The Kissel Motor Car Company was founded in 1906 by two ambitious young brothers, George and Will Kissel. The Kissel family, who had emigrated from Germany to Wisconsin, gradually expanded their farming operations to include groceries, hardware, lumber and homebuilding among other businesses. The family’s generous wealth certainly aided in Will and George’s enthusiastic plans to build an automobile. The first prototype was quite advanced; a shaft-driven, four-cylinder runabout built in 1905. By 1907 production of the “Kissel-Kar” was underway, using Beaver engines and bodies supplied by the Zimmerman Brothers, sleigh builders from up the road in Waupun, Wisconsin. Soon, the Kissel brothers were producing a car entirely of their own manufacture, and orders from distributors came pouring in. The Kissel was known for being high on quality, value and performance – as well as for its clever features such as the “all year top” which was in essence the first removable hard top. Kissels grew more complex and luxurious, with a twelve cylinder “Double Six” eventually joining the lineup.
Following a lull in sales in the immediate postwar years, things picked up for Kissel and they transitioned into the roaring twenties with a range of sporty, high quality cars. In 1919, Kissel introduced its most famous model – the “Gold Bug” Speedster. This sporty two seat roadster featured six-cylinder engines of Kissel’s own manufacture mated to a low-slung body with cycle fenders and no running boards that gave the appearance of a racer for the road. The flamboyant and stylish Gold Bug proved to be very popular with some of the biggest names of the time – Emelia Earhart, Fatty Arbuckle, Ralph DePalma, Greta Garbo and Al Jolson were all counted among the roster of Kissel Gold Bug owners. Numerous running changes were made through production, with the powerful 6-55 engine appearing in 1923, and a Lycoming-derived eight appearing two years later. Today, just a handful of Gold Bugs survive, each a rolling homage to the glamorous and exiting Jazz Age.
Our featured Kissel 6-55 Gold Bug Speedster is a fabulous example with well-known history from new; one of just a handful of survivors from this esoteric marque. This particular Gold Bug was originally purchased by Edwin Johnson of Crystal Falls, Michigan. Mr. Johnson was one of three brothers, all of which owned Kissels, though it was Edwin who chose the sportiest model. In 1925, Edwin, along with his brother Emil, collected his new car directly from the Kissel factory in Hartford, Wisconsin. The base 6-55 cost $1,795 to which Johnson specified a number of options including four wheel hydraulic brakes, wire wheels, Clymer pistol-grip spot lights, twin spares, wind-wings, and many other items to bring the price to a not-insignificant $2,305. The available rumble seat was eschewed by Edwin Johnson in favor of the sportier dual compartment turtleback trunk. Edwin Johnson was clearly quite fond of his Gold Bug, as he kept it for the next twenty-seven years.
Edwin Johnson reportedly sold the car in 1952 to a local car dealer for $200. The following year, it was purchased by Lawrence Wescott, also of Crystal Falls. In 1954, it was passed to Carl Arthur Johnson of Wabeno, Wisconsin who owned it through 1976. From 1976-1984 the Kissel was owned by Mrs. Mary Gillou before it joined the famous Imperial Palace collection from 1984-1988. After one additional short-term owner, it was purchased by the famed automotive artist and sculptor Stanley Wanlass in 1991. Finally, in 1994, the Kissel became a prized member of the most recent owner’s collection, who would commission the comprehensive, concours- quality restoration it wears today.
Presented in a handsome color scheme of cream with forest green fenders, chassis, and leather interior, this Kissel 6-55 Gold Bug Speedster remains in very fine condition today, having been well maintained as part of a larger collection of important motorcars. It retains its myriad original accessories which include those amazing Clymer pistol-grip spot lights that mount through the windscreen, original windwings, Moto-Meter, dual sidemount spares, wire wheels, and a pair of period correct golf bags with matching wooden-shaft T. Stewart clubs mounted in their signature rear-fender holsters. The unique soft top, in quality tan canvas, folds neatly behind the seats in a low-slung position, and a pair of matching side curtains is included for all-weather touring capability.
Mechanically, this Gold Bug is in fine running order, though limited use in recent years may require some minor maintenance. The 55-horsepower Kissel six-cylinder engine is beautifully detailed in black with correct nickel hardware and fittings. The engine still wears an original-type Stromberg carburetor which is supplemented by the optional Stewart Vacuum Gasoline System to ensure a steady flow of fuel at high speed.
Since the restoration, this Gold Bug was shown extensively by its enthusiastic owner at prestigious events such as the Meadowbrook Concours, the 1997 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, as well as numerous AACA and CCCA National and Grand National events. As a testament to the quality of the restoration and its care, this Kissel has continued to win awards well after the restoration, with an Award of Distinction at the Glenmoor Gathering coming in 2010. The restoration has mellowed slightly though it remains still very attractive, and the car would certainly be welcome in regional concours or CCCA and AACA events.
This delightfully sporty and distinctive motorcar is an outstanding example from this seldom seen marque. Recognized as a CCCA Full Classic and beautifully presented in attractive colors, this Kissel 6-55 Gold Bug is a wonderful example that is prime for enjoyment on the road, on a concours field, or for runs to the country club.