First Things

Red Devil Car

The 1901 Red Devil car.

Content Tools

7964 Oakwood Park Ct. St. Michaels, MD 21663

The Automobile Quarterly published an article about Frisbie automobiles in their March 1991 issue. With their permission, I extracted some information from the standpoint of my interest in Frisbie marine engines. I also examined advertisements, a number of Frisbie marine engine catalogs, and some information from the Cromwell, Connecticut, Historical Society.

Russel A. Frisbie made a considerable impact on the Connecticut River towns of Cromwell and Middletown. Not only did he organize the Frisbie Motor Company to build engines, but he was a director of a bank. He held many patents ranging from internal combustion engines to a toy cap pistol. Like many other mechanically-inclined men of his time, he experimented with automobiles and built six of them. His fine home on Main Street now houses the Cromwell Historical Society.

Frisbie was a member of a prominent Connecticut family. His father and grandfather had been involved in manufacturing and politics and the family owned considerable land. One is certain to think of a flying plastic frisbee when the name Frisbie is mentioned. There is a connection; a branch of the family manufactured metal pie pans which Yale undergraduates first used as flying saucers.

Frisbie was born in Middletown in 1874- Existing ledgers indicate that he opened a general store in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, with $4,000 capital when he was only 15. Later, he learned drafting, carpentry, and pattern-making as an apprentice with Pratt and Whitney in Hartford. In June 1895, he married 21-year-old Harriet Esther Coe, also from a wealthy Cromwell family. Three years later, he secured a franchise to sell bicycles made by the Orient Cycle Company and he sold and repaired bicycles in his store for the next two years.

The following year, 1899, he closed the store and set up a machine shop behind his wife's family home on Main Street in Cromwell, calling it the Frisbie Motor Company. There Frisbie began constructing engines intended for boats, generator sets, cars, and motorcycles. His first patent, #656,539, dated August 21, 1900, was for a motorcycle engine. During 1900-1901 he constructed his first car, the 'Red Devil.' It had a two-cylinder opposed L-head engine, water cooled and rear-mounted. He probably built five of that model. In 1903, he exhibited a different car at the New York Auto Show at Madison Square Garden. It had a two-cylinder engine up front, in what was becoming the standard arrangement. At this point he came up against the infamous Selden automobile patent. Henry Ford had the resources to fight the patent, but Frisbie decided to concentrate on engines rather than pay royalties. The April 20, 1905 issue of Motor Age reported that a six-cylinder Frisbie engine had been installed in a 'large touring car.' The make of the car was not given.

By 1907, his engine business had outgrown the backyard shop, so he moved less than two miles to Middletown to a building his wife owned on Main Street. There he established the Frisbie Motor and Machine Works. Business continued to expand, and in 1908 he made some major changes. G. Stanley Heft joined him as secretary-treasurer, he renamed the business the Frisbie-Heft Motor Company, and he purchased a brick factory building at College and Center Streets.

Early in 1909, Frisbie-Heft landed a contract with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to produce engines for the Middletown-built Douglas pumps. They were to be mounted on horse-drawn trucks and used for spraying insecticide.

Frisbie had not abandoned all hope of producing a car, for in 1909 he built a more modern experimental car with a four cylinder engine. It was never put in production, however.

Though business was good, the firm had accumulated a debt of $6500 to the Central National Bank in Middletown. The debt may have resulted from his auto experiments. Records show that the debt was reduced to $1500 by turning over to the bank some adjacent property. In March 1910, California businessman Kirk W. Dyer bought out Heft's share of the business. Once again the firm was known as the Frisbie Motor Company. Prosperity returned and Frisbie spent an increasing amount of this aboard his Frisbie-powered motor boat, Sylla. One of his engine catalogs has a picture of the Sylla and tells that it won a 90-mile race from Middletown to Huntington, New York, with 26 entrants.

All Frisbie marine engines used overhead valves by 1912. They were built in two cylinder sizes, 4? x 5 and 6x6 bore and stroke. They were offered as 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6-cylinder engines covering a power range of 5 to 175 HP. All the engines used a quick-removable valve cage. Owners were urged to carry a spare cage. That must have been a good sales feature, as frequent exhaust valve service was required in those days. Lubrication was by a mechanical lubricator with a pump to return oil from the crankcase to the lubricator. Ignition was jump-spark from an Atwater-Kent battery ignition system. An extra-cost option was dual-ignition with a magneto to supply the second spark plug.

During WWI, the factory made aircraft parts. This must have been profitable, as the company was in good financial condition after the war. The 1919 catalog offers a line of engines that were unchanged from pre-war models. There is a slowdown attachment for trolling which is simply a way to increase intake valve lash.

In 1920 Frisbie seems to have decided that he had worked long enough. Kirk Dyer bought Frisbie's share of the business and the company was reorganized with new directors. In the early Twenties, the reputation of the engines for quality and reliability was still good. Some models now had four valves per cylinder. However, the reorganization had left the company cash-poor, and this seems to have started the decline of the Frisbie Motor Company.

In 1924, the company stopped advertising and that fall the city issued the first of many tax liens against them. However, they issued new catalogs in 1926 and 1927. In addition to the usual Frisbie line, the 1926 catalog shows a new modern-looking four cylinder marine engine.

The tax debts were all settled on August 16, 1928, and that date probably is of a bankruptcy. Arthur Otterbine, a former Frisbie foreman, took over the factory building and for many years made cast-iron stoves, toys, and household goods.

As for Russel Frisbie, he seems to have enjoyed his early retirement at age 46. He personally rebuilt the Sylla as a fishing boat and spent many hours casting on the Connecticut River. In the early Thirties he joined his father, Charles, at the J. & E. Stevens Company, where he designed and patented a toy cap pistol which the company produced. In 1938, as part of the dedication of a new bridge across the Connecticut River, he refurbished the 1901 Red Devil and drove it as the first car to cross the bridge. He died in 1968 at age 94.

The article in the Automobile Quarterly was part of a 'Cars of Connecticut' series. The photographs shown here are from the Automobile Quarterly.

There are Frisbie advertisements in many issues on Motor Boating Magazine and Motor Boat Magazine in the library of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. I found two undated catalogs in the Dunn Collection in the Museum Library, and eight catalogs for 1919-1927 in the Patent Library of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers' Association.

In the Wednesday evening, February 19, 1964 edition of The Mid-dletown Press is an article celebrating Russel Frisbie's 90th birthday, 'Russel Frisbie Looks Back on Nine Decades.' That article is based on interviews with Frisbie.

Until recently, I believed that all Frisbie engines were four cycle. In the October 1992 issue of Gas Engine Magazine is an article by Bob Mayeux of Sulphur, Louisiana, about the old fisherman who wanted his fishing boat buried with him when he died. That engine was a two cylinder two cycle Frisbie, indicating that Frisbie built some two-cycle engines in the early days.

Some catalogs show stationary versions of the 7 and 14 HP Frisbie marine engines plus a 2 HP air cooled horizontal stationary engine. They offered pumping and spraying outfits with these engines. Very likely they were the Douglas pump outfits mentioned earlier, and the air-cooled engine was the one designed for the 1909 contract.

There was an article about the 'Friendly Frisbie' in the April 10, 1924 issue of Motor Boat Magazine. It states that Frisbie's first engine in 1898 was an L-head design. In 1903 he brought out the valve-in-head engines with re-moveable valve cages. Frisbie Motor Company was organised in 1903 and incorporated in 1907. The article tells of the 1924 reorganization. It is interesting that each of the new officers was the president of another manufacturing company.

Frisbie's Red Devil car is now in the Melton Automobile Museum in Florida. The Cromwell Historical Society owns a Frisbie marine engine with an interesting history. I am grateful to Jonathan A. Stein of Automobile Quarterly and Elizabeth A. Maselli of the Cromwell Historical Society for their help.

Editor's Note: Before his death last summer, Max Homfeld was a frequent contributor to this magazine. This is an article which he sent to us in January 1993. All of us at GEM miss Max's enthusiasm for research and his prolific pen.