminent demise. Basically it was Reo's new 118-inch-wheelbase Flying Cloud with a Franklin six installed by Franklin in Syracuse, New York.

Reo shipped 30 bodies a day from its Lansing, Michigan, factory; a like number of Olympics rolled out of Syracuse the following day. Franklin's investment was modest, so the Olympic's retail price was attractively low: $1385 for either the coupe or sedan, and $1500 for a convertible coupe.

The Franklin Twelve debuted as a complete departure from Franklin tradition, with a hand-crafted LeBaron body and Vee'd hood.

The Olympic was a very good car, but it was too late to save Franklin. Just 1218 were built for 1933, and a mere 109 for swan-song 1934. Franklin also offered mechanically unchanged Twelves and Airman Sixes in those final two years, each with four body styles, but production was minuscule. Combined totals were only 98 and 468 units, respectively.

The Franklin story didn't end with bankruptcy. The company was bought by a firm led by former Franklin engineers and began manufacturing Franklin air-cooled airplane engines. Helicopter engines were added in the '40s. In '48 water-cooling was added to a Franklin helicopter engine to power the Tucker car. Aircraft engine production continued into the 1970s.

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