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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneer: Bendix, an automotive and aviation inventor, born 140 years ago (Part 1)

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On August 12, 1882, Vincent Hugo Bendix was born in Moline, Illinois. Bendix was an inventor who pioneered developments in both the automotive and aviation industries.

Bendix was the son of Swedish immigrants; his father was a Swedish Methodist Episcopal clergyman whose last name, Bengston, was changed to Bendix when he arrived in the United States. The family later moved to Chicago, which was then considered the “Swedish capital” in the United States.

Vincent Bendix. (Photo: prabook.com)

Early career

At the age of 13, Bendix began to show his interest in engineering; he invented a chainless bicycle. He also worked for the Postal Telegraph Company in Chicago as a messenger during school vacation. In 1898, he traveled by himself to New York City, finding work as a hospital elevator operator. Later he worked in the hospital’s maintenance department, where he was taught practical electricity. He took up typing and stenography, after which he worked in a brewery’s accounting department. From there he obtained a position at the Lackawanna Railroad. He then went to work for a New York City law firm – acquiring his education in law. Even though these varied positions were of short duration, he learned something at each. 

Bendix was hired by Glenn Curtiss in 1901 to work on the Torpedo motorcycle. Curtiss went on to be a leader in the aircraft industry, founding the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, which later merged and became the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. 

Curtiss aboard a special racing version of his ‘Double Cylinder’ model in 1905; note the dual torpedo tanks! (Photo: thevintagent.com)
Curtiss aboard a special racing version of his ‘Double Cylinder’ model in 1905; note the dual torpedo tanks! (Photo: thevintagent.com)

In 1904 Bendix moved back to Chicago as sales manager for the Holsman Automobile Company, a manufacturer of auto buggies. Known as “high wheelers” because of their spindly, large-diameter wheels, the Holsman autos looked like a carriage without a horse. Bendix was a major contributor to the successful marketing of the Holsman high-wheel automobile.

After working for Glenn Curtiss and then Holsman, Bendix had learned a great deal about internal combustion engines and power-propelled vehicles. He decided to begin a career in automobile design and manufacturing.

A 1907 Bendix Motor Buggy. (Photo: autopuzzles.com)
A 1907 Bendix Motor Buggy. (Photo: autopuzzles.com)

Between 1907 and 1909, Bendix designed the Bendix Motor Buggy and sold stock in his company. He subcontracted the vehicle manufacturing to the Triumph Motor Company of Cragin, Illinois. Even though the business was started during the 1907 economic depression, his company sold 7,000 Bendix autos. However, Bendix was forced to declare bankruptcy; debts from this venture followed Bendix for several years.

Electric starters

After the failure of his automobile company, Bendix was “chastened but undaunted.” Bendix sold Cadillacs in Chicago and then was the sales manager in the southern United States for the Haynes Motor Car Company. 

While selling cars, he had the idea for an electric starter for automobiles. He began developing his idea and the Bendix drive for electric starters. His invention of a mechanical starter worked successfully in 1910; he then applied for patents.

The hand-crank was quickly replaced by the Bendix electric starter. (Photo: pistonheads.com)
The hand-crank was quickly replaced by the Bendix electric starter. (Photo: pistonheads.com)

Cars of that period used hand-cranked starters, and Bendix’s invention was instrumental in making the electric self-starter a reality. It used a “gear to engage with the engine at low rotational speed and then fly back to disengage automatically at higher speed.” 

Bendix spent two unsuccessful years (1912-13) peddling his electric starter and seeking a manufacturer to make it for him. The key component was a triple-thread screw, which was difficult to produce. In 1913, the Eclipse Machine Company of Elmira, New York, made exactly what he required. He signed a deal with Eclipse “to develop, produce and sell his starter drive under a license agreement in exchange for royalties during the life of the original patent.” 

The 1914 Chevrolet Baby Grand. (Photo: gmauthority.com)
The 1914 Chevrolet Baby Grand. (Photo: gmauthority.com)

The first automobile to use the Bendix starter was the 1914 Chevrolet “Baby Grand.” Over 5,000 drive units were produced and installed on the Chevrolet model that year. The Baby Grand was the first to bear the Chevrolet trademark, and the first Chevrolet to use an overhead valve engine. 

Following Chevrolet, the Willys Overland was also among the first automobile companies to use the Bendix starter drive. By 1919, production had soared to 1.5 million units, and nearly every vehicle produced in the United States was equipped with an electric starter that became almost universally known as the “Bendix Drive.” 

Bendix drive starters such as this Prestolite, (as well as many made by Autolite) were used in a wide variety of autos and trucks. (Image: militarytrader.com)
Bendix drive starters such as this Prestolite, (as well as many made by Autolite) were used in a wide variety of autos and trucks. (Image: militarytrader.com)

Major successes during the Roaring ‘20s

The success of the Bendix starter was the foundation of Bendix’s companies and fortune. In 1919, Bendix bought the Winkler-Grimm Wagon Company’s manufacturing facility in South Bend, Indiana. He wanted a location to carry out experimental work on various projects.

In 1920, Bendix and his first wife, who had been married in 1902, were divorced. He married Elizabeth Channon of Chicago in 1922. They divorced a decade later; the settlement was reported to be approximately $2 million. 

Also in 1922 Bendix was deeply saddened when his father died after being hit by a car on a Chicago street. The accident was blamed on the vehicle’s inadequate brakes. At that point Bendix vowed to provide cars with better braking systems. Visiting France in 1924, Bendix met Henri Perrot at a European auto show. He acquired the license to manufacture Perrot’s four-wheel braking system; when he returned to the U.S., Bendix founded the Bendix Brake Company, and built his first manufacturing plant in South Bend.

The image that accompanied Perrot's patent of his braking system. (Image: patentimages.storage.googleapis.com
The image that accompanied Perrot’s patent of his braking system.
(Image: patentimages.storage.googleapis.com)

Bendix offered stock to the public for the first time in 1924, marking the official beginning of the Bendix Corporation. The corporation included the Bendix Brake Company, Gernandt Motor Corporation, International Gernandt Motors, Ltd. and royalties from the Eclipse Bendix Starter Drive.

In 1925 the first production orders for four-wheel brakes were received, and the first shipments of the brakes were made the following year. Production climbed from 650,000 brake sets in 1926 to 3.6 million in 1928. With money flowing into the Bendix Corporation, Bendix went on a buying spree, acquiring dozens of companies, including Scintilla Magnetos and Stromberg Carburetors. In April 1930 the manufacturing operations of Stromberg Carburetor were moved to South Bend as a part of Bendix Products Corporation.

Success for the Bendix Corporation in the auto industry seemed assured. Therefore, Victor Bendix turned his attention to the field of aviation. 

Vincent Bendix (left), U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette and Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne in a 1928 photo taken in the Bendix Corporation board room. (Photo: South Bend Tribune)
Vincent Bendix (left), U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette and Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne in a 1928 photo taken in the Bendix Corporation board room. (Photo: South Bend Tribune)

Bendix turns his attention to aviation

A penciled sketch of Victor Bendix. (Image: National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution)
A penciled sketch of Victor Bendix.
(Image: National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution)

Despite being personally uneasy about flying (“he probably never flew more than a half dozen times”), Bendix was convinced of the aviation industry’s potential. He altered the name of the company to the Bendix Aviation Corporation in 1929 – even though only 8% of the company’s sales were from aviation products. That same year, Bendix traveled to Sweden, where he received the title of “Knight of the Order of the North Star” from King Gustav V. In 1936, Bendix received a similar honor; he was appointed a “Knight of the French Légion d’Honneur.”

When he returned from Sweden, Bendix began an ambitious acquisition effort intended to increase the company’s activities in the aviation industry. The Bendix acquisitions rapidly increased sales, revenue and profit – by the end of the first full year of operation, the company’s net profits were $1.2 million. Those who had purchased a share of stock in Bendix in 1924 for $26 held a share valued at $420 by 1929, an increase of 1600%.

FreightWaves Classics thanks drivestoday.com, the Automotive Hall of Fame, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, dommagazine.com, amannamedvincent.wordpress.com, bendixradiofoundation.com and Wikipedia for information and photographs that helped make this article possible.

The Bendix Aviation Corporation logo. (Image: thisdayinaviation.com)
The Bendix Aviation Corporation logo.
(Image: thisdayinaviation.com)

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.