Buckle up and get your road trip playlist ready. It’s time for a trip down memory lane detailing three ways the City of Fountains has impacted the car industry.
We’ll navigate with help from the Kansas City Library and the Kansas City Automotive Museum.
Selling + manufacturing
Cars gained mass popularity at the start of the 1900s. Henry Ford capitalized by launching Ford in 1903. Just three years later, he sold ~50 cars to Kansas Citians, prompting him to open an assembly plant at 10th and Winchester, KCMO in 1913. This was the first Ford plant built outside of the Detroit metro.
Shortly after, General Motors followed Ford’s lead and started manufacturing here, too.
Outside of the big wigs, KC had a number of local manufacturers and dealerships rev up during this time, including The Stafford Motor Car Company, Midwest Motor Company, Beggs Motor Car Company, and Severin Motor Car Company. One of the most impressive companies being Roberts’ Motor Mart by Homer B. Roberts.
Homer was a US Army World War I and World War II veteran and the first Black man to make the rank of first lieutenant. He was also the first Black man in the country to own a car dealership.
His dealership was located at 19th and Vine Street in a mixed-use building he owned. There, he brokered deals to Black car buyers to whom other dealers would not sell. He started his business with seven used cars, grew it into a Ford showroom, and made Roberts’ Motor Mart one of the top dealerships in the nation.
Did you know Kansas City used to have more speedways? There were several during the early 1900s, but the most notable was the Kansas City Speedway, built in 1922 at 91st Street and Holmes Road in south KC. Fun fact: this track was completely made of wood.
The wooden race track was developed to rival the all-brick Indy 500. Racers loved it because they were able to drive faster on wood. However, this track only lasted two years as it literally rotted away.
The KC racing legacy doesn’t end at this road. You’ve yet to meet our two racing stars: Barney Oldfield and The Kansas City Flash.
Barney Oldfield started as a bicycle racer before switching to racing cars in 1902. He is credited as the first person to reach the speed of one mile a minute.
Masten Gregory, aka The Kansas City Flash, was the first American to compete regularly in Formula One Grand Prix Racing. He raced in 43 World Championships and also raced sports cars, winning the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Front-Wheel Drive (FWD) was not invented in KC, but many argue it was perfected here thanks to Ben F. Gregory. Ben was an airplane pilot and racing enthusiast who loved the concept of FWD.
He manufactured many FWD prototypes over the years, including the first car with a rear-mounted engine.
The only car that stuck was a prototype of a small jeep — outfitted with FWD — he created in 1946. It was so lightweight that it could be airlifted by helicopter, which happened to be exactly what the US Marine Corps was looking for.
The Marines adopted the tiny jeeps and manufactured them for several years — eventually known as Mighty Mites.
Some car historians site this as the first mass adoption of FWD in the US.