Karl Hamlen Martin was born on January 31, 1888 to Dr. Truman J. and Lora (Hamlen) Martin in Buffalo, New York. After attending Buffalo’s Nichols School through the eighth grade, he then embarked on a course of study at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, graduating in 1905. Karl H. Martin recalled that he learned to drive on his father’s Columbia electric at the age of nine.
Dr. Truman J. Martin was a well known Buffalo physician who in 1897 became one of Buffalo’s first automobile owners when he purchased a Columbia Electric to use for visiting patients. On February 1, 1898 Dr. Martin entered the history books when he purchased the nation’s first automobile insurance policy from Walter G. Cowels, the local agent of the Travelers Insurance Company, Hartford, Connecticut. The $5,000/$10,000 policy protected Dr. Martin against liability for damages to the persons or property of others by reason of the operation of his motor car. His annual premium was $11.25.
During the following year the Doctor became involved in the automobile business as indicated by the following “Minor Mention” in the June 7, 1899 issue of the Horseless Age:
In July of 1899 Dr. Martin was involved in what was reported as the US Postal Service’s first automobile trial:
Dr. Martin was a member of the Automobile Club of America and was a founding member and president of the Buffalo Automobile Club. The elder Martin also held 10 US patents, most of which were related to the automobile. A 1920 issue of Motor West mentions the elder Martin’s numerous inventions:
After graduation from St Paul’s Karl H. Martin had planned on attending Yale, however the financial opportunities presented by the oil boom were too tempting to pass up and he took a two-year sabbatical from his higher education in order to travel and to learn the oil business from the bottom up.
Martin spent the better part of 1906-1908 touring North and South America, visiting numerous oil installations on the journey. In 1908 he relocated to Northwestern Ohio where he became involved in a number of speculative and on-going oil ventures in Melrose and Lima. Martin eventually operated six ongoing wells and drilled two new ones. Independent producers like Martin sold their output to either the Standard Oil Company of Ohio or the Ohio Oil Company, the two largest wholesalers at that time.
Working in the oil business was tough work, and by 1912 Martin had had enough and sold off his stakes and with the proceeds moved to New York City to join his father, who had recently retired and moved into the Hotel Marie Antoinette at West 66th Street and Broadway. With the encouragement, connections and financial backing of his father, Martin slowly became involved in Manhattan’s high-class automobile business. The Martin’s were also involved in other projects, one of which was a New York City map and guidebook entitled ‘New York Connections: New York, New Jersey, and Staten Island Railroads’. The digest-sized (5 1/2 by 8 1/2) publication was written by Karl Hamlen Martin in 1913 and published by his father in early 1914.
Although Karl had no coach building experience, he did have a good eye for design, and he embarked on a career as an automobile designer. Although Martin was noticeably silent on his early years in Manhattan it’s likely that he took a few drafting courses before he started submitting design proposals to Manhattan’s automobile row. At that time two separate Manhattan schools were offering courses in design and drafting. Robert V. Olson taught a night course in carriage drafting and construction at New York’s Cooper Union and Andrew F. Johnson and George J. Mercer taught classes at the CBNA’s (Carriage Builder’s National Association) Technical School for Carriage Draftsmen and Mechanics which were held at the Mechanics' Institute, 20 West Forty-fourth Street.
In an early 1950s interview with automotive historian Keith Marvin, Martin recalled:
In his interview with Marvin, Martin played down the fact that he was only the designer of the bodies, and that he farmed out their actual construction to various small Metropolitan New York body builders who included Bender & Robinson, Moore & Munger, Schildwachter and others.
Martin’s lower-Manhattan apartment put him in walking distance of most of Manhattan’s high class automobile distributors. Once a prospective client had decided upon a specific chassis, Martin would meet with them either at their home or at the distributor’s showroom. The client would go through his portfolio and decided upon a specific body style after which his client’s specific requirements would be collected.
After obtaining the required body builder’s specifications from the chassis distributor, Martin retired to his home studio where he completed a detailed sketch and watercolor portrait of the proposed vehicle which would then be presented to his client at a second meeting. Upon the customer’s approval, a deposit (typically 20%) would be collected and Martin would have the required body drafts completed by a competent draftsman after which they would be delivered to a metropolitan New York coachbuilder of the customer’s (or dealer’s) choosing.
Kickbacks were a requirement of doing business at the time, and once the completed vehicle was delivered and paid for, various people would come looking for their bird-dog or commission, which might run from as little as $5 to over $100, depending on what role the third party played in the purchasing process.
The client’s chauffeur was usually the person most responsible for the selection of a specific chassis and they were normally rewarded directly by the salesman. If Martin had been recommended by the salesman or chauffeur, he in turn would be expected to deliver a gratuity to the responsible party. If it was Martin that had selected the coach builder, the designer might also expect a kickback for providing them with the work. Not surprisingly the practice continues up to this day, and is especially prevalent in the sale of luxury cars, especially when third-party brokers conduct the negotiations.
Martin was one of about a dozen freelance body designers that were doing business in Manhattan during the teens. J. Franklin deCausse, George C. Cole, Leon Rubay, George P. Harvey, George Mercer and others offered similar services during the teens, which ultimately led to the establishment of the world-famous LeBaron Carrossiers in 1920.
Although most of Martin’s clients were Manhattan businessmen a number of celebrities owned Martin-designed automobiles, among them Broadway impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., and the world-famous dancing team of Vernon and Irene Castle. Most of his deign work was destined for use on European chassis, and between 1912 and 1916, he designed bodies for Benz, Bianchi, Mors, Renault and Rolls-Royce chassis, and drove a second-hand Bianchi when conducting business. No known examples of his Manhattan coachwork are known to exist, and even if one were discovered it would likely bear the body builder’s name-plate, and not his own.
During 1915 Karl H. Martin was introduced to Cloyd Y. Kenworthy, the Manhattan distributor of the Cleveland-built Rauch & Lang electric. Kenworthy was fond of Martin’s attractive renderings, which though unsuitable for the diminutive Rauch & Lang would look good on a somewhat larger car he was interested in building. Although Kenworthy’s financial resources were limited, he had recently met a Chicago-based automobile manufacturer named Albert C. Barley who was also looking to introduce a new line of vehicles.
Barley was looking for a mid-sized, mid-priced car along the lines of the British-built Rolls-Royce but had yet to meet a designer whose work appealed to him. Kenworthy knew such a man, and offered the services of Karl H. Martin to Barley who consequently offered Martin a job at $50 salary per day. As custom coach building jobs were few and far between, he accepted and embarked on a train bound for Chicago.
The Barley Motor Car Company was established in a Barley-owned assembly plant located southwest of Chicago in Streator, Illinois. After a few months of hard work the Martin-designed Roamer prototype was ready for its 1916 debut, its name taken from a popular racing horse of the day. The resulting vehicle looked very much like a downsized Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost touring which was exactly what Albert C. Barley had wanted. Martin is credited with designing the bodies for the entire 1916-1918 Roamer line, and although Leon Rubay started designing closed bodies for the firm in 1919, some of Martin’s open body designs were produced into the early twenties.
In addition to his work for Roamer he offered up his services as an independent body designer for Chicago’s imported automobile dealers and between 1916 and 1918 designed bodies for Marshall Field, Lawrence Armour and Henry E. Babson among others. He also designed and cast an especially beautiful St. Christopher medal in bronze that was successfully marketed between 1917 and 1920.
When the country entered the European War on April 6, 1917, Martin joined hundreds of thousand of other young Americans, and enlisted in the US Navy and was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, Illinois where he taught mechanical drawing to new recruits. He was later reassigned to the Garden City, Long Island plant of the Curtiss Aviation Corp. where he served in the same capacity.
At the end of hostilities he returned to Chicago and continued designing bespoke bodies for Chicago’s automobile dealers, one of which was a special 1918 Dorris town car painted "Mist-o-Marne" blue. He was also retained by the Magnetic Motors Corporation to design the radiator shell and bodywork of the Deering-Magnetic automobile, one of a number of new vehicles that were built using the Entz-patent electro-magnetic transmission. Coincidentally, Martin had earlier designed coachwork for Raymond M. and Ralph Owen, the Manhattan-based automobile dealers who financed the construction of the first successful vehicle to use the Entz transmission, the Owen-Magnetic.
Martin recollected his impression of the Deering-Magnetic to historian Keith Marvin:
In early 1919 Martin left Chicago and moved to Bennington, Vermont, the home of his maternal grandparents. As the nearest imported automobile dealer was over 100 miles away, Martin concentrated on distributing St Christopher medals and became involved in the distribution of locally-grown hardwoods (elm, ash, maple, birch and oak) to automobile manufacturers and body builders.
Meanwhile his friend, Cloyd Y. Kenworthy had plans to build his own automobile, and Martin was asked to submit design proposals for the new car which was going to be called the Kenworthy. He also began thinking about manufacturing his own vehicle, which he explained to Marvin:
By that time, Martin had an admirable resume of automotive accomplishments and he soon convinced a group of local businessmen that a Bennington-built automobile would be good for all concerned. On June 2, 1919 Martin and two Bennington attorneys, Robert E. Healy and E.H. Holden, formed the Martin-Wasp Corporation which was capitalized at $100,000 – 1,000 shares at $100 per share. Aside from Martin, Healey and Holden, the firm’s directors included George M. Hawks, a Bennington realtor and Luther R. Graves, an officer of the First National Bank of Bennington.
In August, 1919 Martin-Wasp leased a portion of the Pleasant St. plant of the Olin Scott Foundry & Machine Corp. in which to manufacture the Wasp, and set about gathering an inventory of parts sufficient to produce an initial run of a half dozen automobiles. Col. Scott was Bennington’s leading industrialist who had invented an improved gun powder mill that made him a small fortune during the Civil War. He later introduced an improved wood pulp mill that by the late 19th century had became the mill of choice for the world’s paper manufacturers.
In November of 1919 Cloyd Y. Kenworthy resigned from the Barley Motor Car Company and announced the formation of the Kenworthy Motors Corporation which was capitalized for $400,000. A plant was leased in Mishawaka, Indiana and in January of 1920 additional capital was authorized in the amount of $6,000,000. In addition to its namesake, Kenworthy’s organizers included S.C. Wood, L.B. Phillips, and Harry McDonald Jr. Kenworthy announced the manufactured of a four- and six-cylinder line and in December of 1920, a magnificent eight-cylinder chassis with four wheel brakes that included a straight-eight of Kenworthy’s own design.
The entire line-up featured coachwork designed by Karl H. Martin, and not surprisingly, the Roamer and Kenworthy looked quite similar although a sharp eye could distinguish the two by looking at the windscreens. The Roamer featured a vee-d windshield while the Kenworthy utilized a flat one.
Martin had been busy back in Bennington, and his small crew of craftsmen, who eventually numbered 28, had the prototype Wasp ready in time for the 1920 New York Automobile Show. As the deadline to reserve space with the organizers of the Grand Central Palace Show had passed, Martin leased the lobby of the recently constructed Hotel Commodore for $300.
The first series of 4-cylinder Wasps used mostly off-the-self components that could be found on most of the assembled cars of the day. The 3800-lb car rode on a 136” wheelbase Parish & Bingham chassis and was powered by a Stromberg-equipped 36-70 hp Wisconsin 4-cylinder engine which transmitted power via a dry-disc clutch-equipped Brown-Lipe 4-speed transmission which fed power through a torque tube to the full-floating Timken rear axle. The car’s Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels wore Firestone rubber and were attached to the chassis via a standard semi-elliptic spring and axle setup. Electrics were supplied via an Exide battery that fed a Westinghouse starter and Bosch ignition.
All the four-cylinder cars carried Martin-designed rickshaw phaeton coachwork which was constructed in-house of hand hammered aluminum panels nailed to a screwed and glued ash framework. Sturdy white ash was used to fabricate the framework of the convertible top, windshield frame and step-plates which were used in lieu of a running board – a feature found on most Martin-designed vehicles.
Custom headlamps and parking lights were hand-spun and plated by Giles & Nielsen Nickel Works, 15 Front St., Troy, New York. The distinctive radiator shell was built by Kur Bros., another Troy small business. A diagonal Volvo-style nickel-plated band was included on the radiators of the first few Wasps, but was soon deleted when Martin realized it was contributing to the car’s overheating.
The leading edge of the front- and trailing edge of the rear-fenders were noticeably pointed, a featured that was mirrored by an ornamental finned apparatus mounted on top of the exposed aluminum hood. All Wasps were equipped with two rear-mounted spares and one of Martin’s famous St. Christopher medals mounted to the engine-turned aluminum dash.
Although Martin’s decision to place the Wasp prototype in the Hotel Commodore’s lobby was a last minute choice, it yielded almost immediate results as the car attracted the attention of a notable guest, Douglas Fairbanks, one of the nation’s top movie stars. He purchased the $5,500 car on the spot and had it shipped to his Beverly Hills mansion at the end of the show.
Despite the sale of the first Wasp to a high-profile celebrity, the motoring trades pretty much ignored the car, most likely due to Martin’s refusal to advertise. Only Motor World noted the debut of the new vehicle in their 1920 New York Auto Show number, and it was many months before pictures of the Wasp appeared in print – and then only in 2 publications, Motor Age and Vanity Fair.
Martin-Wasp’s 1919 annual report showed assets of $17,872.93 (including $4,706.94 in cash), debt totaling $25,000, and $25,000 in outstanding capital stock. During the next few months the remaining 5 chassis were sold; the first to Manhattan and Bennington socialite Mrs. Margaret Outhwaite Stevens; the second and third to the DF Wisdom Motor Co. of Long Beach, California; the fourth to Atlanta, Georgia attorney Joseph B. Whitehead, Jr., the son of the founder of Coca-Cola and the fifth to the Manhattan factory branch of Renault Freres.
Martin is also credited with the design of a one-off Meteor collapsible town car that was delivered on a 1921 Meteor chassis. Meteor Motors was a small Philadelphia-based manufacturer - unrelated to the Piqua, Ohio-based professional car builder of the same name - that produced a high quality mid-priced luxury car between 1919 and 1922. The Fleetwood Metal Body Company provided Meteor with production coachwork and it’s unknown who built the Martin-designed body.
Although they weren’t making much money they weren’t losing much either so Martin-Wasp’s directors authorized the manufacture of another half-dozen chassis. In 1922 manufacturing operations were transferred to the former Cooper Mfg. Co. Mill on Main St. Aside from more space, the new facility included a 40 hp engine that was powered by a small hydro-electric dam adjoining the facility. Only five 4-cylinder chassis were completed through late 1922 when Martin announced an all-new 6-cylinder Wasp. The announcement coincided with the construction of an all-brick factory adjacent to Hamlen House, Martin’s grandparent’s estate.
A 70 hp Continental Six would power the new chassis whose wheelbase was increased to 144”. Martin saw the new vehicle as a contender in the high-priced luxury class and improvements included a cast aluminum trunk rack, cast aluminum floorboards and a choice of Martin designed open and closed coachwork. As the $5-$6,000 4-cylinder Wasps weren’t profitable, Martin hoped a significantly higher-priced 6-cylinder would, and he announced that the new car would be priced at $10,000, regardless of the coachwork.
Once again Martin sent out press releases to the automotive trades and once again, they failed to mention the Wasp. However Vogue and Vanity Fair’s automotive editors reproduced renderings of the new car in their respective 1924 New York Auto Show numbers. Although he had planned on exhibiting at the New York show, Martin was unable to complete the car in time and the publicity did little to help the struggling firm, which for all intents and purposes was finished.
Three six-cylinder chassis were completed in 1924, one of which was reserved for Joseph B. Whitehead, Jr., who commissioned a sedan body to be mounted upon it. Martin managed to sell the other two chassis but had yet to finish Whitehead’s sedan when the order was cancelled. Between 1919 and 1925 only 14 cars are thought to have been built, 11 four-cylinders and 3 six-cylinders.
For the next 8 years the Martin-Wasp Corp. produced various wood and cast metal home products – basically anything that could be made with the equipment that was leftover from the firm’s automobile manufacturing days. Known products included brass andirons, inlaid cabinetry, bed and dining room sets, and various other home furnishings. In 1932 the Martin-Wasp Corporation was dissolved and reorganized as the Martin Shops, which continued manufacturing cast metal and wood products into the 1940s.
Karl H. Martin kept all of the leftover parts used in the manufacture of the Wasp and in 1947 sold off a circa 1921 4-cylinder chassis to Bennington resident, William Gregg. The November 20, 1970 issue of the Bennington Banner recounted an earlier article that mentioned the restoration/re-creation of a circa 1921 four-cylinder Wasp:
The Bill Gregg / Glade Hall 4-cylinder Wasp was later purchased by classic car collector Raymond D. Newell of Northampton Massachusetts. The car was subsequently purchased by Frank K. Spain for display at his Auto Museum in Tupelo, Mississippi where it resides today.
A second Wasp, this one a circa 1924 6-cylinder, was restored/re-created by collector Henry Marvin Dodge using a rolling chassis and spare parts purchased from Karl H. Martin in 1953. Dodge elected to restore the car with a reproduction rickshaw phaeton body and it currently resides in the Bennington Museum, Bennington, Vermont.
Unfortunately Martin was unable to see the results of Dodge’s efforts as he died soon afterwards. The Thursday July 8, 1954 New York Times recorded Karl H. Martin’s passing:
Martin actually died on Tuesday morning, July 6, 1954 and not the following Wednesday as reported in the Times. The Bennington Banner also carried a small obituary, stating the he passed away “after a long illness”.
The following transcript of a 1916 court case is interesting in that it gives us insight into the professional relationships that existed between car dealer – R.M. Owen; body designer – Karl H. Martin; and coach builder - Bender, Robinson Co.:
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com