Sears: from catalog cars to bankruptcy woes

Recently the company who employed me in my youth filed for bankruptcy and what was the unstoppable force that was the world’s largest retailer let out a whimper and went further into obscurity. But they had a great plan in the past and even offered automobiles by catalog at one point, which is is how we end up thinking about Sears on the Curbside. 

Yep, there was a time that the Sears Catalog was such an impressive thing that you could buy things like houses and cars right from its pages. It wasn’t just a place for a teenager to look at pictures of girls in their underwear or even a book that served as toilet paper in outhouses all over the place, but was the go-to shopping source for Americans for a good long while. 

I can still hear the sound of the song in my head from my days working at Sears, Roebuck & Company. “Never say no, say catalog” was the tune they drilled into we new hires in the early 1980s imploring us to urge customers to head to the catalog desk if we didn’t have a particular item they were looking for in stock. It was a brilliant marketing move - instead of ever being out of stock we could get someone to buy something and come back to the store days later to pick it up. At the Sears that I worked in, which was located inside a shopping mall, it was a goal to never have a customer leave the store and head into the mall if they couldn’t find something and we were pretty successful at that. 

 This car is Sears number 1159 and is owned by the Daniel Peterson family. It is show participating in the Old Threshers Reunion in Mt Pleasant, IA which occurs labor day weekend each year.

This car is Sears number 1159 and is owned by the Daniel Peterson family. It is show participating in the Old Threshers Reunion in Mt Pleasant, IA which occurs labor day weekend each year.

With Sears’ no questions asked return policy it was flawless. Furthermore, their brands like Toughskins pants and Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances continued to earn high marks so you got quality, value and an almost endless selection of items right from the pages of the Sears catalog. It was Amazon before Amazon was Amazon. 

I’ve stayed in a B&B that was a house bought straight from the pages of the Sears Catalog. Apparently, the company sold some 75,000 homes all told. Ha - take that, Amazon, you don’t sell houses. Sears did. 

And Sears sold cars from 1909-1913 according to the website Sears Motor Buggy

Beginning in 1909 Sears had a $395 solid-tired runabout available right there in their catalog. That car was pretty fancy for the time, coming with a convertible top and fenders all around. If you were wanting to save some money, you could order the car without those features and save $25 in the process. 

Sears advertised that the Sears Motor Buggy was, “more than just a buggy with a motor.” It was designed as an automobile with an angle-iron frame, four full elliptical springs, and Timken Roller bearings for each wheel.

Power for these machines came from a two-cylinder 10hp air-cooled ending from the Reeves Company. Power was transmitted to the rear wheels via a friction transmission and double chain drive. At the time you were able to achieve a top speed of a blistering 25mph, which was pretty fast for the time and quite something considering there was no windshield or doors. It was a buggy, after all. 

From that single model the company expanded to five different offerings, all variations of the basic model. These were advertised in five pages of the catalog, all printed in glorious color. 

You could get one of these cars in either black and red or green and black and the vehicles were available for pick up in Chicago. You could also arrange to have one delivered to a train station near you for an additional charge, of course. You just uncrate the machine, do a bit of assembly, add gasoline and oil and off you putter. 

The car actually earned a good deal of praise at the time but there was an issue - the vehicles just couldn’t be built at a profit considering the low price so, after three years, the whole thing was turned over to the Lincoln Motor Car Works who had produced some of the components for the Sears as it was. Lincoln continued building cars under its own name beginning in 1913. 

 This is Sears number 1085 which was owned by John H. Howard. John gave one of the testimonials in the Sears advertisement booklet called  "What Sears Owners Say" . In his letter dated June 10, 1910 he says   "Dear Sirs: - I received your motor car in August last; am much pleased with it and it does all you claim it will do. Last season I ran the car about 1,500 miles without a break or bog, and it crossed the Blue Mountain and also the Broad Mountain out in the coal regions and with ease. We have rough and hilly roads here in Pennsylvania and the Sears stood all kinds of tests."   Some interesting things to note in this picture:  The Sears name plate is mounted on the front of the car. This is the only original picture I have ever seen with the data plate mounted on the front of the car. They are usually mounted on the back of the car. It is possible that the original owner moved the data plate to the front of the car so it would not be covered by a license plate on the back.   UPDATE: The current owner of this car looked on the back of the car and did find the 4 holes in the body where the data plate was originally mounted.    Also note the nickel plating on the tiller bar comes down to the first mounting bracket.  Take a look at the finish on the car. The shine on the fenders and the reflection of the head lamp in the body. They looked nicer than people think.  Also note that the letter is dated June of 1910 and mentions the car was received the prior August. If this is the 85th Sears and it is received in August of 1909, how many could have been received in 1908?  This car is now owned by Jim and Donna Bunch. John Howard sold the car to his friend James H. Roberts in 1929, and James is Donna's Grandfather. Thanks to  Sears Motor Buggy  for this image.

This is Sears number 1085 which was owned by John H. Howard. John gave one of the testimonials in the Sears advertisement booklet called "What Sears Owners Say". In his letter dated June 10, 1910 he says

"Dear Sirs: - I received your motor car in August last; am much pleased with it and it does all you claim it will do. Last season I ran the car about 1,500 miles without a break or bog, and it crossed the Blue Mountain and also the Broad Mountain out in the coal regions and with ease. We have rough and hilly roads here in Pennsylvania and the Sears stood all kinds of tests."

Some interesting things to note in this picture:

The Sears name plate is mounted on the front of the car. This is the only original picture I have ever seen with the data plate mounted on the front of the car. They are usually mounted on the back of the car. It is possible that the original owner moved the data plate to the front of the car so it would not be covered by a license plate on the back. UPDATE: The current owner of this car looked on the back of the car and did find the 4 holes in the body where the data plate was originally mounted.

Also note the nickel plating on the tiller bar comes down to the first mounting bracket.

Take a look at the finish on the car. The shine on the fenders and the reflection of the head lamp in the body. They looked nicer than people think.

Also note that the letter is dated June of 1910 and mentions the car was received the prior August. If this is the 85th Sears and it is received in August of 1909, how many could have been received in 1908?

This car is now owned by Jim and Donna Bunch. John Howard sold the car to his friend James H. Roberts in 1929, and James is Donna's Grandfather. Thanks to Sears Motor Buggy for this image.

Today Sears has let itself go like the high school prom queen who gained so much weight they have to cut a hole in the side of the house to get her to the hospital. We could talk endlessly about how such a significant part of the American fabric failed and whose fault it was, but it’s truly unfortunate that Sears couldn’t keep going only because they really did offer some great products. 

Oh well, maybe I’ll buy a book about the subject on Amazon but it’s fascinating to think that at one time for a few years, you could actually order a car right from the Sears catalog. Never say no, say catalog!