Milwaukee's contribution to auto manufacturing includes a century-old factory in Bay View
As automobile companies pledge to take a major step toward production of electric vehicles, we thought it was a good time for Bubbler Talk to look at part of Milwaukee's history of making cars.
Specifically, a plant that was on the 3200 block of Clement Avenue at the far south end of the Bay View neighborhood.
The three-story red brick building and smaller concrete structures with sawtooth roofs still stand.
As we stood across the street, retired educator Joel Eul asked if cars were really made there. Because that's what he was told growing up.
"As a young man, I went to school at St. Thomas More [High School], went by this area [and] always dreamed of having my own car because I was on the bus," Eul remembers.
Eul says he recently worked at the school for a year and drove by the former plant on Clement Ave, "and you know, I said, 'I'd like to know.'"
Well, here's what historians say they know:
In 1916, former Buick and General Motors executive Charles W. Nash founded the Nash Motor Company in Kenosha. He also controlled Indiana-based Lafayette Motors, and, while some accounts from auto historians vary, according to Wisconsin Historical Society property records by 1922 Nash had moved Lafayette production to the then new-building on Clement Avenue.
By 1924, Nash temporarily retired the Lafayette name and made only Nash brand cars at the factory until about 1930.
Jim Dworschack says those were very good vehicles. Dworschack is a former Milwaukee-area resident who now lives in southwest Wisconsin. He's a member of the Nash Car Club of America, and knows the difference between overhead and flathead valve six cylinder engines.
"Nash competed in the same class as Buick, and basically the same customer base. Basically, it was an upper middle class car. Nash offered things that very few other manufacturers did at the time. For instance, both the Nash Special Six and Advanced Six were overhead valve engines, which is a much more efficient design than the flathead, but more expensive to make," Dworschack tells WUWM.
Dworschack even owns a Special Six, made in 1929 at the Clement Avenue plant. He says a couple years ago he and some other Nash owners made a trip to briefly stand outside the former factory.
"We kind of shared what we each knew and what we speculated about the place and kind of marveled that there was a test track there," he says.
Overhead images on Google Earth show the test track is gone, and MOPAR, the company now at the site, did not respond to WUWM's requests for information. But Dworschack says the buildings that remain appear to be the last intact factory of Nash Motors.
Since car production ceased, the Clement complex has been an auto parts warehouse or distribution center, currently for Fiat Chrysler, which recently became Stellantis. And, of course, Nash eventually became part of Nash-Kelvinator, American Motors, then Chrysler, then Fiat, as the auto industry went through major mergers and acquisitions over the decades.
But you can still find Nash vehicles, including at the Wisconsin Automotive Museum in Hartford.
A video playing a promotional film is part of the Nash exhibit. The narration goes: "Then, there's the Nash Weather-Eye Conditioned Air System. It's thermostatically-controlled, so in even sub-zero weather, you can drive comfortably in your shirt sleeves."
Twenty-one colorful cars from Nash, Lafayette or another Nash predecessor, Jeffery, are also on display.
The museum's executive director, Dawn Bondhus, says she thinks of the workers at Clement Avenue and other factories who made the cars as long as a century ago.
"I think they would be very happy that they're still around, and they would be thrilled that people still appreciate them and enjoy them, and to see those little tidbits that show up in modern cars — whether it's a color that comes back or a design feature. It's nice to see that connection and appreciation," she says.
And it prompts the thought — will today's vehicles, gas or electric, still be honored by car clubs and museums in 2122?
Here's hoping Bubbler Talk will have the answer for you in 100 years.
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