Maxwell Motor Cars

For many Maxwells, the ultimate “collectable” might be one of the 100,000 or so automobiles which carried the family name early in the last century. Few remain, and those which turn up from time to time command prices appropriate for the treasures which they are.

Maxwells were among the earliest motor cars on American roads, creations of Jonathan Dixon Maxwell (1864-1928), a native of Howard County, Indiana.

Jonathan Maxwell started out as a bicycle repairman, became a machinist, and worked in the railroad industry before joining the turn-of-the-century obsession with automobiles. Before 1900, he worked with Elwood Haynes in building an automobile which is now in the Smithsonian Institution, and he later worked with Eli Olds, developer of the Oldsmobile.

Jonathon Dixon Maxwell

The first automobile to bear Maxwell’s name came in 1904, the Maxwell Runabout. With a two cylinder engine, the car sold for about $500. It was produced by the Maxwell-Briscoe Company which Jonathan Maxwell formed in 1903 with Benjamin Briscoe. As their company grew, it merged with another to become the United States Motor Company.

Maxwell and Briscoe parted company in 1912, but Jonathan Maxwell continued to produce cars under the banner of his own Maxwell Motor Company. At various times, he built cars in Tarrytown (NY), Pawtucket (RI), New Castle (IN), Detroit (MI), and Canada.

Maxwell automobiles were considered to be among the best racing machines of the era and won trophies to back up that reputation. In 1916, a Maxwell touring car set a coast-to-coast record, speeding from New Jersey to California in just ten days and sixteen hours. Another Maxwell challenged the Pennsylvania Railroad’s vaunted “Congressional Limited,” racing the train over the forty miles from Washington to Baltimore and arriving just four minutes behind.

Other than by antique car buffs, Maxwell cars are most often remembered as Jack Benchoice, because Benny made comments about his old Maxwell a staple of his comedy routines. He and his sidekick, Rochester, worked his Maxwell into their act starting in the thirties and kept it there for another five decades.

Walter P. Chrysler joined the Maxwell Motor Company in 1921 and later became owner. He continued using the Maxwell name until 1925, and then phased it out. For several years, what had been the Maxwell was called the Chrysler Four. Then it became the Chrysler Plymouth. Finally, it was called the Plymouth, a name which has survived to the present. With a recent announcement that the Plymouth name will be dropped, however, the Maxwell automotive heritage comes to the end of the road — almost a century after it began.

In their heyday, Maxwell motor cars were prized by their owners and sported the latest innovations. A 1921 advertisement touted the Maxwell’s “wood artillary wheels, side curtains on really solid rods and supports, and a special curtain compartment in back of the front seat.”

Maxwells came along at a time when Americans were first discovering the freedom and just plain fun offered by revolutionary advancements in transportation. People were in love with their cars, and they even rhapsodized about them in song. One of the big hits of the era was “Come Along with Me, Lucille, in My Merry Oldsmobile.” Another song, not as well known today but quite popular at the time, hit closer to home — “Mack’s Swell Car Was a Maxwell.”

— Pictures and Information Provided by Wilmer B. Maxwell, Carlisle PA