Title

Ralph Hamlin: The Forgotten History of an L.A. Auto Pioneer

As the sun set, Ralph Hamlin’s Franklin roadster roared onto the track of the Phoenix fairgrounds. The date was Oct. 29, 1912 and at 18 hours, 20 minutes, and 22 seconds, Hamlin’s drive from Los Angeles to Arizona obliterated all previous records. Twelve cars had left LA’s paved city streets the day before. Far fewer completed the course. One car was wrecked when it swerved to avoid a spectator. Another driver took a curve too fast and rolled his Buick, pinning him and the car’s mechanic beneath the machine. A third car, unable to stop, hit the disabled Buick. Other vehicles could not maintain the punishing pace. Ten miles outside of the town of Brawley, the little Hupmobile rolled to a stop and refused to go further. At Glamis, in California’s Imperial Valley, the driver of the Schact walked away from his stalled car. The dunes of the Mammoth Wash, near the Arizona state line, were virtually impassable. Horses dragged most of the cars through.

Mud splatters Ralph Hamlin while competing in the Cactus Derby of 1912. His companion is likely Andrew Smith, the Franklin’s “mechanician.”
Mud splatters Ralph Hamlin while competing in the Cactus Derby of 1912. His companion is likely Andrew Smith, the Franklin’s “mechanician.” Photo courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

After hours on the road, seven drivers pulled into Yuma to rest before attempting the final leg of the journey to Phoenix. Along the route, the desert sands had reddened their faces and cracked lips. The driver’s eyes were bloodshot, having “been almost burned out” of their heads. Dirt filled their mouths and noses. The dust was everywhere. The men showered and briefly slept. The following morning at 5:00 a.m., Hamlin and the remaining competitors “shot out” of town at 70 mph. They maintained this pace through Agua Caliente and Buckeye. The competition tightened as Hamlin and Charley Soules in a Cadillac traded spots for the lead. Twenty miles from Phoenix, Hamlin unleashed the Franklin and thundered towards the finish line, coming in 43 minutes ahead of his rival. It was a “nerve-wrecking, muscle-straining race.”[i]

A crowd had gathered at the fairgrounds to celebrate the end of the “Cactus Derby”. Ralph Hamlin was lifted onto sturdy shoulders and, with the “howdy band playing the worst music that ever was heard,” was carried to an immense grand stand. One of the other drivers grabbed a big bass drum and led the parade. Tears cleaned a path through the grime on Hamlin’s face. “When he brushed the tears away and mopped his red eyes…he showed himself a man who could appreciate the right kind of welcome.”[ii]

 Ralph Hamlin, a cigar stub in his mouth and goggles on his head, is prepared to race his Franklin. Los Angeles Public Library, Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo circa 1908
Ralph Hamlin, a cigar stub in his mouth and goggles on his head, is prepared to race his Franklin. Los Angeles Public Library, Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo circa 1908, courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

 

Hamlin behind the wheel of his six-cylinder Franklin Model H nicknamed, the "Greyhound".
Hamlin behind the wheel of his six-cylinder Franklin Model H nicknamed, the "Greyhound". The original photo caption reads: "Ralph Hamlin and his greyhound. The fast Franklin roadster was entered in the Los Angeles-Phoenix road race at the eleventh hour yesterday, and is a likely winner". This was Hamlin’s first attempt at a race that he would eventually win in 1912. Photo dated November 7, 1908, courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Story continues below

Hamlin on his "Orient" Motorcycle around 1901. The bike was the first motorcycle west of the Rockies. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, P-115 Ralph Hamlin Collection
Hamlin on his "Orient" Motorcycle around 1901. The bike was the first motorcycle west of the Rockies. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, P-115 Ralph Hamlin Collection.
Employees stand by early motorcycles and "horseless carriages" parked on a wooden floor in one of Ralph Hamlin's shops. The photo’s original caption reads: "This was Hamlin's salesroom in 1902, located at 1837 South Main Street.
Employees stand by early motorcycles and "horseless carriages" parked on a wooden floor in one of Ralph Hamlin's shops. The photo’s original caption reads: "This was Hamlin's salesroom in 1902, located at 1837 South Main Street. Hamlin was born in San Francisco and was brought to Los Angeles by his parents at the age of six ... " Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Hamlin is a passenger in the first auto ascent of Mt. Wilson, May 28, 1907.
Hamlin is a passenger in the first auto ascent of Mt. Wilson, May 28, 1907. Later, as part of his Franklin sales strategy, whenever a new highway or bridge was to be opened for traffic, Hamlin would make sure that a Franklin was the first car on it. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, P-115 Ralph Hamlin Collection.
Ralph Hamlin with Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand
In 1914, Charlie Chaplin directed a film at Ascot Park, a racetrack on Slauson Avenue near Central. The film was a benefit for racer Bert Dingley and his “mechanician” Ed Swanson who had been injured in a race in Tacoma, WA. The picture was described as a “freak-show” featuring cyclecars, baby roadsters and Ralph Hamlin’s Franklin Wind Machine. In this photograph, Hamlin stands in the vehicle, while Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand get blown aside. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, General Photo File.

The Los Angeles to Phoenix race was Hamlin’s fifth and final attempt. He had been racing for close to 20 years, beginning with bicycles, then motorcycles and finally automobiles. Born in San Francisco in 1880, Hamlin moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1887. He began racing bikes at 16 and, after a few wins, saved enough prize money to establish a bicycle repair shop. In 1901, he leased a small space at 1806 S. Main St. and began selling motorcycles, Orient Buckboards, Lozier, and Scripps-Booth automobiles.

Four years later, Hamlin became the Southern California distributor for Franklin air-cooled cars, designed by the H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company of Syracuse, New York. His original Franklin showroom was located at 1040 S. Flower St. He would go on to establish outlets in Hollywood, Pasadena, Glendale, and San Diego.[iii] Through a combination of “imaginative” public relations and shrewd business dealings, Hamlin became Franklin’s largest and most successful dealer, selling anywhere between 500 and 800 cars annually during the 1920s.[iv]

 

Like many other independent car companies, Franklin folded during the Great Depression, but Hamlin continued to promote automobiles and their related businesses. He organized numerous motor shows and along with Earle C. Anthony and others, established the Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers Association.

Hamlin died in West L.A. on July 5, 1974 at the age of 93. Little remains of his empire. The Flower St. dealership was sold in 1966. The building survived for many years as a wig shop, but was demolished in the early 1980s. However, in a nod to his importance to the Franklin Company, a replica of Hamlin’s flagship was built at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan. The collection includes Franklin automobiles, engines, and artifacts that tell the story of a man whose career defined an industry and the city of Los Angeles.

Ralph Hamlin, after his racing career became one of the most successful dealers on Los Angeles’ Auto Row. Photo dated: Feb. 10, 1919. Los Angeles Public Library, Herald-Examiner Collection. Dick Stagg photographer.
Ralph Hamlin, after his racing career became one of the most successful dealers on Los Angeles’ Auto Row. Photo dated Feb. 10, 1919, courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library, Dick Stagg, photographer.
Ralph Hamlin in his later years.
Ralph Hamlin in his later years. The original photo caption reads: "Ralph Hamlin, 74, one of the men who helped to bring the automobile age to Los Angeles and advance the automotive revolution, is one man who can dream, with pride, of the brave past and its triumphs. Now in retirement, Hamlin lives on a West Los Angeles estate, surrounded by relics of the past. Above, he shows 1902, 1907, 1904 Franklin autos". Photo dated July 11, 1955, courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Notes

[i] “Hamlin Smashed Last Year's Phoenix Record”, Los Angeles Times; Oct 29, 1912; pg. III1

[ii] Smith, Bert C, “Ralph Hamlin in Franklin Leads Race” Los Angeles Times; Oct 28, 1912, pg. III1

[iii] “Ralph Hamlin Returns” Los Angeles Times, Dec 12, 1926; pg. G7

[iv] Powell, Sinclair “The Franklin Automobile Company” Society of Automotive Engineers, Warrendale, PA

The majority of our funding comes from individuals like you. In addition to our many shows both streaming online and broadcasting to your television, we are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Many online journalism sites are moving to paid subscription models. We feel that it's important to continue to serve southern California and beyond with coverage of arts & culture, news, and extra stories to support our programs.

Public media stations need your support more than ever. Please, become a Member today and help us continue to serve you.