The Hall-Scott Motor Car, Truck & Engine Co.®

The Hall-Scott Motor Car, Truck & Engine Co.®  


History of Hall-Scott by Ric Dias
The history of the Hall-Scott engine building enterprise dates back to the early 20th century.  Over the course of fifty years the company earned a reputation for building outstanding engines, but that was not the product that launched the company.  Elbert John Hall and Bert Carlise Scott, both born in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1880s, met when Scott brought in his new Autocar passenger car to Hall, a mechanic (and engineer and race car driver), for inspection.  Scott came from a leading California business family.  When he witnessed Hall’s amazing mechanical talents, he suggested that he and Hall combine their connections and talents in a project – building a gasoline-fueled passenger and light-freight rail car.  Common at the time, these vehicles were called motor cars (as were automobiles, so this term is confusing today).  


The two men hired a crew, contracted with local businesses for key components, and got right to work.  Hall used a 100 hp engine that he designed and built in his San Francisco shop.  After several months, the car was finished and delivered in 1909.  Following a test run, a rail company connected to the Scott family purchased the machine; Scott and Hall had succeeded with their ambitious plan.  Seeing the seeds of a business beyond the initial one-car project, the two men launched the Hall-Scott Motor Car Company in 1910, establishing a business office in San Francisco and a factory across the bay in Berkeley.  While the San Francisco office closed a few years later, Hall-Scott occupied the West Berkeley site on 7th and Heinz, where many of the buildings still stand, until after it had ceased production.


Hall-Scott sold motor cars and other light rail vehicles to serve the rapidly-growing West, but only in very small numbers.  Hall’s talents were many, as were the needs for power in the region, so Hall-Scott quickly branched-out with products to meet that demand.  Using engines Hall had designed and built to power autos and aircraft before teaming with Scott, the company introduced its first aircraft engines in 1910 – the four cylinder A-1 and V-8 A-2 .  Enjoying some sales and racing success, a string of aero models followed.  


By the outbreak of World War I, E.J. Hall and his company had established international reputations in air power.  By then, Hall-Scott engines boasted high-tech features such as overhead camshafts and valves, hemispherical and cross-flow cylinder heads, interchangeable parts between models, and aluminum pistons and crankcases.  In fact, these features became part of every production Hall-Scott engine sold after that period. Hall’s reputation, even though newly-formed, was such that in 1917 he was invited to co-design, with Jesse Vincent of Packard, America’s celebrated Liberty aircraft engines.  By the close of WWI in 1918, the Hall-Scott Motor Car Company had evolved from a tiny rail car firm into a recognized leader in air power.


The 1920s brought a major shakedown of the aircraft industry, so Hall-Scott abandoned its aircraft engine line (along with its motor car production), and expanded into some very different areas.  While the ink was still drying on the Great War’s cease-fire, Hall-Scott introduced engines for tractors, boats, trucks, buses, and other commercial applications.  In that decade, Hall-Scott supplied almost a thousand engines (the four-cylinder M-35) to Holt Manufacturing for a small tractor known as the Two-Ton (also known as the T-35), and several thousand engines, the Models 151 and 152, to International Harvester for trucks, deliveries of which continued into the early 1930s. And in a departure from engine making, the company assembled several hundred thousand two-speed rear axles for the Model T Ford, the Ruckstell Axle, an aftermarket product that Henry Ford actually endorsed and allowed Ford garages to sell and install. 


Whether having four or six cylinders, all Hall-Scotts shared those features made famous in the company’s WW I-era aircraft engines, making them quite unusual in automotive circles.  With their sophisticated features, high performance, low production numbers, and labor intensive assembly, Hall-Scott engines were an expensive choice for the engine buyer.    


Around 1930 a number of engines emerged from Hall-Scott’s Berkeley factory that set new standards for performance.  The first of these new engines was the 707 cubic inch Model 175, which first appeared around 1930.  It was soon joined by the closely related 779-cubic inch Model 176 and 855-cubic inch Model 177.  This powerful and study platform became the basis for Hall-Scott’s first “horizontal engines,” in-line engines turned 90 degrees on their side, allowing for use in new applications, most notably under the floor of buses.  The horizontal Model 180 was based on the 175, having received some clever engineering to operate on its side, and first appeared around 1933.  Other models followed and Hall-Scott horizontal engines were offered through the 1960s.


Hall-Scott also began experimenting with the use of gasified fuels (LPG, natural gas, butane, propane, etc.) for its engines in the 1930s, and this option became common in truck, bus, and stationary applications.  


Perhaps Hall-Scott’s best-known and most significant engine, the Invader, was introduced in 1931.  (Hall-Scott generally named its marine engines and gave number/letter designations for the others.)  Originally outfitted as a 998-cubic inch marine power plant, beginning in 1940 it powered trucks, pumps, generators, and other uses with new (numerical) designations.  Hall-Scott offered these Invader offshoots in a variety of displacements, all the way up to 1091 cubic inches. One short-lived model received turbocharging and created 450 hp and 1300 lb.-ft. of torque!  The Invader and its progeny were by far and away the most greatly produced Hall-Scott “model,” if you will.  These truck engine spin-offs were also the last Hall-Scott engines made.     


Significantly, 1930 also saw the departure of E.J. Hall from Hall-Scott.  A number of factors both pulled and pushed Hall out of his company.  Not surprisingly, after his departure all the engines that emerged from Hall-Scott’s doors in the years ahead, save for one model, the 590 in 1954, were all derived from engines Hall had designed before 1930.


The Invader spawned one more engine that deserves special attention – a V-12 version.  In 1937, shortly before WW II broke-out, under encouragement from the British government, Hall-Scott engineers took their six-cylinder Invader and fashioned it into the twelve-cylinder Defender.  Originally it came in two displacements, and Hall-Scott also made a supercharged version which yielded 900 hp.  Hall-Scott produced over 5,000 Defenders, almost all of them during the war years, where they most famously saw duty in the Fairmile sub-chaser used by nations of the British Commonwealth.  After the war, when the marine engine market shifted drastically to diesel, Hall-Scott stopped selling the marine Defender and sold the V-12 as a stationary land engine; many V-12s pumped mud, gas, oil, and water for years.


In spite of the millions of dollars of profit that Hall-Scott earned during World War II (as it had in WWI), the company did not find itself well situated for the postwar market.  Company managers were not totally responsible for this failure, however.  Hall-Scott had been purchased in 1925 by rail car and a bus maker American Car and Foundry (ACF).  Hall-Scott became ACF’s engine making division, and the firm curtailed Hall-Scott’s bus engine sales outside of ACF.  While Hall-Scott lost money during most of the Depression years of the 1930s, wartime deliveries retuned the black ink to the company books, but ACF management skimmed-off this money to balance the parent company’s poor performance.  


After a brief postwar surge of engines sales and several years of profits, mostly driven by spiking bus sales, production and profits dropped.  It’s WW II reputation in marine did nothing to move boat engines after the war, as boaters swarmed to diesel and cheaper car-based gas engines, leaving Hall-Scott with no choice but to pull the plug on its marine line in 1954.  By the early 1950s cash-starved ACF-Brill (as it was known beginning in 1944) was looking to unload its engine making division.  Not able to find a buyer, in 1954 ACF-Brill “spun-off” Hall-Scott, creating the independent Hall-Scott, Incorporated.   


Even with the company’s bleak fiscal picture, Hall-Scott’s truck, bus, and industrial engines of the postwar period were truly stand-outs in the industry, even if they did not capture much market share.  Those who purchased, operated, or reviewed a big Hall-Scott engine were universally impressed (if not dazzled) with their power, smoothness, and quality of construction.  The Invader-based 400, 470, 480, 855, 935, and 1091, the horizontal 180, 190, 504, and 779, and the V-12 industrial engine, all created tremendous good will and great press for Hall-Scott.  Sadly, pride of ownership and the respect of a few consumers did not translate into profitability for the firm.  Shortly after WW II ended, Hall-Scott began to bleed money consistently.


The 590, introduced in 1954, was Hall-Scott’s last all-new model and a “Hail Mary pass” to try and stay competitive.  Significantly lighter, having smaller displacement, and yielding greater fuel economy than its larger cousin engines, management (desperately) hoped it would be the engine consumers were looking for.  Interestingly, the 590 was the only new Hall-Scott in decades not to come out in related models with different bore and stroke measurements; all 590s, horizontal and vertical, had 5-inch bore and stroke and displaced 590 cubic inches.  Sadly for the company, the 590 did not find a receptive market, in fact only about a 1,000 590s were produced in the 1950s, so Hall-Scott’s fortunes continued to sag.  A new management team arrived and expanded its product line outside of engines (including desktop computers, stage lights, and sheet metal fabrication!), and made the company nominally profitable, but only so that it be attractive for purchase.


The last chapter in the Hall-Scott story came in 1958 when Hercules Engine Company acquired the Power Division of Hall-Scott for approximately $1.7 million.  Hercules was a volume engine producer (although it failed to make money in the process), and immediately moved all Hall-Scott production to its large plant in Canton, Ohio.  Hercules had become a dominant player in industrial and military engines, and unlike Hall-Scott had even marketed a line of diesels.  But Hercules but had been pushed out of truck, bus, and marine; acquiring Hall-Scott was seen as a way to fill that niche, plus sell parts for existing Scotts.  But the new owner plowed virtually no development money into its Hall-Scott line, so over the next ten years the only significant change came from a shrinking number of models marketed and units sold.  


Initially Hercules spent some amount of money advertising its new line though.  Ads pitching the 590 and 6156/6182 (the former 935/1091 or 480/400) for use in firefighting equipment were very common at first.  But as the 1960s passed, it became harder and harder to find Hercules-Hall-Scott advertisements.  The exact end of Hall-Scott production is difficult to pinpoint, but might well have been in 1969.  By then the Invader-based engines were now facing overwhelming competition from ever-more efficient diesels.  A couple of decades later, top Hercules managers of the time were hard-pressed to even remember the Hall-Scott engines they had sold.

Ric A. Dias, author of the "Hall-Scott: The Untold Story of a Great American Engine Maker"

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