Dusty Relics of Arkansas History
September 10-16, 2018
By Bob Denman
The Climber Motor Corporation
Henry Ford changed the world with his reasonably priced Model T and by the mid-1920s there were nearly 40,000 Ford cars and trucks registered in Arkansas. For the Arkansas driver it was a marvel of convenience … that is, if you had a decent road to drive on. Arkansas, like many other states at the time, had a road system that lagged far behind the demand for the Model T which struggled to handle the rugged backroads of the Natural State.
To handle the sometimes-primitive Arkansas roads, three entrepreneurs – William Drake, Clarence Roth, and Davis Hopson – created the Climber Motor Corporation, Arkansas’ ‘only car and truck manufacturer’. They recruited George Schoeneck from Detroit as Chief Engineer. The business was capitalized at $1 million dollars and opened its factory in 1919 at a 20-acre site on East 17th Street in Little Rock. It was a perfect location with both the Missouri Pacific and Rock Island rail lines nearby making for easy parts and materials delivery. Production at the plant peaked at five vehicles per day.
The Climber was built to be tough, you might even say in today’s advertising language, Ford Tough. To demonstrate its toughness a Climber drove up the steps of the state capitol building in 1920. An earlier test began at the capitol and eventually drove 20,000 miles over some of the South’s worst roads, virtually nonstop. The most popular model was the Climber Four, a 4-cylinder, 40 horsepower, five passenger touring car with a collapsible roof. It came in a number of color combinations and featured leather seats.
Despite the merits of the durable Climber, it was destined for failure. It sold for just over $2,000, but that was at a time when you could buy a new Model T for just under $300. Arkansas was a poor state and while the idea had merit, the car couldn’t gain market share.
The venture was undercapitalized and the manufacturing plagued by a shortage of parts and skilled labor. After a number of changes in management and ownership, the Climber Motor Corporation closed its doors for good in 1924.
Only two Climbers are known to exist today, and both can be found at the Museum of Automobiles on Petit Jean Mountain beautifully restored.
The tradition of aircraft manufacturing in Little Rock began at that same 17th Street plant in 1926. It was purchased by the Arkansas Aircraft Corporation which later reorganized as Command Aire. The large open automobile manufacturing plant was perfect for aircraft construction and the 20-acre site was large enough to build one 1,800 foot runway and one 1,600 foot runway, which collectively became known as Command-Aire Field. The runways were adjacent to the Little Rock Air Depot.
Robert Snowden headed up the firm and his chief designer, Albert Volmecke built a test plane named the “Little Rocket”. That plane won the prestigious 5,400 mile All-America Flying Derby in 1930 recording a top speed of 215 mph and winning the grand prize of $15,000 – a hefty sum during the Great Depression. The company went on to build and sell over 300 Command Aire bi-planes becoming one of the country’s leading aircraft manufacturers. A handful still exist and fly today in museum and private collections.
The historic automobile and airplane manufacturing plant still stands today, intact at 1823 East 17th Street. In 2005 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Building where the Climber automobile was formerly manufactured. It now houses MicroGrinding Systems, Inc.; 2012. (Courtesy of Michael Winn, via Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture)