First Things


| March/April 1994



Red Devil Car

The 1901 Red Devil car.

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.