Prev Next  


How Franklin Cars Work

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.

For more on defunct American cars, see: