The man behind the steering-wheel horn and spare tyre


PAST IMPERFECT:Early innovator James Booth made a huge contribution to automobile design

JAMES BOOTH was born in May 1888 in Detroit. A member of Cranbrook’s founding family, he received the best of education at private schools in Michigan and Pennsylvania. However, disliking formal education, he left school before graduating 10th grade.

His artistic skills were already well recognised, and at the same time he found himself passionately drawn to the emerging automotive industry.

Booth began to sketch designs for cars in his early teens and even disassembled his family’s 1904 Winton on several occasions, learning as much as he could about the automobile in the process.

In 1910, at the age of 22, Booth married Jean McLaughlin and the two travelled abroad for several years, living in Paris from 1911 to 1912. There, Booth studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and chose pastels as his preferred medium, having been introduced to them by Michigan-born artist Myron Barlow.

While in Paris, Booth produced the technical drawings for his first car – an unorthodox two-wheeled vehicle that operated like a large motorcycle at speed but also had a pair of small wheels that could be lowered to balance the machine. Booth had first conceived this machine, the Bi-Autogo, in 1908, and he intended that it should be a limited-production vehicle aimed at wealthy young men, who would be attracted by its sporting character as well as its uniqueness.

The result was an extraordinary machine that contained several automotive “firsts”.

When it was unveiled in May 1913, the Bi-Autogo was powered by the first V-8 engine built in Detroit, had a compressed air self-starter, a four-speed transmission and body panels built of aluminium.

A top speed of 75mph was claimed by Booth, but the Bi- Autogo was difficult to control at slow speeds, owing to its heavy steering. Booth’s backers became disillusioned and the project ground to a halt. Undeterred, Booth turned his attention to other car designs for smaller vehicles.

With John Batterman, Booth set up the Scripps-Booth Cyclecar Company in Detroit and began to manufacture several designs of cycle-cars.

These sold well, but Booth realised cycle-cars were a fad and switched his attention to producing a “luxurious light car”. His subsequent Model C was the first car in the world to sell complete with a spare wheel and tyre and a steering-wheel horn button. Among those who purchased Scripps-Booth cars were the king of Spain, the queen of Holland, Winston Churchill and our own John McCormack.

At the end of 1917, the company was absorbed by Chevrolet, which in turn was acquired by General Motors the following year. Booth thereafter concentrated on his art.

However, in 1923 he returned to Detroit and attempted to sell designs for his ultimate car design, the Da Vinci, to a manufacturer there. He Subsequently took an action against Stutz, who produced a car with several of the Da Vinci’s features, just a year after he had shown them the plans. Booth eventually won his patent infringement suit in 1935, but by then Stutz was on its last legs and the amount Booth received barely covered his legal costs.

James Scripps Booth died in September 1954, leaving many hundreds of paintings and sketches for new automobile designs – the legacy of one of the most original thinkers in the early automobile industry.