Time Machines: GM's forgotten marque

Known only to a few historians, it was the first brand General Motors started from scratch, rather than being purchased as an existing marque - such as Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac were - and then added to the GM portfolio

1920-21 Sheridan

Sheridan images from a period sales brochure.

Despite its success, General Motors has had its share of short-lived nameplates: Marquette, Viking and Oakland died in the 1930s; LaSalle lasted until 1940; and, in more recent times, Saturn (2010).

But all of those failed marques did enjoy at least some sales success. There’s one GM automobile, however, that was such a flash in the pan it’s been forgotten by all but the most diligent historians. And it was the first brand the company started from scratch, rather than being purchased as an existing marque - such as Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac were - and then added to the GM portfolio.

Hands up, everyone who’s heard of the Sheridan car built by GM in Muncie, Indiana. Hmmm. Not a lot of hands. And until a couple weeks ago, mine wouldn’t have been raised either.

I stumbled upon this long forgotten marque while researching Eddie Rickenbacker, a successful automobile racer and America’s top World War I flying ace, for a future story on Rickenbacker Motors, the car company he started in Detroit in 1922.

That’s when I discovered that before launching his own automaking enterprise Rickenbacker had been a vice president of the Sheridan Motor Car Company and sales manager for the lucrative region of California.

The Sheridan was the brainchild of D.A. Burke, head of GM’s Buick division. He thought there was room in the market for a brand building two distinct lines - one priced between Chevrolet and Oakland and another between Buick and Cadillac.

GM boss Billy Durant agreed, purchased the Inter-State Automobile factory in Muncie that had been idle since 1918 and established Burke as Sheridan’s president and general manager.

The cars were designed from scratch by GM, with the economy Sheridan line powered by a four-cylinder engine and the premium line by a V8. Both were supplied by Northway Engine Works of Detroit - a division of GM that had been purchased by Durant in 1909, during his first time as boss, and phased out by his successor, Alfred P. Sloan, in 1925.

Sheridan’s motto was “The car complete.” A sales brochure said, “In the Sheridan we pledge to the trade a car so complete in every essential detail, of such abundant power, so sound mechanically and of such refinement as to give the owner the constant, satisfying service to which his investment entitles him.”

A 1920 Sheridan ad read, in part: “No temptations in the form of lower-priced materials have been permitted to enter against the achievement of quality. This policy of quality first applies to all parts which bring operation, upkeep, appearance and comfort as near as possible to perfection.

“In the Sheridan, you will find proper application of every steel analysis required; highest grade upholstering materials; seat construction insuring both lounging comfort and durability; many distinctive conveniences in electrical equipment; latest developments in bearings and lubrication; greatly improved riding qualities because of scientific body and spring design.

“A car of character is the Sheridan - developed out of experience covering all the years of the motor car industry - without excessive cost.”

Both lines were to be manufactured as five-passenger touring cars, five- and seven-passenger sedans, two- and four-passenger coupes and two-passenger roadsters.

Sheridan announced in late 1920 that it soon expected to be assembling 300 cars a week, but just as production began to ramp up, GM fired Durant for the second and final time. Sloan had no interest in the new nameplate since it was one of Durant’s pet projects. So in May of 1921 GM sold the rights to Sheridan, and the Muncie plant, to Durant for $5 million.

Despite a backlog of orders, the former GM boss quickly abandoned the Sheridan and used the plant to build the Durant and Princeton automobiles marketed by his new automotive enterprise, Durant Motors.

Of the approximately 800 Sheridans made, only two are known to exist and both are 1921 touring cars. One is in private hands and the other is owned by the National Auto Museum (Bill Harrah Collection) in Reno, Nevada.

 

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