The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 13, 2012

The missing Heifner mystery

Geneva auto manufacturer failed to deliver on his promises

Staff Writer

GENEVA — Lambert Mason Heifner had big plans for Geneva, Ohio.

In the early 1920s, the Philadelphia native selected the town as headquarters for his automobile manufacturing business, the Heifner Motor Car Co.

As subtle as a steam locomotive, Heifner made his announcement in the July 9, 1920, Geneva Free Press-Times newspaper. In that article, Heifner claimed to have spent more than $100,000 developing a line of fine automobiles designed for discriminating and wealthy buyers. Further, Heifner stated that held an option on the former Geneva Canning Co. plant, where he would soon set up a production line.

Oh, and by the way, just in case there were Geneva residents with some spare cash to invest, Heifner was ready to talk. Akron investors had put up $50,000, but $10,000 needed to be raised in Geneva. Heifner offered a free share of common stock for every share of preferred stock purchased.

Three months later, Heifner was shifting into fourth gear. “A score of men are at work at the plant getting things in readiness for the assembly of the first machine,” reported the newspaper. But the 25,000 square feet of the former canning factory were insufficient for his grandiose plans. Heifner was discussing with a contractor plans for a new 277,000-square-foot facility that was going to cost a half-million dollars. The manufacturing complex would sprawl over five acres and feature a 180-foot-long swimming pool, club rooms, a roof garden, billiards and pool room and bowling alley. Tennis courts and a beautifully landscaped grounds would complete the amenities the employees would enjoy.

And there would be lots of workers. Heifner estimated that 50 to 60 employees, working two shifts, would be needed at the beginning. But the employment level was expected to grow to 400 once the world got to know the Heifner automobile.

Heifner envisioned 11 models, priced from $6,700 to $23,000.

“Orders to run the plant for the next 28 months are said to be on the books of the company now. Most of the machines are being made for sale in foreign countries,” reported the newspaper in October 1920.

Initially Heifner designed two models: a sports car and a touring model. The sports model was $6,750. It had a wheelbase of 133 inces and was powered by a Wisconsin four-cylinder engine rated at 81 horsepower.

That same engine went in the touring model, which carried a price tag of $16,500. The wheelbase was 148 inches.

Both models featured built-in golf-club racks. For some extra cash, the buyer could add a powered tire pumper. Four-wheel hydraulic brakes were standard.

Despite their amenities, the cars were woefully overpriced; the cheapest model being 10 times the cost of a new Chevrolet back then.

Eric Strasen, who in 1963 wrote a feature for the Geneva Free Press about Heifner’s venture, determined that a touring car prototype was never built, although it was featured in a watercolor painting used to promote the non-existant vehicle. However, Heifner did manage to turn out a prototype of the sports model.

It never ran, according to Strasen’s research. The legend is that Heifner failed to pay the mechanic who built the prototype, and the cheated mechanic made sure the vehicle was as lame as Heifner’s plans.

By April 1921, Heifner’s company had folded and the few investors who had fallen for his song and dance were on his tail. Nevertheless, L.M. Heifner continued to refer to himself as president of the company, right up to his arrest in April 1922.

The warrant reached Geneva on the afternoon of the 16th. Chief of Police Harris, Special Officer Perry Roberts and Constable L.C. Kelsey traveled to the Heifner home, several miles east of Geneva, and served the papers.

At first Heifner hid from the law in his barn. “I gave myself up after I heard them make arrangements with my folks for the furnishing of bonds, which would allow me my liberty until a trial date could be set,” Heifner told a Geneva Free Press reporter. “Later, I found out that bond could not be arranged, and here I am in jail.”

Heifner was wanted for passing a bad check for $35 in Ashland. He told the newspaper that he was in Ashland selling stock for the reorganized Ashland Tire and Rubber Co. He ran short of funds and asked a bank cashier, Mr. Lutz, for a loan.

“When Mr. Lutz suggested that write a check for the amount I desired, I told him I had a joint account with my wife in a Cleveland bank, but that I didn’t know how much money was there; whether there was $35, $50 or what. He was to hold the check if the account was too low until I could take care of it. This he did not do.”

It made no difference.

“I’m broke!” Heifner told the newspaper. “I admit it. Every penny I’ve got in this world I’ve got right here with me. I have made preparations, if necessary, to serve any term they may give me in Mansfield or Columbus (penitentaries).”

Heifner appeared quite comfortable in jail. Sitting in a chair,  his feet on a canvas stretcher that doubled as a bed, Heifner puffed on a big black cigar. He was dressed in a blue suit, soft white collar and black shoes; Sunday newspapers were scattered around the cell.

Heifner’s arrest drew a crowd of citizens, most likely a few of them investors. The newspaper reported that “several thousand dollars worth of stock was sold here.”

The afternoon of April 17, Chief Sprinkler from Ashland left with Heifner on the 1:14 train for Ashland. Mr. Heifner soon become a guest of the State of Ohio, and was still serving time when the 1930 Census was taken.

There remains two questions. What became of the Heifner prototype, and what became of the Heifner watercolors used to sell the bogus vehicles?

The former question was answered in 2005 by the late Tom Schwesinger of Geneva, who died in December 2009.

In an interview with the Star Beacon, Schwesinger claimed that a local car buff and former owner of Taylor Auto Parts in Geneva, Fred Taylor, had owned the Heifner sports car prototype. Schwesinger had purchased the auto parts business from Taylor in 1964, and the men remained friends in the years thereafter. As Taylor’s health was failing, Schwesinger visited with him and turned the conversation toward their common love of automobiles.

In a visit with Taylor in 1998, Schwesinger asked him if he’d ever owned any of the vehicles that were built in Geneva. A sports car came to mind.

“He said, ‘Tom it was a sports car, it had a pointed nose and was a good-looking car,’” Schwesinger recalled in the 2009 interview. As soon as Schwesinger said the word “Heifner,” Taylor recognized it.

“(Taylor) was in business with his dad east of town,” Schwesinger said. “He and his father didn’t get along, and around 1935 or 1936, Fred enlisted in the Army and ended up in Hawaii.”

Fred’s father followed his son to Hawaii, paid to have him released from the military obligation and brought him back to Ohio. At some point while Fred was away, his father’s salvage yard acquired a Heifner automobile.

The car caught Taylor’s eye, and decided to tinker with it. A mechanical whiz, Fred Taylor isolated the problem — a cone-shaped stone in the fuel line. Even with the stone out of the way, the car still didn’t run well.

Taylor lost interest in the project, especially so after opening his auto parts store in 1945. The NAPA outlet on West Main shared the property where R.E. Olds was born. Taylor had the landmark house torn down in the 1950s — ironically, to make more room for parking.

The Heifner had gone into storage in a building behind the house. Taylor needed that space for his store.

“Fred was the type of guy who had a temper, so what did he do with that car? He cut it up. It was basically a bunch of parts that were cut up and hauled away for scrap metal,” Schwesigner said.

Or perhaps not. When Schwesigner purchased the business in 1964, there was a pile of junk behind the store. It looked like a mishmash of rusting auto parts that were of no value to Schwesinger. So when some railroad workers came into his store looking for a place to park equipment while working on the nearby line, Schwesinger gave them permission to rid the property of the unslightly pile of scrap.

“So, he went in with his backhoe, dug it up and put (the scrap) in that hole,” Schwesinger said.

The second mystery deals with the two watercolors that were done to promote the cars. Attributed to Heifner, the paintings came into the possession of Eric D. Strasen, a former Geneva resident who worked as a reporter and photographer for the Geneva Free Press in the early 1960s.

Strasen was came across the watercolors while researching a newspaper article on Geneva’s auto industry. He located one of the paintings buried behind a pile of boxes in the back room of a Geneva store. The other had been hanging in the office of an Ashtabula insurance agency. Strasen walked into the office, introduced himself, insisted the painting belonged in Geneva and walked out with it.

One of the paintings had suffered considerable smoke damage, and Strasen painstakingly restored it, best as possible, with a gum eraser. Both were reproduced for his opus, which appeared in the Oct. 30, 1963, Free Press.

Strasen moved to California, but the paintings stayed with him. Several years ago, Roger Quickel, a childhood friend of Strasen’s, visited him in California. Strasen shared his interest in seeing the paintings returned to Geneva, and Quickel agreed to serve as the agent. They were subsequently donated to the Geneva Public Library, where they are displayed in the archives room.

The Heifner did not bring to a close the auto industry in Geneva. About the time Heifner was being returned to Ashland, another manufacturing firm had set up shop in the Factory Row building that Heifner had laid claim to for his business. The Chamber of Commerce attracted the H.B. Young Motor Truck Co., of Euclid, to former Geneva Canning Co. space. The truck that was briefly built in Geneva was known as the “Litlte Giant,” a fitting moniker for the Heifner’s successor.


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