By Llewellyn Hedgbeth
Comets (what Aristotle called stars with hair), streaking across the sky with their distinctive tails, have long been objects of fascination. There are prophecies, prognostications, and scary stories about what a special comet could mean for us. We might still remember what we were doing, for instance, in 1986 when we saw Haley's comet that makes its appearance every 75 years or so. Car makers seem to have been interested in them, as well, with that name appearing on a car as early as the 1907 California-made Comet and as late as the sixties with the Mercury Comet. The Comet we'll take a look at, though, is the Comet Six, an assembled car built from 1917 to 1922 and advertised as the Comet that had come to stay.
The Comet Six was introduced in 1917.
Its builder was George W. Jagers who introduced the first model at the Chicago automobile show of 1917. Perhaps his timing was an omen of things to come. Also on display at that show were hundreds of makes of automobiles, one of which was a golden star, the Gold Studebaker with eight thousand parts finished in 24-carat gold. Even in the teens its manufactured cost was $25,000. Another distraction arose on April 6, 1917, when the U.S. entered WWI. And even though the Comet had been displayed in Chicago in January, it was December 1917 before the first unit of its new Decatur, Illinois factory was ready for occupancy. It would be August of 1918 before the company reached full production capability there, that year producing a few more than seventy cars.
Despite this run of bad luck, Jagers remained a determined manufacturer. Certainly his working background had primed him for his new position. A native of Racine, Wisconsin, for fourteen years—from the late 1880s on—he was involved with J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co, first as a costing clerk, then as head of its cost department. Case, a major manufacturer of threshing equipment and farm machinery, was forward-thinking. It opened a factory in Argentina, for instance, in 1890. By 1895, it was manufacturing gasoline engines. It was to go on to introduce an all-steel thresher, a gasoline-powered tractor, and the Case automobile (from 1911 to 1927)—but all that was after Jagers had left the firm. Effective January 1, 1902, he resigned his position at Case and became a partner in Racine Manufacturing Co. He planned to take what he'd learned from his time at Case and get into the automobile trade.
George @. Jagers, founder of the Comet Six
The firm in which Jagers partnered had begun as the Racine Novelty Co., founded by Frederick F. Blandin to make wooden novelties and toys. Blandin incorporated in 1889 but, by the early 1900s the firm was experiencing financial difficulties and Blandin went looking for investors. He found one in Jagers. The men and their wives incorporated anew in July 1902 with $5000 in capital and greatly increased plant space. The company was engaged in manufacturing wooden ironing boards, piano stools, packing boxes, and car bodies. On November 14, 1902, however, disaster struck when fire broke out in the factory building. The building's value was $8000, the damage was estimated at half that, and the insurance limit was $2000. While the fire did have entertainment value (it being reported that several thousand turned out to see the blaze), it must have been a significant blow to the owners. Fairly quickly thereafter Jagers contacted Frank Kellogg Bull, his old boss and president at Case, for financial assistance. Bull complied, providing sufficient capital for the firm to establish new, larger-scale production facilities.
Once in the new factory, the firm was reorganized as the Racine Novelty Manufacturing Co. and business took off. While Blandin continued as president, Jaegers wore many hats, functioning as secretary, treasurer, general manager, and rain maker. By 1905, the firm closed out the less profitable parts of the business, added manufacturing space, and began focusing more attention on car bodies. In 1906 they were no longer advertising in the "Help Wanted" column for carpenters but rather for body makers. In July 1907, the concern leased adjacent space (referred to as factory number two) for expanding manufacturing further. Then, in September that year, they sold out to an East Coast trust, which, as a condition of the sale, required them to stay on to run the business for another five years.
Reorganization occurred in February 1908, at which time the company was renamed the Racine Manufacturing Co. In 1909, the work force increased markedly as did plant buildings. The new owners were interested in expanding into limousine and taxicab bodies as well as dashes, battery and tool containers, tops, fenders, and dashes. Once more, though, fire struck the firm. This time damages were estimated at $600,000 and insurance coverage was limited to $250,000. All manufacturing moved to plant number two (with its new sprinkler system) temporarily—until a new, large plant could be erected on the old foundation of plant one, this time built of brick and steel with the most modern fire sprinkler system available. The plan was to double manufacturing capacity in the new facility. Another Case associate, Ellis J. Gittings, was brought aboard as sales manager and treasurer while Jagers remained secretary and general manager. In spring of 1912 construction was completed for two new plant buildings.