Vincent Bendix

Vincent Bendix (1881-1945) invented the starter drive first used in automobiles in 1914. He earned the name "The King of Stop and Go" as the result of his work on the starter drive and the four-wheel braking system. He was a leader in the aviation industry, and his innovations and business savvy helped to create a multi-faceted manufacturing company.

Vincent Bendix was born August 12, 1881, in Moline, Illinois. His father, Jann, a Swedish Methodist Episcopal minister, changed the family name from Bengtson to Bendix when he moved with his wife, Alma Danielson, to the United States from Amaland, Sweden. Soon after Bendix's birth, the family moved to Chicago, which had such a thriving Swedish population that it was dubbed the "Swedish capital." Even as a child, Bendix was interested in engineering and invented a chainless bicycle when he was just 13 years old.

At the age of 16, Bendix moved to New York City and found work running a hospital elevator. He helped out in the hospital's maintenance department as well, and gained a working knowledge of electricity. While in New York, he held a succession of jobs, including working in a lawyer's office, as a handyman in bicycle shops and garages, as an accountant for a brewery, and for the Lackawanna Railroad Company. In 1901, Bendix found a job working for Glenn Curtiss, who would later become a famous airplane builder. At the time, Curtiss was developing the Torpedo motorcycle. Bendix worked on motorcycles as well and developed his own experimental bike. He attended night school to study engineering, learning about internal combustion engines.

Bendix married in 1902 and moved back to Chicago five years later to take a job as a sales manager for the Holmsman Automobile Company, which at the time was a leader in the field of auto buggies. During this time, he designed his own car, the Bendix Motor Buggy, which he had built by the Triumph Motor Company in Cragin, Illinois. He sold around 7,000 cars, but Bendix was financially devastated when the company went into bankruptcy. Still, his limited success and experience gave him an idea for a mechanical starter for the motor car.


King of Go

Until Bendix's innovation, people had to start their cars by cranking them by hand, which was a nuisance in addition to being messy and often dangerous. A few other cars had mechanical starters, but Bendix's worked much better. However, to make his starters, Bendix needed a triple thread screw that was expensive and difficult to get because they had to be manufactured by hand. In 1913, Bendix located an outfit called the Eclipse Machine Company, in Elmira, New York, that used the exact triple thread screw that he needed. He contracted with the company to manufacture the parts, and started marketing his starter drive under the slogan: "The mechanical hand that cranks your car."

The starter revolutionized driving. About 5,500 were installed in the 1914 Chevrolet Baby Grand touring car. By 1919, 1.5 million-nearly every car on the market-had a Bendix starter drive.


King of Stop

The years following the success of the starter drive were difficult for Bendix. He bought the Winkler-Grimm Wagon Company in South Bend, Indiana, planning to produce fire engines, but his plans were bungled when a big bid fell through and he had to sell the plant. A year later, he divorced his first wife. Then, in 1922, Bendix's father was killed when a car with unreliable brakes hit him on a Chicago street corner. "The accident caused Bendix to focus on the inadequacy of automobile brakes, and he vowed to devise a better braking system," wrote Rebecca Wolfe in the St. Joseph Valley Record. That same year, Bendix married Elizabeth Channon of Chicago. They were divorced ten years later and he reportedly had to pay her $2 million as a settlement.

In 1923, Bendix began to turn personal tragedy into another automotive innovation. He bought the shoe brake patents of French engineer Henri Perrot and took over Perrot's contract with General Motors. Thus Bendix Engineering Works introduced the first four-wheel brake system, which promised to provide cars with a reliable way to stop.

Business was brisk for Bendix, who immediately began trying to expand his company. In 1928, he tried to take over the Eclipse Machine Company, but found the management leery of his extravagant ways, so he enlisted the help of General Motors to negotiate the deal. In the next few years, more than 100 companies came under the umbrella of Bendix, including the Pioneer Instrument Company, Scintilla Magneto Company, Stromberg Carburetor Company, Jaeger Watch, and Hydraulic Brakes.

He was busy expanding his own personal empire as well. In 1928, Bendix paid $3 million for the Potter Palmer mansion on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. He planned to construct a $25 million hotel, but instead was forced to sell the property, which he had filled with fine art, including Rembrandt paintings. Also in 1928, Bendix bought the former estate of automobile pioneer Clem Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana. He reportedly paid $30,000 simply to erect imported French gates at the entrance of what became known as Chateau Bendix. Despite the home's somewhat remote location, it drew huge crowds to lavish parties, which included golfing at a nine-hole course, and swimming in an electrically-lit pool.

The following year, Bendix spent $250,000 to buy yet another house-the Ocean Front Estate in Palm Beach, Florida. At the same time, he donated money to a Chinese and Swedish expedition to Inner Mongolia and China. He paid a Swedish man $65,000 to buy a Buddhist temple and bring it to the U.S. When that proved impossible, Bendix instead funded a team of Chinese architects from Peking to copy the Golden Pavilion of Jehol and rebuild it at Chicago's 1932-34 Century of Progress Exposition. The $250,000 pavilion was displayed once more at the New York World's Fair before being donated in 1943 to Oberlin College.


Bendix Aviation Corporation

Despite his personal excesses, the Bendix Corporation continued to grow. Even though aviation sales were only eight percent of the company's revenue in 1929, Bendix renamed his company the Bendix Aviation Corporation. Although 1929 and the early 1930s marked the beginning of the Great Depression, Bendix managed to keep his company afloat by pioneering new inventions. During the Second World War he developed products to aid the war effort, like a radio direction finder for ships. The British and French were big Bendix customers during the war, and Bendix products like the pressure carburetor for airplane engines gave U.S. air troops an advantage as well.

Ironically, Bendix himself was fearful of airplanes and only flew about six times in his entire life. However, he saw huge potential in the field and, in 1931, agreed to bankroll the Bendix Transcontinental Air Races. The races, designed to foster development by airplane engineers, also helped to popularize flying. It drew such aviators as Amelia Earhart to compete for the $25,000 prize and Bendix Trophy. The first winner of the competition, Major James H. Doolittle, flew from Los Angeles to Cleveland with a record speed of 223 miles per hour. The flight took the pilot nine hours and ten minutes. In 1962, Captain John T. Walton won the competition's final race, flying from Los Angeles to New York in two hours, at an average speed of 1,215 miles per hour. The Bendix Trophy found a home at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.


Financial Decline

Bendix's extravagant lifestyle eventually caught up with him. In June 1939, he was forced to declare bankruptcy and sell off his personal things. At the time, he listed liabilities of $14 million and assets of only $1 million. He told Time magazine in 1939, "This is the biggest blow of my life." "His list of liabilities included unpaid bills and dues from some of the most exclusive and prestigious clubs, restaurants, and hotels across the country," Wolfe reported. "His personal life was scrutinized and the last of his belongings dragged out from under him. It was the complete demise of one of South Bend's greatest tycoons," said Rebecca Wolfe in the St. Joseph Valley Record.

For a long time, General Motors had been amassing Bendix Corporation stock. In 1937, it began taking over the company, changing its entire structure when word got out that a quarter of a million dollars a month was being lost with Bendix as plant manager. Bendix remained chairman of the board of Bendix Aviation until 1942, but then left to start yet another business.

The newest venture, Bendix Helicopter, Inc., was begun in 1944. Bendix hoped to produce a four-passenger helicopter when World War II ended. However, he died unexpectedly of a coronary thrombosis March 27, 1945 at his home in New York City. Bendix was 63. After his death, plans for the helicopter were abandoned.


Bendix's Work Continues

The original Bendix Corporation continued to thrive without its founder. By 1976, it was named one of the five best-managed companies in America. According to Hope Lampert's Till Death Do Us Part, the company "owned an industrial winch-making company, a forest products company, and some timberland; Bendix made Fram filters, Autolite spark plugs, airplane wheels and steering gears. It made cutting tools for the Big Three car manufacturers. Bendix was strong and financially healthy."

A 1983 takeover was so controversial that two books, including Lampert's, were written about it. Bendix Corporation was bought for $1.8 billion by Allied Corporation, later known as Allied Signal. This company produces chemicals and automotive safety equipment. By 1996, Allied Signal had 36,000 employees around the world and annual sales of $2,377 million.

Further Reading on Vincent Bendix

Cunningham, Mary, with Fran Schumer, Powerplay: What Really Happened at Bendix, Linden Press/Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lampert, Hope, Till Death Do Us Part: Bendix Vs. Martin Marietta, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Automotive News, April 29, 1996.

New York Times, March 28, 1945.

Scientific American, May 1938.

Time, June 5, 1939.

Allied Signal, (March 19, 1999).

National Aviation Hall of Fame, (March 19, 1999).