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William M. Klinger, Well-Known S.F. Automobile Underwriter,
Tells of Early-Day Activities in the Auto Field

Nowadays nearly everyone owns an automobile. The “devilish contraption” of only a few years ago has won a place in the hearts of the American people. We are a fast- moving nation. We must have speed in our travel, and efficiency in our business. And any device that reduces time is eagerly sought for by Americans. In the “early days” of automobiling, twenty years ago, the selling of automobile insurance was not as easy as it is today. The people knew nothing of automobile insurance and they had to be educated. Whether or not they have been educated to the necessity of purchasing the much needed protection is answered by recent statistics which show that the stock fire and marine companies’ automobile premiums last year were $90,000,000. And the stock casualty companies’ premiums approximated $141,000,000.

Results of Education

This splendid showing is the result of twenty years of education of the automobile owner on the part of the insurance man, and it will be my providence to relate a few of my experiences in educating the public of twenty years ago in the rudiments of automobile insurance.

Advertising Insurance

The first road signs in the State of California were put up by your humble servant, who at the time was manager of the automobile department of the Fireman’s Fund at San Francisco. The company would ascertain when automobile picnic parties—and they were gala events in those days— were to be held, and would send out an advance guard to post signs to direct the happy picnickers to their destination at Redwood City, San Rafael, or some other equally “distant” locality from San Francisco. Later the Automobile Club of California posted a number of road signs. George T. Cameron, now editor of the Chronicle, was then vice-president of the club. The Goodrich Rubber Company then established a network of the old black metal signs all over the State. Some of these old signs are still standing, side by side with the road signs of the present automobile clubs of comparatively recent origin.

First Auto Show

The first automobile show ever held in San Francisco was staged at the old Coliseum in 1907. The Fireman’s Fund had a booth at the show advertising automobile insurance, and it was my duty to invite the visitors into the booth, assign them an easy chair in which to rest their weary limbs after their pleasant, but tiresome task of inspecting the snappy 1908 models offered by the local dealers. In addition the company, through its automobile department, was instrumental in organizing endurance runs, hill climbs and road races.

First S.F. Hill Climb

In 1908 the first hill climb contest in San Francisco was staged over the Nineteenth Avenue hill, from Sloat Boulevard to the crest of the hill, a distance of approximately three-quarters of a mile. A telephone line was erected from the starting point to the finishing tape and the contestant’s time of starting was phoned to a timekeeper at the top of the hill, who announced the time taken to climb the grade. The first race was won by Earl Cooper, noted auto racer, driving an old Stoddard Dayton.

Earliest Endurance Runs

photograph of San Francisco Supervisor J. Emmet Hayden, 1914 A favorite stunt of the old timers was holding of endurance runs over the Hayward-San Leandro road. The machines would run between the two towns, a distance of seven miles, until the cars burned up or the wheels fell off, and the machine that traveled the farthest without mishap would be declared the winner. Economy runs were also popular, favorite destinations being Skaggs Springs, Witter Springs, Del Monte and Highland Springs. The first car to make the Skaggs Springs run was an old Stearns piloted by J. Emmet Hayden, San Francisco supervisor,. Hayden was justly proud of the feat and walked around the summer resort with his chest puffed out until the following day, when his car, for no apparent reason, took fire and burned up, despite frantic efforts to extinguish it on the part of the erstwhile proud owner.

First Auto Field Man

The writer was the first special agent to travel the California field in an automobile. The car, purchased for me in 1902 by the Fireman’s Fund, was a Stevens Duryea, Stanhope type, with the crank and engine under the front seat, and steered by a lever. My field was the central part of the state and I certainly had some remarkable experiences with that machine, which although it was advertised “built like a watch” could NOT be repaired by a jeweler. The machine had two speeds, forward and reverse, and the shifting of the car operated on a cam. Everything went fine until the cam nuts loosened, when the services of a blacksmith became necessary.

Gasoline 60 Cents Gallon

There were no garages in 1902 and it was difficult to get gasoline, which could be purchased in drug stores for 60 cents a gallon. If there was no drug store handy, a hardware or paint store could furnish the precious fluid, except that the latter would sometimes sell you benzine for gasoline. It was the custom to carry two five-gallon cans of gas and a gallon of oil in reserve.

First Dealers’ Coverage

It was not until 1913 that the first “embezzlement” insurance protecting the dealers’ interest in the car was written in California. In that year A.D. Plughoff of the Leavitt Company informed me that his firm had taken over the agency for the Overland and that it was their intention to sell a great volume of machines. In order to do this, he continued, it would be necessary to sell on the installment plan, and he wanted to know how the cars could be insured so as to protect the dealer. The cars were to be sold on the lease contract plan and when payments were completed the buyer would receive the bill of sale. After considering the matter, I suggested that inasmuch as the theft clause of the policy was so worded to protect the insured against theft by any person other than in his household or employ, theft by the lessor (purchaser) would be covered, but that it would be necesssary that the policy be written in the name of the lessee, who had the title to the car. The lessor, even though legally paying “rent” for the car had an equity, nevertheless, so that the lessor’s title was not sole and unconditional ownership. A lease contract rider was then attached to the policy, stating that the automobile was purchased under lease contract and protecting the dealer against theft by the lessee. There was no additional premium for this protection and the news of the novel form of insurance spread like wildfire.

In a week my company received wires from Overland dealers all over the United States, asking for similar protection. It was then that this form of rider became used on the coast. It never was used east of the Rockies. Several years later, when all automobile dealers adopted the time sales plan the present conditional sales contract was introduced. It was then that the companies writing the business felt an increased hazard and made a flat charge of $1 on new cars and $2 on used cars, when in later years was increased to the present rates.

San Francisco News Letter
September 5, 1925

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