The shadowy “Owen” motor car

There have been many examples of “shadowy” makes in motoring history, with little hard evidence of any manufacturing.  Some of these were linked with stock market fraud to fleece investors and customers. The granddaddy of the “shadowy” makes was the Owen, a make with at least six different names, listed on and off for 36 years, no press descriptions after 1902, no road tests, advertisements or even a photo to show that even just one Owen was built.

The first reference to an Owen car was in March 1901, when Edward Hugh Owen announced that the Automobile Transport Company of Comeragh Rd, West Kensington, London was building a 3.5 hp voiturette called the Twentieth Century. By December of that year, Owen told the Motor Car Journal that he was prepared to take orders for 9, 12, 16 or 24 hp cars, with delivery in early 1902. In January 1902 the company name had changed to the Twentieth Century Travel Co, and the cars were now named Lococars. Only one model was described, a 24 hp powered by a 4-cylinder engine. No illustration was forthcoming.

By 1905 the company had reverted to the name of the Automobile Transport Company, and was listing cars under four different names – 10hp Parisia, 20hp Londonia, 30hp Twentieth Century and 40hp Owen’s Gearless. These cars were listed up to the beginning of World War 1, along with a 60hp model listed up to 1913. Cars named Models A, B & C were said to have been made during World War 1. Owen provided details of chassis numbers, but this doesn’t prove that complete cars were manufactured. While most makes would provide names of famous people who drove their cars in publicity materials and advertising, Owen conveniently said “On Application”, thus hiding the fact that no cars had been built and sold.

After World War 1 Owen listed the smaller Orleans model, with 10hp, 15hp and 20hp models. The first 8-cylinder car was listed in 1921 – the Model OE with a 5.3 litre V8 engine, 2-speed gearbox and a starter motor and carburetor of Owen’s own manufacture. A chassis price of £2,250 pounds was quoted, £150 pounds more expensive than a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The car was actually illustrated in the “Buyers’ Guide”, (picture below) but the side view is suspiciously like the American Kenworthy, with slight retouching. The Kenworthy was never offered for sale in Great Britain and would be thus sufficiently obscure to be unknown to most British readers – another example of Owen’s cunning.

 

1921 Owen Eight
The only known photograph of an Owen car.

In 1925 the V8 gave way to 7.6 litre straight-8 engined model with a chassis price of £1850, which was steadily reduced to £1775 in 1929, staying at that price until the Owen disappeared from buyers lists in 1935. Owen never took any paid advertising in any known magazine. All of the lists which contain details of the Owen are in buyers’ guides and insurance manuals, which would have been free insertions.

Two addresses in Comeragh Road pop up in regard to the Owen – Nos 6 and 72. No. 72 is part of a terrace of late-Victorian era houses with no commercial premises. No. 6 consists of a small shops with a flat above, so once gain there is no chance of any manufacturing taking place there. Links to other cars produced around the same time and in the same area show that the Owen was not one of these cars. The most plausible explanation is that EH Owen was a fantasist in the Walter Mitty mould, and judging by all of the contradictions in his history and specifications of the car, not a very good one.

Nick Georgano’s “Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile”, Stationary Office, London, 2000, was used as the source for this blog post.

The man who sold the Eiffel Tower – twice!

Circus promoter PT Barnum is alleged to have said “There’s a sucker born every minute”, and as long as there are gullible people, there are cons and crooks who will exploit that stupidity for their own financial gain. One of the most famous of these cons was Victor Lusing.

“Count” Victor Lustig was born in Bohemia, on January 4, 1890, in what is now known as the Czech Republic. He was originally known as Robert V. Miller, one of several children born into the upper-middle class Miller family. His father was the mayor of the small town of Hostinne, Czechoslovakia, and under his care Lustig proved to be a bright child with a penchant for trouble.

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“Count” Victor Lusig

By the time he was 19, Lustig was taking time away from his studies at the University of Paris to gamble in poker, bridge and billiards. Around this age he also earned a scar across the left side of his face from a jealous man, who though Lustig was paying too much attention to the man’s girlfriend. Using his quick wit and his fluency in the Czech, German, English, French and Italian languages, Lustig left school and began committing dozens of petty crimes under countless aliases across Europe. His favorite, however, was that of “Count” Victor Lustig. Under this name he traveled Trans-Atlantic cruise ships, gambling and bilking wealthy passengers out of their money. When World War I put an end to pleasure cruises, Lustig’s con career also dried up. He decided to head to the United States, during the height of Prohibition.

By 1922, Lustig had conned his way to Missouri, where he learned of a repossessed ranch. Posing under the alias Robert Duval, Lustig offered the American Savings Bank $22,000 in Liberty bonds, and convinced them to exchange an additional $10,000 of the bonds for cash, so that he would have some extra capital to run the ranch. The deal was struck, and the money was placed in two identical envelopes. Through a sleight of hand, however, Lustig had switched envelopes and made off with both the bonds and the cash. He was tracked to Kansas City, where he was arrested, but Lustig managed to talk his way out of an indictment and walked free.

In May of 1925, Lustig traveled to Paris to plan another con, the one which would make him famous. While reading the newspaper, Lustig noticed an article about the run-down condition of the Eiffel Tower. At the time, the Eiffel Tower had become an expensive nuisance left over from the 1889 Paris Exposition. The original plan was to move the monument, but time and money prevented the transfer. The tower had instead fallen into disrepair, and Parisians lobbied for its removal. Lustig saw an opportunity, and forged government credentials naming him Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He met with a small group of scrap metal dealers, and explained that the city wanted to sell the Eiffel tower for scrap but that officials wanted to keep the plans a secret to avoid backlash from citizens.

Eiffel_Tower_and_park,_Paris,_France_ca._1909
The Eiffel Tower, the site of Lusig’s most brazen confidence trick.

 

One of the dealers bought the story and put down a cash bid to tear down the tower. Yet when he went to city officials to cash in on the deal, they had no idea what he was talking about. The dealer realised he was duped, and was so embarrassed that he refused to go to police. A month later, Lustig returned to Paris and ran the whole scam yet again. Lustig barely managed to elude authorities the second time around, and was forced to flee to America to prevent his own capture.

But Lustig seemed incapable of keeping a low profile, and in 1926 he became even more infamous for a con known as the Rumanian Box. Lustig had a cabinetmaker in New York City make a handcrafted mahogany box with a narrow slot cut in either end. One side of the box, Lustig had installed a series of complicated handles and levers. Lustig told his marks that the mahogany box was the world’s only “money-duplicating machine.” He would place an authentic $1,000 bill in one end, along with a piece of paper, and then turn a series of cranks and knobs. The only problem was that the process, he told his victims, took six hours to complete per bill.

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The Rumanian Money Box.

Together, he and his victim would wait six hours then Lustig would turn the crank to produce another, authentic $1,000 bill. Lustig would then have the victim take both bills to a local bank to confirm their authenticity. They were real bills in actuality, because Lustig had concealed a second real $1,000 bill in the box. Once his mark, sensing high profits, paid a remarkable sum for the box, Lustig would disappear-and no real money would ever come out of the box again.

By 1934, Lustig had gained too much attention as a counterfeiter in the U.S., and the Secret Service put together a special squad to find out who was flooding the United States market with counterfeit bills. Lustig was arrested, and a search revealed a set of money-printing plates and $51,000 in fake currency. Lustig was sent to the Federal House of Detention in New York City.

On December 5, 1935, he stood trial, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lustig received and additional five years for his escape attempt a few months earlier. According to The Evening Independent in Massillon, Ohio, Lustig died in prison on March 11, 1947, after suffering a brain tumor. Other sources claim Lustig died from complications of pneumonia. Lustig was 57 years old at the time of his death. Secret Service agents said that the occasional counterfeit bill, known as “Count Lustig Money,” still managed to turn up in the years after his death.

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The Medical Centre for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where Lustig died in 1947.

 

The biography of Lustig at http://www.biography.com was used as the basis for this blog post.