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The Scharf
Written January 29, 2008


In a small town, supposedly everybody knows everything about everybody else's business.

Nevertheless, although I grew up in a small town where my father was a Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealer, I never heard about the local automobile factory that never quite got started.  That is, I never heard about it until this month.

First, a disclaimer.  I'm not a professional historian, so I reserve the right to do my research the easy way:  at home.  That's where I found the following information, in bits and pieces, most of it on the Internet.

Some of the facts have not been confirmed.  If you spent a week in Ohio searching through century-old newspaper archives and public records, you could check those facts and learn other interesting details.

But I'm not planning to go to that much trouble.  Here's what I do know.

In 1854, a 22-year-old farmer emigrated from Germany to the United States.  His name was Nicholas Scharf.  ("Scharf" in German is the equivalent of "sharp" in English.)

Like many of his countrymen of that era, Nicholas settled in central Ohio.  He was described as "a Catholic in religious belief, and a Democrat in politics."

In Franklin County, he met another German farmer by the name of Frank Frund and married his daughter Magdaleine.  They had nine children:  three boys (George, John Adam, and Joseph Frank) and six girls (Annie, Marianna, Maggie, Katie, Clara, and Louise).

Nicholas was only 47 years old when he died in 1879.  His widow moved the family to neighboring Union County and settled in Claibourne Township, outside the village of Richwood.  In 1883, the History of Union County reported that "she owns a farm of fifty-four acres of good land.  She is a careful manager, and with the aid of her son George, who stays at home to work for her, she is conducting her farm in a most prosperous manner."

We may assume that the other Scharfs did not stay on their mother's farm.  In particular, John moved to nearby Richwood, where he must have become some sort of mechanic — a tinkerer with machinery.

Starling Mead, reminiscing in 1972 about the Richwood Gazette, recalled that the weekly newspaper "first got a Monotype in 1915.  Harry Bertram came from Cincinnati to run it.  Then he later returned to the factory and Herman Dolsky was the operator.  Whenever it broke down, John Scharf repaired it, but then he went to Dayton to work during the World War.  If it broke down then, all the type had to be set by hand."

In Scharf's later years, he would receive at least three patents for his inventions, including number 1,554,131 in the year 1925.  It described a shovel and dredge for use in construction and agriculture.  Seven years later, patent number 1,866,490 covered a small merry-go-round (below) that half a dozen children could ride, each pumping pedals to make it turn.

And in 1937, near the age of retirement and still living in Richwood, John and his brother Joe jointly received patent number 2,092,562 for a stock-operated water pumping device.  They wrote, "An object of the invention is to provide a device of the type by which stock, such as horses, cattle, or other animals, cause water to be pumped when they desire to drink, which will pump a limited amount of water from a well or other source of supply, and which will operate gates leading to and from the apparatus so as to insure against overcrowding on the apparatus and giving an animal opportunity to drink without molestation."

But years before that, John was interested in making improvements in America's newest obsession, the motorcar.

He was not alone.  Many American handymen had their own ideas for building a better automobile, including Henry Ford, who cobbled together a Quadricycle in the shed behind his house in 1896.  Over the next four years, 68 new makes of cars appeared, according to Bellamy Partridge in Fill 'er Up!  All have disappeared.

There were 67 new companies in 1901.  There were 78 in 1902.  "Factories were opening and closing all the time.  Some of them went no further than a few experimental models.  Some ran for a year.  Others went sailing along for five years or fifteen or even twenty, succumbing finally to bad business, bad management, the depression, or inability to meet the competition of the gigantic combinations which by that time had come into the picture."

One problem for the designer of a new automobile was how best to transmit power from the fast-turning motor to the slower-turning wheels.

When John Scharf was growing up on the farm, he had seen steam-powered traction engines like this one, in which the "power takeoff" was driven by a broad leather belt running around the engine's flywheel.

Some early automobiles used pairs of toothed sprocket wheels, connecting them with chain drives as on a bicycle.

But most autos had transmissions consisting of sets of gears.  The use of these solid metal disks with teeth or "cogs" does present some difficulties.  Before synchronized transmissions were developed, changing from one gear to another could result in a horrendous noise.  Ford's 1908 Model T used a "planetary" transmission; the gears didn't grind, but there were only two speeds.

On November 24, 1910, using the word “gear” in its other sense of “equipment,” the Richwood Gazette reported that

John A. Scharf, Richwood machinist, has been granted a patent on his automobile driving gear.  He’s worked on numerous kinds of autos and felt he could make a gear which would not contain a single cog gear, while other gears were full of cog wheels and the cause of no end of trouble.

How did Scharf avoid using “cog wheels”?  The German firm Benecke & Rehse, dealers in antique stock certificates, speculate that it was wahrscheinlich per verschiebbarem Transmissionsriemen über eine kegelförmige Welle, so dass sich mit dem Wellendurchmesser das Übersetzungsverhältnis stufenlos verschob.  In other words, Scharf probably slid a transmission belt over a conical shaft, so that the transmission ratio infinitely varied with the diameter of the shaft.  It might have been a continuously variable transmission something like this.

Using his idea, Scharf built a car in 1910.  Encouraged by his neighbors in Richwood, he decided to see if he could make a business out of it.

The first requirement was to raise about $10,000.  Scharf incorporated the Scharf Gearless Motor Car Company for that purpose.  The editor of the Gazette, George Worden, agreed to serve as company president.  The Columbus Bank Note company printed a hundred certificates, each for one share of stock, and Scharf and his friends went to work selling them for the sizeable sum of $100 a share.

Area investors showed their support for a potential new local industry by buying 45 of the shares.  Among them were H.G. Payne (certificate #19) and W.H. Siples (#23), both dated December 27, 1912.  Frank L. Adams bought certificate #41 the following July 3, about the time that the official location of the company was changed temporarily to Westerville, Ohio.  However, local participation raised less than half of the capital that would be needed.

Scharf Gearless Motor Car Company stock, Richwood, Ohio

On September 4, the Gazette did its part to pump up enthusiasm by reporting, "The Scharf Gearless Motor Car Company will soon have under construction a Scharf Gearless Runabout auto which will be a unique car, containing a Scharf patented transmission and steering devices, and the price will be below any car on the market.  Dozens of people in and around Richwood are contemplating purchasing this car.  This new car will be ready for demonstration within a few weeks."

It was a cyclecar, a little runabout about the size of a modern golf cart.  It probably weighed around 600 pounds and was equipped with a motorcycle-type engine.

The designs of these one-of-a-kind cycle cars varied greatly, but it’s possible that the Scharf looked something like the JB Rocket from Detroit (top) or the 1914 Hall Cycle Car from Waco (bottom).

John Scharf drove his gearless prototype the 50 miles to Columbus, hoping to find more investors there.  No one was interested.

Without sufficient funds to proceed, Scharf could do no more.  He had to return the money he did manage to raise.  The company bought back all 45 shares from its investors.  Payne's certificate was marked "canceled" on September 19, 1913.

Of the original 100 stock certificates (45 issued, 55 not issued), maybe a dozen survive today in the hands of collectors.  Their rarity makes them somewhat valuable.  Benecke & Rehse offers certificate #41 at 450 euros or about $660.  George H. LaBarre Galleries Inc. lists an unissued certificate for sale at $125.

One of the unissued certificates, #76, ended up in the hands of Richwood resident Chester Robertson.  His wife's brother, Don Purke, used to visit the Robertsons in Richwood for two or three weeks at a time.

Don now lives in Prescott, Arizona.  Earlier this month, he wrote me that he had discovered this website and remembers my father's auto dealership.  "My sister lived just up the street from it, and every time when we walked to town, we walked past it.  ...One time when I was visiting Richwood, in walking uptown I passed a building that must have been the earlier post office.  Inquiring around town, I found the owner of the building who gave me the post office front with all the mail boxes, stamp window, etc.  I lived in Reno, Nevada, at the time, and it took me two or three years to get the post office front to Reno as the brass boxes were very heavy.  As I write this email, I am looking at them."

Don told me that he had a stock certificate that his brother-in-law Chet had given him.  It was for the Scharf Gearless Motor Car Company of Richwood, Ohio.  This was the first that I had heard of this company.  Don wrote that he was trying to pass on "all the stuff I have collected over the years" and wanted to find someone in the area who might be interested in the certificate.  "I'm an old car nut and would like to pass it on to someone back there that is interested in old cars."

I did some research and discovered that these certificates were not exactly worthless.  "You might be able to get a hundred bucks or so from the certificate, if you wanted to find a broker to buy it," I wrote Don.  "If you prefer to give it away, I can't think of anyone in particular in Richwood who would be interested.  Any likely candidates were members of my late father's generation and are no longer with us.  If you decided to give it to me, I wouldn't sell it.  I'd add a picture to my website and then probably pass it on to an organization interested in Richwood history, either the newspaper or the library."

And so it was that unissued certificate #76, framed, arrived in yesterday's mail.  And so it is that I'm showing it to you below.  Thanks, Don!


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