The Crown Motor Works

From 1909 to 1925 Arthur Henry Van Wambeke, Working in Relative Obscurity in His Home Work Shop, Quietly Produced (Duality Engines of His Own Design

| April/May 2002

Crown Motor Works was one of many small firms engaged in the mechanization of America in the early decades of the 20th century. The airplane and the telephone were, in practical terms, still in their infancy, while vacuum tubes for efficient radio broadcasting was still a struggling technology. But the internal combustion engine was fast becoming an industrial mainstay as the century progressed.

Electricity was still not widely available in rural areas, so small gasoline-powered engines were sought by many people for powering machines and equipment. To satisfy this need, small manufacturing companies popped up across America, especially in areas surrounding large, industrialized cities. Elgin, Ill., situated 40 miles west of Chicago, was one such spot, and this is the story of one of those small, early-1900s firms; the Crown Motor Works, of Elgin, Ill.

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Early History

From all indications the Crown Motor Works was one man's dream, a part-time spin-off that lasted for perhaps a little more than a decade or so, and a venture that was, in the end, never a commercial success. It was a venture that appears to have been carried out quietly, almost confidentially, by the quiet, unassuming man who was my grandfather, Arthur Henry Van Wambeke.

Arthur Henry Van Wambeke was the grandson of Constantine Van Wambeke, who, at the age of 17, emigrated from Belgium to America in 1856, settling in Moline, Ill. His second U.S.-born son, Heinrich (who later went by the name Henry), grew up in Missouri. Henry and his first wife, Fannie, had eight sons and one daughter. Arthur, the eldest son, was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1880. Some time around 1892 Henry and his family (including his younger brother, George) moved to Chicago. A year or so later Henry and his family settled in Elgin, while George stayed in Chicago, where he set up an Auburn auto dealership around 1914.

In Elgin Henry established a grocery store, first on Congdon Avenue, and later in the front of his home on the southeast corner of Jefferson and Hill streets. This is where all the 'Van' children grew up, and all nine helped in the store during their school years. Arthur attended Columbia Grammar School and Elgin High School, graduating (?) in 1898. His first regular employment was as a draftsman. In 1904, at age 24, he married Clara Larkin, and the same year he began what was to become a life-long career as a pattern maker at the Elgin National Watch Co., where he worked until his retirement in 1949.


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