News that Sears has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reminds us that the company twice tried to leverage its position as America's biggest retailer-the Amazon of its day-to become a player in the lucrative market for cars.
The first time was from 1908 to 1912, with cars manufactured in Chicago, the same city as the Sears, Roebuck and Company. From 1908 to 1912, consumers could send away by mail for a car from the Sears Company catalog, right along with shoes, clothes, bicycles, and wallpaper-as long as they were cool with a Sears Motor Buggy. A 1909 model was advertised for $395, or $370 without a top or fenders.
The car arrived in a wooden crate, and the customer had to install the wheels and add oil (provided) for the 14-hp two-cylinder engine. “The Cheapest Supply House on Earth” sold some 3500 of these cars before determining that it was an unprofitable endeavor. One reason it failed was that it was a pretty crude horseless carriage of the sort that prevailed earlier in the century and topped out at 25 mph. It came to market pretty much coincident with the first Ford Model T, a four-cylinder car that could achieve 45 mph.
This experience did not prevent Sears from having another go at the automotive market 40 years later. This time, the car wore the name Allstate, which originated as a brand name Sears had created in the 1920s for its line of automotive tires and then expanded into other related businesses, including auto insurance in the 1930s. The vehicle was manufactured by the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation and was a thinly veiled variant of the Henry J compact. Famously built down to a price mandated in return for government support of the venture launched by steel magnate Henry J. Kaiser, the first Henry J launched in 1950 lacking basic amenities such as a trunklid, glove compartment, armrests, or a sun visor for the passenger side.
The Allstate version arrived in 1952, by which time common sense had prevailed such that it did have a locking trunklid and a glovebox. It also got its own grille and hood ornament, badging, and hubcaps. Aside from wearing the new name, these elements were also notable for having been designed by Alex Tremulis, who'd recently landed at Kaiser-Frazer after Tucker folded. The still-basic interior of the 1952 Allstate was dressed up with plaid fabric. The Sears versions also differed from the Henry J in that they used Allstate-brand tires, spark plugs, and batteries. The Series 4 had a 2.2-liter L-head inline-four rated at 68 horsepower, while the Series 6 had an 80-hp L-head straight six, both built by Willys. You could have any body style you wanted as long as it was a two-door fastback sedan.
Unlike the case with the Motor Buggy, customers for the Allstate could not purchase through the catalog but had to visit a Sears department store, not all of which participated. By the 1950s, dealer franchises were well-established and those for the Kaiser-Frazer brand were not happy to have competition, especially when the Allstates carried lower base prices. These ranged from a low of $1395 for a stripper in 1952 to as high as $1785 in 1953, the second and last model year.
Another impediment was that Sears wanted no part of selling used cars, so it wouldn't accept trade-ins from customers buying new Allstates, and there was some consumer worry, as well, about the availability of service. This time around, Sears managed to sell a little more than 2300 cars in two model years before calling it quits. It fared a lot better, until its recent troubles arose, selling batteries, tires, automotive repairs services, and insurance.
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