Who Was Thomas B. Jeffery?

The Jeffery School was given its name in honor of Thomas B. Jeffery, an inventor and bicycle manufacturer who built and sold Rambler bicycles in Chicago from 1878 to 1900. He was one of America’s first men interested in automobiles in the late 19th century, and in 1897, he built himself a motor car.

Thomas B. Jeffery in his first car, an 1897 Rambler

Jeffery was serious and visionary enough about cars to buy a plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he planned to manufacture automobiles on a large scale. His experimental prototypes of 1900 and 1901 used at least two radical innovations – steering wheels and front-mounted engines. But by the time Jeffery was ready for production in 1902, his father had talked him out of these wild dreams and convinced him to stick with tillers and engines under the seat. From 1902 until 1908, Jeffery moved steadily to bigger, more reliable models. His cars were built on assembly lines (the second manufacturer to adopt them — Ransom Olds was first), and in 1903 he sold 1,350 Ramblers. By 1905, Jeffery more than doubled this number. One reason may have been because he went back to the steering wheel before 1904. In 1907, he was building a large variety of different body styles and sizes. Among them was a five-passenger, $2,500 Rambler weighing 2,600 pounds and powered by a 40-hp engine. Cars were beginning to look like cars by then. During the First World War, Jeffery designed a four wheel drive truck which assisted the Allied effort. Known as the “Quad Truck,” these unique vehicles saw heavy service under General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing.

The Jeffery “Quad Truck”

Thomas Jeffery died in 1910. His family sold the manufacturing facility to Charles Nash, who greatly expanded manufacturing efforts. The Nash name was a symbol of automotive quality until the mid 1950’s. At that time, Nash, Hudson, and Kelvinator merged to form American Motors Corporation. AMC originated a number of automobile models such as: Rambler, Ambassador, American, Classic, Javelin, AMX, Pacer, Matador, Rebel, Hornet, and Gremlin, the origin of the Jeffery School Mascot. American Motors floundered in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s eventually merging with Renault of France. The merger resulted in the Renault Alliance, Motor Trend Magazine’s 1983 Car of the Year. In the late 1980’s, Chrysler Corporation purchased the facility, and, due to heavy financial losses, closed a large portion of the plant, maintaining the engine division, which remains to this day. Daimler/Chrysler owns and operates the plant at the present time.

The fact that the Kenosha community elected to name an educational facility after Thomas B. Jeffery is recognition of the rich history that began through the efforts of this creative man. His legacy continues in the lives of the students of The Thomas B. Jeffery Elementary School.

In 1897 Thomas B. Jeffery of the Gormully & Jeffery (Rambler Bicycle) Mfg. Co., built his first car. In 1898, his son Charles built two more sophisticated cars. The front-mounted engine and left-hand drive were unusual for an American car of the day. 1901 saw the Jefferys’ wholeheartedly in the automobile business, having sold their interests in bicycles. 1902 saw them producing 1,500 vehicles, a figure surpassed only by the Curved Dash Olds.

Specifications: Model C two-passenger runabout; engine single-cylinder, 2 hp. Price new $750.

Thomas B. Jeffery, inventor of the clincher tire and railroad velocipede, produced and sold Rambler bicycles in Chicago from 1878 to 1900. In 1897, Jeffery began experimenting with his first automobile. In 1900, he sold his bicycle business and purchased a plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he began manufacturing one-cylinder automobiles. When the first Jeffery-built Rambler automobile was offered for sale in the spring of 1902, it marked the introduction of the world’s second mass-produced car — a year after Oldsmobile and a year ahead of Ford. All minor and many major repairs can be made to the engine of this 1912 Rambler without removing it from the chassis. The upper and lower crankcase is one piece, allowing all bearing adjustments and inspections to be made through a removable side plate. The 1912 Rambler on display here was used in the 1997 blockbuster movie, “Titanic,” winner of 11 Academy Awards. It appears in the dock scenes prior to the ship’s departure from Southampton, England.

Rambler began automobile production in 1897 while having been the second largest bicycle maker in the United States. Operated in Chicago by Thomas B. Jeffery and R. Philip Gormully, Rambler entered into auto manufacture at the urging of Thomas Jeffery and his son Charles. Thomas built the first Rambler, a single cylinder, wire-spoked wheeled vehicle that was largely ignored by the motoring press. Charles, a year later, introduced two more sophisticated machines but they still didn’t receive the press they desired. Finally, in 1900, the Jefferys’ went to auto shows in Chicago and New York with their car and were noticed. At this point they sold their bicycle business to the American Bicycle Company, as Gormully had died, and moved automobile production to Kenosha, Wisconsin. By 1902, the year of the Rambler in this photo, Thomas had decided against using a wheel for steering purposes as suggested by his son, moved the driver from their original left-hand position to the right-hand side, and moved the engine from the front of the vehicle to the back under the seat. Sticker price was reported to be a steal for $750. 1902 was a great year as 1,500 Rambler Runabouts were made. These production figures were only beaten by Ransom Olds.

“Jeffy” the Gremlin was selected as the Jeffery School mascot in the mid 1980’s following a school-wide mascot nomination and selection contest. “Jeffy” is unique as a school mascot and has ties to the AMC Gremlin logo designed by industrial designer Miller Johnson for American Motors Corporation for the automobile of the same name.

Mr. Johnson has been gracious enough to grant permission for us to post the above two graphics on our web page. The first is his preliminary design sketch dated 8-5-68 of the Gremlin automobile. The second is of a hand-crafted sterling silver tie-tak presented to a few top AMC executives and Mr. Johnson, the designer.

Jeffery School is most grateful to Mr. Johnson for permission to display these graphics.

Something Fun To Learn About!

Jeffery School Students:

If you’ve read over the history of Thomas B. Jeffery, the man who your school is named after, then you should know why he is important enough to have had a school named after him. If you will take some time to do a written report telling me what you’ve learned about Thomas B. Jeffery, and why he was an important man, I will have a small reward for you! When you finish your report, bring it to me in the school office.