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Warren Tribune Chronicle Feature: Sterling-Knight was to relaunch Warren into auto industry

Sterling-Knight was to relaunch Warren into auto industry

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a weekly series coordinated by the Trumbull County Historical Society focusing on our region’s history.

An article from the Tribune’s archives published Nov. 20, 1923, vividly described the excitement surrounding the grand opening of the Sterling-Knight automobile showrooms in the Hippodrome building on High Street.

The Sterling-Knight was a luxury automobile designed by James “Pete” Sterling and assembled in Warren from 1923 until 1926. The company produced about 700 cars at its factory on Dietz Road, but only three are known to survive, including a 1925 5-Passenger Sedan that is on exhibit at the National Packard Museum and is part of its permanent collection of historic vehicles.

The Warren Tribune trumpeted news of the establishment of the Sterling-Knight Company in 1923 as “the re-establishment of the automobile industry in Warren,” noting that “this city was one of the pioneers in the automotive industry when the Packard was developed and manufactured here.”

Sterling-Knight’s lineup included five models: a five-passenger phaeton; four-passenger double-coupe sport sedan; five-passenger sedan; four-passenger, four-door sport sedan; and three-passenger roadster. Prices ranged from $1,985 to $2,800.

Sterling-Knight autos were powered by an innovative 6-cylinder internal combustion Knight engine that used sleeve valves instead of the more common poppet valve construction. The Knight engine was first developed by American engineer Charles Yale Knight and patented in England in 1908. Pete Sterling’s long association with the sleeve valve engine began in 1909 when his boss, Cleveland automaker F.B. Stearns, sent him to England to study the Daimler-Knight engine. As chief engineer for Stearns, Sterling was responsible for the engineering behind the Stearns Knight V-8 engine, introduced in 1911.

In 1920, Pete Sterling resigned from the F.B. Stearns Co. with intentions to start his own car company. The Sterling Knight Motor Co. of Cleveland was incorporated in April 1921 with a capitalization of $1 million. The company purchased a plant on Cleveland’s east side and announced plans to manufacture a luxury car at that site, but a post-war recession delayed production, forcing Sterling to seek additional financial backing.

After several Warren-area sources, including Newton A. Wolcott, then the president and co-owner of the Packard Electric Company, provided an additional $1.5 million in capital stock, the Sterling Knight Co. of Warren was incorporated on May 5, 1923. The reorganized company acquired the former Supreme Motors engine plant on Dietz Road. Because that facility was just a few years old and fully equipped to manufacture automobile engines, production began quickly, with the first cars delivered in August 1923.

Except for the engines that were manufactured in-house, Sterling-Knight automobiles were assembled from parts purchased from outside suppliers. Many of those parts came from local sources, including the Philips Custom Body Co. that crafted Sterling-Knight bodies at its factory located in the former General Electric Trumbull Lamp Plant on West Market Street.

Sterling Knight established dealerships in 13 cities across the country, including one in Los Angeles, but sales did not grow as quickly as anticipated. In late 1925, Sterling-Knight encountered serious financial problems that soon proved fatal. After the bank that financed production ran low on funds, Sterling Knight Co. was forced to operate on a cash basis.

Debts, which had been incurred as early as 1924, mounted. The automaker hobbled on nevertheless, and production continued on a much-curtailed basis until mid-1926, when the plant closed for good. Sterling-Knight went bankrupt in December 1926 and the Van Huffel Tube Co. purchased the shuttered factory in October 1928 for $75,000.

With the demise of Sterling-Knight, the promise of “the re-establishment of the automobile industry” in the Warren area faded. Forty years later, in 1966, that promise was resurrected when a white Chevrolet Impala sports sedan rolled off the assembly line in Lordstown. Incidentally, the Tribune Chronicle’s publisher, Helen Hart Hurlburt, who was a lifelong friend and neighbor of the Packard family, purchased that first car built at Lordstown.

Ohlin is director of educational services for the National Packard Museum.