The United States has a well-deserved reputation as a home for innovative and disruptive technologies, and during the turn of the 20th century, there was perhaps nothing more disruptive than the new-fangled technology known as the automobile. Eager to get in on the ground floor, car companies of every kind began sprouting up all over the country, often in the most unlikely of places. This included the small city of New Britain, Connecticut, where the Corbin Motor Vehicle Corporation called home from 1904 to 1912.
Though it produced just 600 vehicles during its 8-year tenure, Corbin left an indelible mark on a city that prides itself on its manufacturing history. In fact, New Britain is best known as the Hardware City, as it is home to the world headquarters of tool-making conglomerate Stanley Black & Decker. But it was the American Hardware Corporation, in conjunction with the Russel & Erwin Company, that bought out the Bristol Motor Car Company (also in Connecticut) and moved it to New Britain under the new name, Corbin Motor Vehicles.
The name was derived from Philip Corbin, founder and owner of American Hardware, as well as the driving force behind the formation of the car company. Having acquired the rights to a clever air-cooled engine design that employed a horizontal fan blowing air over 56 rows of steel fins around each cylinder casting, Corbin began production of two models priced between $2,000 and $2,650, which is about three-times the cost of Henry Ford’s famous Model T. The bespoke touring cars were soon joined by a roadster and a seven-passenger limousine.
As we already noted however, there were many other automakers competing for the same, limited pool of wealthy buyers, so Corbin began entering his automobiles in races to showcase their performance. A Corbin would come in second place at the Dead Horse Hill Climb in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1908, reaching a top speed of 51 MPH during the mile-long, uphill race. Not exactly record-setting, as in 1906 the steam-powered Stanley Rocket went 127 MPH (no relation to New Britain’s Stanley Works), but it did encourage Corbin to enter the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup Race in Long Island.
By this time, Corbin had switched his cars to water-cooled engines as the technology evolved, and for the Vanderbilt Cup he hired famed racer Joe Matson. The Corbin “Cannonball” as it was called performed well for the first ten laps of the race, but a broken water pipe forced its early retirement, and Corbin settled for a 24th place finish out of 30 racers.
It a somewhat prophetic ending, as with two years Corbin production came to a halt in the Hardware City. Henry Ford’s Model T was dominating the market by this time, and without the funding to expand and compete, the company quietly closed up shop and became a car parts and service center.
At its height, Corbin had showrooms in its home city, as well as Manhattan and Boston, but today there are just a handful of examples that survive in small local car museums here and there. This includes the Corbin Cannonball, which has been restored and preserved for more than 100 years after it’s loss at the Vanderbilt Cup.
It’s a small but cherished piece of the history of the Hardware City.