This is the first installment of a multi-part series of articles on:
Chicago’s First Sports Car – The Chicagoan
Music to read stories by…
Everytime I do a story about the “Chicagoan” sports car…. I think I’ll find another song about “Chicago” – my home town.
I did this the first time I wrote about this car earlier this year, and I’m doing it again today. How about “Sweet Home Chicago” by the Blues Brothers? You have to share songs sung by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd about Chicago….they are just too good!
Click on the following link to listen to the song as you read today’s story. It’s the best way to enjoy it:
And….for those of you who want to read more stories about the “Chicagoan” or just listen to more music about Chicago, click on the link below:
We’ve all heard of “The New Yorker.” And of course who could forget the “Chrysler Newport” – both the 1940’s show car and the later production cars. There’s no shortage of names that have been used for cars based on cities or locations. Think of the Pontiac “Bonneville” named after the location where cars are tested at speed on the dry lakes. And of course there’s the Pontiac “Catalina” named after the island off the coast of California near Long Beach. No shortage here gang.
In fact, if you are interested in the array of names that have been used for cars over the years, check out the article by Dan Jedicka that appeared in the Chicago Sun Times on February 13th, 2003. The article was titled “Car Names Often Reveal Automakers’ History”, and you can click here to review it in its entirety. It’s this very article that talks a bit about the car for today’s story – the futuristic “Chicagoan” sports car which debuted at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show, in Chicago Illinois.
The Chicagoan was designed by Robert Owens, built by Frank Hinger and his company Triplex Industries, and sold by Ketcham’s Automotive Corporation – all of Chicago Illinois. Yes…..all of Chicago Illinois. This is a Chicago sports car – inspired, born, bred, built, and shown – “soup to nuts” gang. And since I’m from Chicago, you can understand why this car would be of interest to me. Of course, Rick D’Louhy and I have found out that most of the fiberglass cars built were from our West Coast, and we knew locating information about any non-west coaster car would be difficult – but research wouldn’t be fun and rewarding if it were easy gang – now would it?
So….off we went on another “fiberglass quest.”
The Adventure Begins:
I first came across the reference to the “Chicagoan” in the “Encyclopedia of American Cars: 1946 to 1959” by Moloney and Dammann (1980). I’ve had this book since I was a teenager, when I (in fact) lived in the Chicago area. Good friend and mentor Paul Terhorst was the first to show me this book back then. Ever since, this car had been in the back of my mind for years, and as we began our research into fiberglass cars, what better and more fun car could there be to research than one from my home town. If only we could find more history…
Here’s what was shown in the Encyclopedia referenced above:
First exhibited at the 1952 (actually 1954) Chicago Automobile Show was the Chicagoan, built by Triplex Industries of Blue Island Illinois. The 2100 pound car was 14 and ½ feet long and had a 100 inch wheelbase. The fiberglass body and custom designed frame of the car was supposed to be able to take any V8 engine of the era, though it appears that most Chicagoans were equipped with 6 cylinder Willys blocks.
Initially, the company planned to sell the body and frame as a kit for $1500, or sell the completed car for $2500. Production capabilities were supposed to be about 300 to 400 units a year. However, by 1954, it appears that only 15 completed cars had been sold, all in the greater Chicago area. It is not known how many kits left the factory.
In 1954, the name of the car was changed to Triplex, and additional information can be found in our book under this heading.
Based on the information shown in the Encyclopedia, it looked like this would be one complex car to research. New information now pointed to an additional company called “Ketcham’s Automotive Corporation” that was involved with the Chicagoan. So…as all good research begins, we started with the first iteration of the car – the “Chicagoan” built by Triplex Industries.
Tracking Down Triplex:
This looked like it was going to be easy. A quick search on the internet supplied a company named “Triplex Manufacturing” just south of Chicago. It was just blocks from the original location and produced automotive parts (many in plastic) in various forms since 1949. Bingo! This must be it! A quick call to the company started the interview process and when I finally got ahold of Paul Katz whose father started the company in 1949 he was very helpful. But he said his company never produced the car and he hadn’t heard of it.
Perhaps this was a secret project that had been kept from the family? Or maybe since it wasn’t the success they hoped it would be they just “forgot” about it and their legacy? Kind of baffling to me at the time, but research pressed on.
I got a hold of the Chicago Historical Society and asked for their help in tracking down location and business information for Triplex Manufacturing. They were helpful and we tracked down all names and locations involved, but nothing tracked back to the “Chicagoan Sports Car” in any way. So….if I wasn’t finding what I knew should be there, I must be asking the wrong question. That makes sense? Right gang? So I asked the historical society the following question:
“Was there more than one company called ‘Triplex’ on the south side of Chicago in the 1950’s doing business in the automotive area?”
Remember gang…..always begin with the right question (those of you who have watched the movie “I Robot” will know what I mean).
Frank Hinger: President of Triplex Industries
Information gleaned from the help of the Chicago Historical Society showed that a gentleman named “Frank Hinger” owned and operated “Triplex Industries.” And…they were a contemporaneous company of “Triplex Manufacturing,” but later research revealed that neither company knew of the other – even though they were blocks away from each other. Funny thing.
Armed with this new name, I began making phone calls and soon found Steve and Sharon Hinger living close to the area of the original company. During our first phone call with Sharon, she revealed that her husband’s father was Frank Hinger, and that they knew the cars very well. You can imagine how excited I was to have tracked them down.
Frank Hinger: Businessman and Entrepreneur
Here’s what I learned about Frank from his son Steve:
Frank Albert Hinger was born on April 3rd, 1914 and passed away on Nov 20th, 1975 at the age of 61. His wife was Lois and they were married June 11th, 1940. Frank went to school at the University of Illinois as well as the Illinois Institute of Technology to learn to be an engineer. During the war years, he served as a Safety and Security Officers for ordinance plants across the country. He was a high explosives expert.
In the late 1930’s he was Safety and Security Officer at Santee Cooper Dam in South Carolina, and his son Steve was born there in 1941. When he got out of the service, he went to work for Triplex Industries Inc around 1948.
During World War II, he traveled throughout the United States doing safety inspections for loading rockets, grenades, munitions. During the Korean war, private contractors would run government facilities, and Frank was one of those contractors.
Chicago Triplex was originally owned by Sydney Van Tile in downtown Chicago. They originally made washing machines/dry cleaning equipment. Steve Hinger, son of Frank Hinger, mentioned that there was a larger Triplex Industries company located in Pueblo, Colorado. Steve thinks it’s the original parent company, but that’s unconfirmed at this time. When the Chicago based Triplex Company went bankrupt in the 1940’s, Mr. Van Tile offered to sell the company to Frank Hinger for $1. This was around 1948 still – a short time after Frank started working for the company.
Triplex (Chicago) was originally located at back of the Stockyards area (off Halsted and near the original International Amphitheater). Frank kept the company there for about two years and then moved it to the Riverdale area of Chicago (still South Side) in 1950. He bought a building and property in Riverdale from neighbor, Joeseph Stokes, in Beverly (95th and Western). This had been used by the Stokes family in their business which was manufacturing tugboats.
The business/building at that location was originally called “Stokes and Company” owned by Joseph Stokes and his father. This property was on the Calumet River which is 200 yards wide at that point – perfect for a boat company. The original Stokes building is still there as of today. However, it was expanded in size – doubled – by Frank Hinger in the 1950’s
Frank took his new company in new directions. They would no longer make washing machines and dry cleaning equipment. Instead, in 1949 he took Triplex into manufacturing high explosive loading equipment. Quite a change, but that was right up Frank’s alley. So, Triplex began manufacturing equipment whose sole purpose was to load any kind of armament.
This change in business took place between 1949 and 1953, and Triplex Chicago did great during the Korean war. However, when the war ended in 1953, business trailed off. But Frank Hinger had a successful manufacturing company up and running. What should he do with this company? What change should he make to his business? That is, what business looked promising in 1953?
Why not fiberglass sports cars – the new budding business being heralded in all automotive circles! Sounds like a good idea to me.
Who’s Who in Midwest – Volume 6 (1952):
A bit more about Frank Hinger before we move into the Triplex Sports Car years….
In 1952, Frank Hinger appeared in “Who’s Who” in the Midwest and his backgrounds and accomplishments were noted and shared with the public. Here’s what they had to say about him in 1952:
- Frank Albert Hinger: Explosives Engineering / Manufacturer
- Born April 3rd, 1914
- Father/Mother: Albert Hinger and Else (Muller)
- Married: Lois Helen Spuck, June 11th, 1940
- Son: Steven Frank Hinger
- Education: University of Illinois 1931-1933
- Illinois Institute of Technology: 1942-1943
- Armour Research: Northwest School Science Crime Detection
- Safety Director: Conchas Dam, New Mexico: 1937-1938
- Santee Cooper Hydro Electric Project, South Carolina: 1939-1941
- Instructor of Engineering: The Citadel, Charleston South Carolina: 1941-1942
- Special Agent US Department of Labor 1941-1942
- President: Triplex Industries Inc, Chicago:
- Member: National Safety Council
- Director: Chicago Boys Clubs
- Served as Explosive Safety Chief and Director of High Explosives Loading Division
- Officer Chief of Ordnance WWII, AUS, World War II
- Member of American Society of Safety Engineers
- Member of American Ordnance Association (life)
- Member of Ammunition Know How Association
- Director of Central Manufacturing District (Chicago)
- Home: Midlothian Country Club Grounds, Midlothian Illinois
- Office: Riverdale Station, Chicago 27
Start With The Beginning In Mind: (Chicago Tribune, December 13th, 1953)
It was 1953. Frank Hinger wanted to build a sports car – and a kit someone could build – just like the folks on the West Coast of the United States were doing. By the end of 1953 he was well on his way. In early December, a small ad appeared in a Chicago newspaper (shown in the gallery of photos below) that said the following:
New Triplex Sports Car Safety Frame
Sunday December 13th, 1953
9am to 3pm
With the new Triplex Frame you can now built a sports car
FEATURES OF THE NEW TRIPLEX FRAME:
100 inch wheel base
8 inches ground clearance
Will accept 42-48 Ford running gear
Fibre glass or metal body can be used.
Will stand rugged competition
Reasonably priced, $349.50
The Triplex Frame is sold exclusively by Ketcham’s Automotive Corporation
11216 Vincenes, Chicago 43, Illinois
BEverly 8-444, Beverly 8-4321
“OUR FIFTIETH YEAR”
So Frank Hinger and Triplex were up and running in December 1953 with their own sports car frame, and hinting at a fiberglass body as part of the advertisement. The debut of their car – not yet designed or built was just 90 days away on March 13th, 1954 at the Chicago Auto Show.
How did they do it? What were the challenges? That’s the topic for the next part of our story.
So ends part 1 of our story on the Chicagoan – a sports car with Mid-West heritage and virtually unknown today despite the amazing amount of coverage it received back in 1953 and 1954. Wait until what you see in the next series of articles on this car. You’ll be simply amazed.
Special thanks to Rick Ruth for loaning his collection of Chicagoan Memorabilia as well as the Hinger family for sharing their collection of materials and memories too.
Part 2 will focus on the development of the Chicagoan body, as well as the Chicago Auto Show debut of March, 1954, and more more more!
Hope you enjoyed the story, and until next time…
Glass on gang…
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