Wednesday, August 3, 2011

W. K. Cowan -- Let's Go Buy a New Auto!

The older ones among us have heard of a Nash Rambler, but the auto's heritage actually came from the name of two different companies.  The Rambler was built by the Jeffery Company until it was absorbed by Nash in 1915, and was a high-end automobile brand consisting of five different models by the end of its manufacturing run. Prior to building autos Jeffery had been a bicycle company, where our next subject first ran across them (pun intended).

W.K. Cowan in the Waverley sold to S. G. Hall, 1899
William K. Cowan was a bicycle dealer for Rambler in Los Angeles in 1895. His expertise was such he had actually been awarded a patent for an improvement to a bicycle drive shaft (Patent 633,753 issued 1899). But he fell in love with the automobile, and vowed to sell them if and when they came to Los Angeles. This infatuation was to provide him the small piece of history as the seller of the first automobile in Los Angeles County.  It was 1899, and a man named Steve Hall wanted to purchase an auto. Cowan had access to the Waverley Electric, and sold one to Mr. Hall.

By 1902 the Jeffery Company began to make autos, so W.K. became the Southern California dealer for the Rambler. And when he wasn't selling Ramblers he was racing them, winning prizes for economy, speed, and reliability. His sales climbed steadily, from five in 1902, then 30 in 1903, 85 in 1904, to 125 in 1905, when Cowan was one of four to tie for first (out of 60 entries) in the Great Endurance Race to Santa Barbara. And how much of that was over paved roads, you ask? Zero miles. According to a 1917 issue of Motor West Magazine, in 1907 there were TWO miles of paved roads in all of Los Angeles County.

In 1910 Cowan moved his Rambler dealership from S. Broadway to a new garage at 1140 S. Hope Street. In what was no doubt an experiment in advertising, instead of showing his personal residence in the recently published book on successful Southern California business people, he showed his new dealership property.  See for yourself...

The new Rambler dealership garage at 1140 S. Hope St. in 1910.
We don't know if that's Mr. Cowan in the photo, but odds are good it was a Rambler sticking out the front door.

How much was a Rambler? For the new Model 53, which came in dark Brewster Green with cream wheels, a 34 h.p. motor, spare wheel included, and a much nicer than today sounding horn, list price was $1,950, about $47,000 in today's money.  It was not your Tin Lizzie type of auto. But for that kind of money, here is what you would receive:

A Herald ad by W.K. Cowan (click for larger image)(courtesy of

By 1910 things seemed to be going swimmingly for W.K., but suddenly in 1914 he sold his Rambler interest to Carlton-Faulkner-Boles, a distributor located just up the block dealing in Marmons. Papers of the day attribute his selling to "failed health", but by 1917 he returned as a truck manager for a local Chevrolet dealership.

Cowan's family residence was in Eagle Rock (first its own city--then part of Los Angeles) where he lived from about 1910 through at least 1935. A probable indicator of his later life financial success was that his house in 1930 was a rental. He passed away in 1952, with the L.A. Times noting in his obituary that he was the first seller of an automobile in Southern California.

By 1950 the South Hope building was still an auto garage, but like most things since then, it's now changed:

Today at 1140 S. Hope St.

Link to Google

But wait--could that be the same building? Maybe--quite a bit of alteration but possible.

Some additional images:
A photo of Mr. Jeffery and Mr. Cowan on their way to San Diego in 1909
The full Motor West article of 1917
A better copy of Mr.Cowan in his Waverley (

Picasa updated 11/16

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