Opinion

OPINION | Curtis Varnell: The forgotten vehicle made and designed especially for Arkansas terrain

A beautiful car, the Climber was made of 20-gauge steel over a wood frame and came in maroon, green, and battleship grey with a folding roof and multi-colored wheels.

(Courtesy photo/Museum of Automobiles, Petit Jean, Ark.)
A beautiful car, the Climber was made of 20-gauge steel over a wood frame and came in maroon, green, and battleship grey with a folding roof and multi-colored wheels. (Courtesy photo/Museum of Automobiles, Petit Jean, Ark.)

Ribbons of light extended north for miles. Slowly, we inched up the road toward Hopper tunnel on Interstate 49, following the reflective red lights of the vehicles in front of us.

An accident or a stranded vehicle had created a logjam of automobiles extending for miles. A century ago, it would have been impossible to even imagine the number of cars in my view, let alone the nearly 300 million cars that now exist in America, more or less.

By the late 1800s, America was well on the way to developing a vehicle that would take the place of the horse and buggy. Many of the first models were powered by steam, perhaps accurately called the locomobile. They were limited in mileage and were quickly replaced by the more efficient gasoline powered engine.

The first known automobile in Arkansas was owned by Levi Keys of Little Rock, who gained the vehicle on May 4, 1900. Crowds gathered and stood along the streets to admire the vehicle as Keys drove around town. Within months, others had purchased similar vehicles.

The Arkansas Gazette covered dozens of stories involving the new vehicle, many detailing the hazards associated with the new apparatus. Horses, panicked by the loud noise and unusual appearance of the car, conducted mad runaways down the streets. Other stories described the broken bones and bruised limbs associated with the crank required to start the engine.

As a portent of things to come, in 1902, John McGuire of Little Rock suffered the first known car accident when he lost control of the vehicle and it crashed into a pole. Other stories described car theft and joy riding, something too many are very familiar with today.

Use of the automobile expanded rapidly with factories in the north turning out hundreds of vehicles. Sensing a great business opportunity, William Drake, Clarence Roth and Davis Hopson of Little Rock determined to construct a car company that would turn out vehicles suited to the rough roads and terrain in the South.

It was incorporated as the Climber Motor Company and began production in 1919. Constructing a factory at 1823 East 17th Street in Little Rock, they first began production of a small Climber Truck. George Schoeneck, a Detroit automotive engineer, was hired as chief engineer with a beginning contract to produce 50 four-cylinder cars.

Initially, the factory could produce two vehicles a day, but quickly became more efficient. By the end of the first month, it could turn out five vehicles daily.

The Climber was an excellent vehicle for its time and capable of handling the bad roads found in Arkansas at that time. An endurance test was conducted during the winter of 1919-'20. Under the supervision of William Owen, state highway commissioner, the Climber was started in Little Rock and ran for 20,239 miles through the worst roads in the state.

To further prove its durability, the car was driven up the steps of the State Capitol and was advertised as "Made in Arkansas for Arkansas roads." A beautiful car, it was made of 20-gauge steel over a wood frame and came in maroon, green, and battleship grey with a folding roof and multi-colored wheels.

During its five-year existence, the company constantly battled financial problems. The Climber-6 sold for $2,250 dollars while Henry Ford was mass producing the Model T at a cost of $355. By 1922, there were only 96 Climber passenger cars and 8 Climber trucks in the state, but there were nearly 50,000 Ford vehicles.

Unable to compete, Climber was forced to close its doors.

Climber produced a total of about 200 cars and approximately 100 trucks during their years of production. With the quality and durability of the vehicle, you would expect to see many of them in car collections around the U.S., but only two are known to exist today. Both are found at the Museum of Automobiles located on Petit Jean Mountain near Morrilton.

As I looked at the long line of cars before me and contemplated the wait, I wished for one of those Climber trucks. I could envision a turn onto the dirt track off the interstate, a bumpy trudge down the hillside, and a journey on to Fayetteville across the back road challenge that the Climber was made for: "an Arkansas car for Arkansas travel."

  photo  Sensing a great business opportunity, William Drake, Clarence Roth and Davis Hopson of Little Rock determined to construct a car company that would turn out vehicles suited to the rough roads and terrain in the South. (Climber Motor Corporation Ad courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas)
 
 
  photo  This was the first car in Chismville, Ark. (Courtesy photo/ Arkansas Gazette)
 
 
  photo  The first Arkansan to own a car gained one in 1900. The Arkansas Gazette covered dozens of stories involving the new vehicle, many detailing the hazards associated with the new apparatus, including horses panicked by the loud noise and injuries associated with the crank required to start the engine. (Courtesy photo/Arkansas Gazette)
 
 

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