Cars, like pretty much everything, attract their share of crooks and liars. We've covered modern ones here before. But it's worth going back to the early days of motoring to learn about one of the original — and still one of the most brazen — motorized charlatans: Edward Joel Pennington.
EJ Pennington was a big name in motoring just before the turn of the 20th century, and, in an era when everything about horseless carriages and their crazy hayless feed was still new and mostly unknown, a clever con man could get away with an awful lot. And Pennington certainly did just that.
Pennington started his strange involvement with internal-combustion vehicles in 1893, when he convinced the Chicago Thomas Kane & Company to finance his engine research, which culminated in the development of the Kane-Pennington engine. The engine was a strange one, with long-stroke cylinders that had minimal or (for smaller versions of the engine) no cooling whatsoever. Some had inadequate water jackets, others had nothing, not even fins to dissipate heat passively. That's not great. Also, instead of a carburetor, it used a crude fuel-dripping doohickey.
Here's how Pennington himself described the workings of the engine:
All fluids take up a vast amount of heat in the change of vapour, and as my engine has no carburettor, but vapourises the charge directly in the cylinder, the fluid in vapourising absorbs the heat the cylinder walls have derived from the last explosion, and thus keeps the heat of the cylinders at a comparatively low point. The charge is exploded only when the effective stroke crank angle is 45 degrees, and previous to the delivery of the igniting spark to the charge, a mingling current of electricity is put through the air and gas in the cylinder, and by virtue of this non-igniting current delivered to the mixture, the heat absorption power or capacity, one or both, of gas in the cylinder is so incredibly augmented that the cylinder temperature can be, and actually is, so greatly lowered that the walls of the cylinders are kept cool to within convenient working limits.
So, according to this, the lack of cooling and the crude not-carb were advantages, since they allowed for some sort of vaporization inside the cylinder itself, and somehow the "mingling current of electricity" uses magic to keep the cylinder working temperature low, somehow? Sure, to modern eyes, ones that have been dealing with cars for years and years, there's all manner of bullshit warning flags here. But back in 1893, this all seemed plausible enough.
This engine, while doing little more than absorbing funds from the Thomas Kane & Co bank accounts and eventually seizing from heat, did manage to do one remarkable thing: it inspired Ford to build his first gasoline engine that would eventually power his first car, the Quadracycle.
Yep, it was an article in the November 7, 1895 issue of American Machinist that provided the initial spark — in some ways, quite literally, since the engine gave Ford an idea for a spark-breaker for his own engine — for the enterprise that would eventually become the maker of Fox-body Mustangs and Pintos. It's precisely because of the somewhat slap-dash nature of the Pennington engine that it was able to be such an inspiration. As the article said of the engine:
The machine work on the Pennington motors is not of a high grade; it cannot possibly rank beyond fair ordinary machine shop practice in any particular; there is nothing modern and nothing 'special' in the way of tools in the shops where these motors were built…
So, it was because of the inherent crappiness of the engine that Ford even felt confident enough to undertake his own project. Never underestimate the inspirational power of something truly half-ass.
I'm not sure anyone is really absolutely certain if Pennington started out knowingly making a sub-par engine and hoping to deceive people, or if he was earnest and genuine in his belief in what his engine could do. Either way, it's clear that by the time he started putting his engines in cars, he had to be aware that his vehicles were in no way truly viable.
His first car came in 1896, a "Victoria" seemingly made by welding together a pair of women's bicycles with some metal tubes. One of his drip-fueled, nearly-no-cooling engines was installed between the bike frames, and drove the rear wheels via a crude two-speed gearbox. Speed was controlled by varying the amount of fuel dripped, and instead of any sort of springing, the suspension relied on big balloon tires to mitigate the coccyx-crushings.
The fuel for the Victoria was claimed to be common (for then) paraffin — as in the stuff in candle wax. He proved that cheap, ordinary paraffin was used by testing the fuel, publicly, with a densimeter (also called a Densitometer). That, however, was a bit of theater:
…the ingenious Pennington claimed that, thanks to the 'long-mingling spark', the engine would run on ordinary paraffin, and purported to prove the fact by testing the fuel with a densimeter.
But he didn't use parafin, and instead used the very best, most volatile petroleum, and a densimeter with faked graduations.
Faked graduations on a densimeter! Oooh! Nothing gets me angrier!
By now, people in the US were starting to get wise to Pennington's motor-shenanigans. Shenanigans like a crude, rear-engined motorcycle with a direct drive that Pennington advertised by showing it jumping over a river, like some late Victorian, 1 1/4 HP Evel Knievel. It was, of course, more horseshit, but hyperbolic ads like this and the few sample cars and motorcycles he produced were enough to convince Harry J. Lawson, of England, to pay Pennington £100,000 for his motor patents. Pennington high-tailed it to the UK.
Lawson was starting the Great Horseless Carriage Company in Coventry, and set Pennington up on a floor of one of his multi-story factory buildings in his complex. To publicize the new venture, a party of influential people were invited to inspect the works. Unique Cars and Parts describes what happened next very well:
On the ground floor of the factory they saw men busily at work. After due inspection, they proceeded up curtained stairs to the first floor, where a halt was called in a partitioned space and light refreshments were proferred. Then the work doing on the first floor was inspected. The same process was repeated on proceeding to the second floor; some visitors, more curious than the rest, who ascended the curtained stairway, being now conscious of an echo of footsteps at the opposite end of the building. After yet another pause for refreshments, on emerging from the partitioned space, the visitors were conducted round the second floor, whereupon one of the group enquired whether it was the policy of this pioneer company of a new industry to make a point of recruiting members of the same families, placing brothers to work on different floors? The answer is not recorded. But there was yet one more storey to which to ascend. The sequence of events was repeated, including the echoing of footfalls from opposite, and the subsequent recognition, this time in a still greater number of cases, of increasingly familiar faces among the operatives.
Yep, their plan to make themselves seem like a much bigger concern is the same one that the Three Stooges may have come up with decades later: distract the tour group with refreshments while the entire floor's staff of workers runs up the stairs to the next floor, and hope nobody notices that everyone looks alike, or just assumes the entire factory is staffed by sets of quintuplets.
Pennington built a few more crude cars: the Torpedo, a three-wheeler that was said to be able to seat nine people, and saddled with the same crazily long-stroke, cooling-free type of engine as before. The Torpedo could barely run 10 miles without a major breakdown, but Pennington insisted on talking a lot of shit in motoring journals of the day and issuing all kinds of crazy challenges that everybody ignored.
At the 1898 National Cycle Show at the Crystal Palace in London, Pennington showed the Raft Victoria, a front-wheel drive, rear-wheel steered, open car with a rope final drive. Yes, that rope. Incredibly, over 400 aristocratic rubes paid £100 apiece to order the car, and sales were so strong that Pennington cranked the price by £15 before the day was over. Of course, none of the fancy-trousers at the show ever received their cars.
Pennington eventually came back to America to attempt to collect on his motor patents, but by 1902 people were pretty wise to his game, as this article in The Horseless Age shows, where he's called "the notorious E.J. Pennington" and his recent prototype called "PENNINGTON'S LATEST FREAK."
Other Horseless Age articles about Pennington's cars said of them
...the Pennington car, which is not a car, since it does not carry, but has to be carried...
... which isn't the sort of pull quote you'd want to use in your ads.
Pennington never really quit trying, and at the time of his death in 1911, he was in the process of suing the Indian Motorcycle company for patent infringements. He was remembered as a fraud and a charlatan, though it can't be denied that he had at least some gift for inventiveness, even if it was rarely explored beyond conning people out of their money. And, his work did seem to be what inspired Henry Ford. Maybe then, despite pretty much every deliberate action the man ever took, Pennington does deserve some small place in the birth of the modern automobile industry.