The American Fiat – Built it Poughkeepsie

Can you imagine a time in Poughkeepsie when you were more likely to see a horse and carriage go by than a car? That was the case at the turn of the 20th century. Buying an automobile was mostly reserved for the super wealthy, and even many of those individuals were reluctant to move onto the horseless carriage. However, by the early 1900s, a small group of Americans were interested in bringing the automobile to our town. Not just any car, but “The Master Car,” an Italian car, which would somehow be made into something distinctly American, The Fiat.

In June of 1909, officials from the Fiat company were looking at property in Poughkeepsie to build their factory. The president of this American venture, Ben J. Eichberg, had been a diamond merchant and he had every intention of catering to the same sort of people who spent money on diamonds (the cheapest American Fiat ever listed was the 1914 Light Thirty at $3,600, that’s about $92,000 today). The rest of the team was made up of men who knew a thing or two about cars, but they were certainly all American. “A royalty was paid to Fiat in Turin Italy on each chassis” while the American company earned the rights to all of the Italian designer’s patents.

The owners of the American company settled on a piece of land in the Fairview area of northern Poughkeepsie and by July of 1909 the plans for the construction of a factory had formed. They also wanted to hire around 300 skilled mechanics. By 1910 the operation was up and going and they turned out their first machine in July. There was much buzz about the capabilities of the Fiat in the Hudson Valley that year. Ralph De Palma, the famous race car driver showcased the power of Italian engineering (and his own driving talents) at the Dutchess County Fair with his 60 Horsepower Fiat, beating several of the records previously set on the track. However, it should be noted that the cars that were coming out of the Poughkeepsie factory were not the small and fast sporty autos that De Palma was driving. American produced Fiats were much larger and meant more for touring. The Poughkeepsie plant offered generally four different types, the Type 53 was the smallest option with 25 HP and 4 cylinders, the largest was the Type 56, 45 HP, 6 cylinder, 7 passenger Limousine model (Check out this one that sold at auction back in 2015 for $130,000). This car weighed about 5,000 pounds, had no front brakes and cost about $5,000 (an extra $150 if you wanted an electric starter).

By the end of 1912 the factory in Poughkeepsie was producing about 350 cars a year. In 1913, Poughkeepsie’s very own architect Percival Lloyd was brought in to design an additional 30,000 sq ft. of space for the factory. With World War one beginning overseas, Fiat found some of its orders coming from other countries, including Russia, who ordered 400 touring cars to be used as scouting vehicles. In February of 1918 a deal was struck with the Duessenberg company to change the factory over to making motors for airplanes. However, that proved to be too much and the Duessenberg Company kept their operations mainly in their New Jersey plant while the Fiat factory stood mostly silent. It appears that by March of 1918 there were only a few mechanics still working on finishing the rest of the 1918 models with “no definite plans” for its future use.

In 1919 the factory was producing munitions for the army and the Poughkeepsie chamber of commerce even tried to entice Henry Ford to move in after his plans to move into the Troy area fell through. The property changed hands over the next 10 years before Western Publishing moved into the site in 1930. The building was used by Marist college for a brief time before being demolished in the late 1990’s and is now the site of the old Staples store, Ocean State Job lots and Home Depot. Very few of these Poughkeepsie built cars still exist. Michael Sedgwick wrote a piece on them in the 1980s and at the time he was only able to track down perhaps a dozen of these cars in America at that time.

Resources:

Poughkeepsie Eagle News – 12 Jul 1909, Jul 1910, 1 Oct 1910,  7 Sep 1912, 13 Oct 1914, 10 Nov 1916, 5 May 1917, 2 Mar 1918

The Pride of Poughkeepsie: A look at American Fiats by Michael Sedgwick, Jan 1980

Fiat Book of Instructions LH 974.733 P.

Hennings.com – Inside the Poughkeepsie Fiat Factory

Images:

Image of the Fiat Factory located on North Ave in Poughkeepsie built in 1909.

Snapshot of Auto racing at the Hudson River Driving Park – 1910

Fiat Book of Instructions LH 974.733 P.

Image of interior of Book of Instructions showing the car’s lubrication chart, LH 974.733 P.

Fiat advertisement from the April 1913 Poughkeepsie Eagle News

Photo of the 1913 Fiat at the Locust Grove Car Show, Special Thanks to Herb Lorenz from the Mid-Hudson Region AACA