The Luxury Vehicle

H. T. Alken – 1831 caricature

Adolf Loos’s article “The Luxury Vehicle” from Neue Freie Presse, July 3, 1898 begins with an excursus on the joys of driving: “Of course, just driving itself is enough to delight the English. In their hearts and souls, they still have the poetry of the country road” (Spoken into the Void, p. 39)Of course, he’s speaking of a horse drawn carriage, but all the same has interesting thoughts on technology, craft, and of course, ornament.

As is typical, he uses the English and the Americans to point out deficiencies in the Austrian character:

In the last century we believed that the plains were beautiful and the mountains abhorrent. Has it hurt us that we have left behind this childish fear of the mountains and taken over from the English the love for the high ranges? But the English meant not just to have a platonic relationship with the mountains. They did not remain down in the valley staring up at the soaring pinnacles, but climbed up them, in spite of the headshaking of the Germans, who were astounded at the “crazy” English. And today? Have we not all become English?

If we have convinced ourselves of the poetry of the mountains, we will probably soon enjoy the beauty of the country road as well. Our carriage industry is ready. It has been on par with the English for quite a time now. There is no need for our manufacturers to  do themselves even the slightest violence. What they find beautiful is considered beautiful by the English coachbuilder as well, so it is difficult to to discover any significant differences between the English and the Viennese coaches. The Englishmen and the man from Vienna have only one ambition: to build elegant coaches. And both come up with the same results.

He who is a true German arts and crafts worker will take issue strongly with these results. “One again sees here,” the man will figure, “that the English have no taste. And the Viennese do not have any either.” He will think melancholy thoughts about elegant coaches of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their glistening splendor, their rich decoration, and their shiny gilding. Yes, if only some manufacturer would call on him. But no, even the most tasteless junk pleases these people and their customers. This is how the old-timer thinks. But the young craftsman, with his head full of ornaments on paper (he calls the paper his “studio”), would most dearly like to give the coach a “modern” decor and set ornament loose on the unfortunate vehicle.

But the coachbuilder says to both of them, “Just what is the matter with you? The coach is fine as it is.” “But it has no ornament.” Both show him their designs, the coachbuilder laughs and replies, “I really like my own coach better.” Well, tell us why!” “Because it has no ornament.” (ibid, 40)

Loos turns quickly to make the same argument found in “Ornament and Crime” that ornament is a sign of primitivism, and further: “To seek beauty only in form and not in ornament is the goal toward which all humanity is striving,” footnoted as being “the first battle cry against ornament” (1931).  Though Loos is quick to criticise the historicism emerging from the Austrian Museum and arts and crafts associations, he does seek to promote the importance of establishing schools dedicated to utilitarian pursuits:

. . .For in all the professional schools the crafts are reduced to the level of the Indians. But in fact one branch of the coach industry had great need, and still has, of a professional school. The architect could not have spoiled anything here, because they would have no use for him. I am speaking of the heavy vehicle industry.

Crown Carriage Works, 1903
Crown Carriage Works, 1903

The heavy vehicle industry in other countries has reached a level to which our own has not even approached. Unfortunately our contractors were not required to be concerned about improvements. All improvements and modifications were dictated by one desire only: to reduce the number of workers necessary to load and unload. But in Austria the cost of human labor is still so low that there is no cause for concern about such things. If a stone of four cubic meters has to be picked up, there are at least twenty men involved in the task. The same maneuver is carried out in unloading it. The cost is “not worth mentioning.”

But it is different in America. There the driver pulls up, makes a slight movement with his hand that does not tax him in the least and which lasts at most for three minutes, and then drives away. And the stone? It is already in the cart. It is unloaded in exactly the same way. The whole secret of the procedure lies in the ingenious construction of the cart. It is transported not in the cart, but underneath it, suspended approximately thirty centimeters above the ground. The driver pulls up over the stone that is to be loaded, raises it a bit to slip chains under it, and then turns a crank, which lifts the stone. And thus for everything, or coal and for plate glass used in large display windows, a special cart is built. Here a school might help us break with the old, worn-out methods. We need such a school the way one needs a morsel of bread—therefore we shall probably have to wait a pretty long time for it. (42)

Loos goes on in the remainder of the article reviewing luxury coach designs, describing the necessity for modifications due to the introduction of the leaf (“C”) spring. Technology—rather than any historical sense of ornament— should guide coach design. He closes with a dig against the Americans, and a bit of a racial slur:

The Nesseldorfer Society has represented itself especially well with its charabanc hunting coach of light wood and pigskin. A charming effect. J. Weigel exhibits an American buggy that is done so well that one would be hard put to find as perfect a one even in its own native land. But in general I would like to caution against the most recent “advances” of the American carriage-building industry. Technically, they are certainly unrivaled. But there are often mistakes in the form. For example, they are now beginning over there to adorn their carriages with unfortunate acanthus leaves. That’s the Indian in them. (43)

Interestingly, the only reference to acanthus leaves  in American cars (obviously a different matter from carriages, but Loos is writing on the cusp of the changeover) that turned up immediately was on the Franklin Brougham:


The body is built with slanting V-front, which removes all obstruction from straight-ahead vision and reduces wind resistance in fast driving.

Interior appointments consist of Perfection window regulators, grab handles and double pull levers on doors, hat and luggage rack, coat hooks, dome and corner reading lights in tinted glass, step lights, robe cords, silk shades and draped curtains, ladies’ companion, men’s smoking set with cigar lighter, flower holder, mahogany tray with ash receivers. The rear hamper accommodates suit cases.

Upholstering material is neutral green, low-napped Edredon, applied in English straight plaits. Interior metal parts have dull platinum finish, with acanthus leaf etching. (1918)

The amusing thing to me is both that Franklin was headquartered in Syracuse, NY. Years ago, just out of high school, I photographed a Franklin repair shop in downtown Bakersfield, CA. Who knew I’d end up here. Those Syracuse barbarians with their acanthus leaves on carriages!

But even more intriguing to me was the description  of the lifting truck in the prior passage. It sent me scrambling to try to locate any sort of vehicle of this description available in late 19th century America, in vain. Along the way I found out that Autocar, the oldest functioning manufacturer of trucks in North America built its first truck near Philadelphia in 1899, just a year after this article. It makes sense that Loos would know about transportation in America, given his visits with his brother there in the 1890s.

BrockwayContinuing to dig, I found that just to the south of me in Homer and Cortland, New York, Brockway trucks grew out of a carriage works that had been functioning down there since 1851.This was incredibly familiar. I had driven past, and photographed, the “future site of the Brockway truck museum” several times in the past few years. It’s in Homer, just down the street from one of my favorite places from this area, the “unroom.”



In 1873 Brockway rented a small shop in Homer’s Mechanics’ Hall, a communal structure located at the corner of Cayuga and Main streets where individuals pursued their hobbies and vocations. William learned the nuts and bolts of vehicle construction, which culminated in his 1874 purchase of the Sticker, Hobert & Jones carriage works whose 2-story wooden manufactory at 121 South Main St. was  located across the street from the village foundry.

Brockway’s initial interest in acquiring the recently defunct carriage works was to acquire its woodworking equipment but several months later he began the manufacture of platform spring wagons, constructing a reported 50 spring wagons and 50 buggies during 1875, its first full year of operation. (Coincidentally John Sticker later served as Brockway’s southern sale representative until his death in 1911). Although none of Brockway’s subsequent warerooms, manufactories or factory buildings remain standing, his original 121 South Main Street manufactory still stands – albeit in a rather unflattering condition (the building with the UNROOM sign). [source]

You never know, when you start researching odd topics, where you’ll end up driving to in the end. Like the English, I find driving to be delightful.

Flashing cow
Belmont Travel Center, Belmont WI, 2010