Home » How The World’s Quirkiest Car Museum Is Solving The Mystery Of This Strange Tiny Car

How The World’s Quirkiest Car Museum Is Solving The Mystery Of This Strange Tiny Car

Lane–shopper Top

In the course of researching the history on the cars in Lane Motor Museum’s collection, things can get messy fast. Much of the information on an individual car is passed down from the previous owner. Often times, owners have been given incorrect information, especially if it’s from a rather obscure make. And yet other times, the information we are given is incomplete. Part of the fun of working at the museum is playing detective, and having to uncover the real story. This is one of those stories. *Law and Order dun-dun sound*

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When we acquired this Carter Town Shopper a few years ago, the title (and the California black license tag) said it was a 1942 model. I thought that was very interesting, as not many manufacturers were building cars during World War II.

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I posited that as a new, small, company they weren’t building enough (or any) cars to be pressed into the war effort.

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What I failed to realize was that our other Towne Shopper project car (yes, with an “e” on the end of “town”), was titled as a 1948. Huh, that’s odd. Why were there so many years difference between two models of the same company? Why does the “1942” Shopper have its engine in the front, while the “1948” Shopper have a rear-mounted engine? These were obvious differences… but there were several things that weren’t adding up. I headed to our Archives to delve deeper.

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I now believe the 1942 Carter Town Shopper was titled with the incorrect year of manufacture. My theory is that someone found a 1942 California tag, slapped it on the car, and the car received its title based on that tag. The Carter Town Shopper came with a plethora of information about the Harvey Motor Car Corporation, including press releases, advertisements, and pictures.

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I even found a newsreel clip, and the “Harvey” Towne Shopper was even featured on the cover of the April 1948 issue of Popular Mechanics. Digging through these items, the very muddy picture of these two cars is becoming clearer.

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I think the timeline goes something like this: one Mr. S.A. Williams, who was the former president of the Bobbi-Kar company (later the Keller Automobile Company), had set up the Bobbi-Kar company in San Diego in 1946. He moved operations to Huntsville, Alabama, a few months later.

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For reasons that aren’t known yet, the Bobbi-Kar/Keller folks ousted him in late 1946. S.A. Williams came back to San Diego to join his brother Louis and former Bobbi-Kar executive J.D. Carter to establish the International Motor Car Company in late 1947. That company was housed in an old Convair Aircraft building, which still exists to this day. According to the International Motor Car’s press release, which listed the officers of the new company, many of the International/Carter/Harvey executives were formerly employed by Convair.

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We now think the unrestored rear-engined car in our shop, the Towne Shopper, was the prototype, and the one that was used in all the promotional materials and photo shoots.

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In addition to press releases and pictures that came with the red Carter, there were type-written letters addressed to a couple of folks who had inquired about the car.

According to the letter addressed to a Mr. Francis Thomas, by June of 1948, J.D. Carter was now the President of the company, and it had changed its name to the Harvey Motor Corporation. The letter mentions, rather casually, that the attached brochure “gives the basic data with the exception that the motor has been moved from the rear of the car to the front.” The letter goes onto to say that the price remains the same, at $595.

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However, by the time a Mr. Raymond Palmer had inquired about the car in October of 1948, the company had changed names yet again, to the Carter Motor Corporation, with a H.M. Dickinson listed as Vice President. The letter head changed as well, with the physical address being omitted, and just a listing for a post office box. This is highly sus, amirite fellow kids? Changing names three times in the span of 10 months should have put everyone working there on high alert.

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Museum friend Malcolm Pearson, who runs the website Makes That Didn’t Make It, believes that S.A. Williams went on to develop the Del Mar automobile, also located in San Diego. Mal sent me this timeline of the Del Mar:

 “The Del Mar was introduced to the public on Valentine’s Day 1949, roughly 10 months after Williams left IMC. Del Mar’s president was Arthur Cooksey. It was announced that it would be produced at the same Convair plant Williams had leased in 1946.

 After Keller Motors went under at the beginning of 1950, Arthur Cooksey bought the rights to the Keller name and secured an agreement to lease the Redstone Arsenal factory space.”

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The trail goes cold here, but as we restore the Towne Shopper, and continue to investigate the fate of Mr. Williams and his various start-ups, I’ll be sure to update this story.


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29 Responses

  1. Great digging. Two more questions. The guy in the photo right after the Popular Mechanics cover who is looking at the car appears to be very dejected. Is it possible that little coupe was a really disappointing birthday present or something? If we could post images or annotated images here, I would really be tempted to thought bubble him. “What is this piece of shit?” “This? This is what I deserve?” “I can’t get any dead hookers in this trunk” Maybe he just traded in that Flintstones’s era cart parked next to the car and was hoping for something a little more advanced.

    Secondly, it looks like the car in the “Dear Mrs. America” ad looks like it is right hand drive. Curious.

    1. Either they reversed the picture for the ad, or the RHD was being sold as some sort of feature to ease parallel parking (and also safer exit onto the sidewalk instead of into traffic), since it was pitched as a shopping car for running errands downtown. I could see either

  2. Are those 10” wheels, or even smaller? Looking forward to coming down to see this/these in person.
    The front end of the black (?) coupe looks like it was designed in the late ‘20s/early ‘30s: has a Machine Moderne vibe to me.
    Thanks for posting the weirdness.

      1. CORRECTION: The project Towne Shopper has a two-cylinder Onan generator engine in the rear. The front wheel drive Carter Town Shopper has a Gladden 75 “Bee-Line” four-stroke single cylinder in it.

      2. The project car has an OMC engine in it, but I’ll have to look at the Carter’s engine manufacturer. It’s definitely something different than OMC. They were both single-cylinder, four-strokes, with about 12hp, with a centrifugal clutch.

      3. No need to worry your pretty little head about it. The men at Bobbi-Kar / Keller Automobile Company / International Motor Car Company / Harvey Motor Corporation / Carter Motor Corporation assure you it’s a fine motor indeed.

  3. Looks like a glorified go-cart.

    Whats the structure look like under the skin? I can’t image it would stand a chance in an accident against the beasts on the road in the late 40’s.

  4. Nerd that I am, I checked. $595 in Jan, 1948, is about $7500 these days. As for the car and the whole light car classification, there was a post-war period without cars, and people wanted them and all, but these light cars never really seem to have taken off in the US in the way that the Isettas, Messerschmitts, and others in Europe did. But I still love these for all their ridiculousness, and the wonderfully (awfully) sexist ads that went with them. Nice slice of history and all.

  5. Got stuck on the tag line of the old Popular Mechanics cover.
    “Written so you can understand it”
    My first thought was, good that’s kind of the point right?
    My second thought was you underestimate what a dunce I can be.
    (Now back to the article)

  6. Well this article flipped a weird switch in my head. All that add copy is very ducking (go ahead auto correct, misspell it like that for eternity) sexist.

    I remember my mom pulling her first “new” car into the driveway, so proud of herself that she got such a great deal on it.

    She insisted to the men at the dealership that she would only buy one with the silver trim because the gold was too gaudy.

    She got what she wanted. And bragged about how she told the dealership what’s what.

    There it was a used 1993 Toyota Camry.

    Deep Jewel Green Metallic… something with the silver trim. Not that ugly ducking gold!
    She was so proud of herself.

    That was the 90’s. I can’t imagine the social hoops a woman had to dance through to buy their own car in the 40’s.

    1. My mother-in-law decided she wanted a new Datsun B210 in the late 70’s. She was employed full time as a nurse anesthesiologist, and a Navy veteran. The salesmen at the dealership refused to sell her a car unless she brought her husband to co-sign the loan. She raised such a stink, they finally acquiesced (It was not wise to be on her bad side).

  7. Fascinating story, Rex! There’s a Hemmings article from May of 2016 entitled “What Killed Keller” which has some information on S.A. Williams, described as “a somewhat shady promoter” who had once served time on a swindle charge. Apparently he relocated to Alabama because California regulators wouldn’t allow someone of his sterling character to issue company stock in Bobbi-Kar.

    1. I left out the part about California regulators shooing him off to Alabama, and he coming BACK to California to re-start another business, because I have not found hard proof of that just yet. I also think he spent time in prison in the 1930s, but, again, I would like to see the records first.

  8. I haven’t done a lot of shipping so it’s definitely possible that there’s something that I don’t understand, but I find it odd that the price was listed as $595 FOB San Diego. Why does it list it as Freight On Board to a port if it was built at that location? I had assumed that it was imported when I saw that near the beginning of the article.

    1. I do actually do some shipping. FOB actually means Free On Board. It did originate in maritime shipping and meant that the seller would be responsible for getting it “On Board” a ship and that ownership transferred at that point. Use later expanded to include truck and rail shipments. So in this case FOB means that it is yours as soon as the shipper takes possession in San Diego, and you are responsible for the freight charges to your destination. Here is a page about it from one of the brokers I’ve used for LTL and FTL shipments in the past. https://www.freightquote.com/blog/what-does-fob-mean-in-freight-shipping/

    2. I think it’s because, as foodeater mentioned, it was a trucking industry designation, and maybe modern domestic shipping doesn’t need that moniker anymore? I thought that was odd too.

  9. I have an old brochure for the Keller and I always wondered what that car’s story was. There isn’t much information out there. This was fascinating.

  10. This is from a time when the lack of sprawl allowed you to tootle down to the grocers, bakers and butchers in what is essentially a golf cart. Approximately ten years from its inception and it would’ve been pointless for most Americans driving ever further from town on the Autobahn inspired Interstates. If only we could go back to this era and rethink it all. I still wouldn’t buy a Town(e) Shopper, but maybe they were on to something we should’ve embraced.

  11. My friend Phil Bres and I owned that car and used to take it to Cars and Coffee Irvine. It was found in a trailer park under a canvas cover and we thought it was a golf cart. The headlights and bezels came from Pep Boys, (that’s why the black tape on the headlights) and the seats were from a swap meet. It ran and drove, we unloaded it from a garden trailer in the parking structure and drove it into cars and coffee. Then we found out it was a prototype. I think the car had been painted several times, to change it’s color as it went to different towns/auto conventions to drum up customers interest back in the day.

  12. “It’s America’s answer to the great American problem… the one car dilemma.”

    Mercedes, DT, just think about that sentence in that add for a minute and recognize how good we have it now.

  13. Years ago one of these used to be parked in front of the San Diego Automotive Museum. I remember because I wasn’t aware of any cars built in San Diego before seeing it.

    1. I’ll bet it was this one. We got this from private hands, and they may have gotten it from the museum, but who knows? Thanks for the info! I will be reaching out to the San Diego Automotive Museum folks tomorrow. Maybe they know if other cars were produced.

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