In the early years of the twentieth century, the Sears & Roebuck catalog was as much of a fixture in the American household as the Bible. Whether you lived in the heart of a city or on a farm in the rural Midwest, Sears & Roebuck could deliver virtually any product imaginable to your door. Clothing, rifles, livestock, sundries, and even houses counted among the millions of products Sears offered through the years. In 1908, the same year that Ford debuted their revolutionary Model T, Sears & Roebuck added automobiles to its ever-growing list of products. Sears was more than just a retailer; they designed and manufactured many of the products they sold. The Sears Motor Buggy was a natural extension of their manufacturing experience, being designed and (eventually) built entirely in-house by Sears in Chicago. The company brought in Alvaro S. Krotz to create the car, who had previous experience with an electric runabout sold under his name. Like the products that defined the brand, the Sears Motor Buggy was a simple and robust machine. Early examples used a two-cylinder gasoline engine of ten horsepower, with a friction transmission, chain drive, and tiller steering. Later models grew to 14 horsepower, and a range of body configurations became available.
The initial batch of Sears buggies was built in the Hercules factory in Evansville, Indiana. However, by late 1909, production shifted to Sears' factory in Chicago, and the range gradually expanded into several models, all based around the same basic design by Krotz (despite his hasty departure from the company). From a technical standpoint, all models were essentially the same, with the main differences being equipment and wheels. The Model G was the most basic, while the Models H and J added such niceties as mudguards and a top. The $475 Model K features all the J had to offer and added large diameter cushion tires. Stepping up to the Model L got you pneumatic tires, and so forth. Between 1908 and 1912, Sears sold approximately 3,500 cars through their catalog. Customers raved about their simplicity and efficiency, but company accountants were considerably less thrilled. Sears was losing money on every vehicle they sold, and the arrival of Henry Ford's Model T was enough for them to see the writing on the wall. Sears left the car business in 1912 – but not for good, as in 1952 Sears would team up with Kaiser Motors to market (unsuccessfully) the slow-selling Henry J under the "Allstate" via the famous Sears catalog.
Featured here is an early Sears Model K 14hp Motor Buggy. This lovely example was likely produced in late 1909 for the 1910 model year, as it features the 14hp engine, and is badged and numbered as a Model K. The earliest history is not known, although documents show that in the early 1970s, it belonged to John J. Zimmer of Lockport, Illinois. An original copy of an Illinois title shows that Mr. Zimmer purchased the car in 1973. By 1978, Zimmer sold the Sears, reportedly at Hershey, to a Belgian collector and enthusiast. Following its export, it remarkably remained in the same private collection until early 2019. Fresh out of long-term ownership, it presents in lovely condition with a recently freshened older restoration.
Presented in factory-correct specification, this Model K retains its proper equipment and fittings including large diameter cushion tires, original-type mudguards, patent-leather toe-board, and folding buggy top. The body is in fine order, with good quality woodwork and black paint. The chassis and wheels are painted dark blue and accented with red pinstripes for a dash of added color. Fittings are appropriately basic, with twin oil lamps up front, and a brass tail light produced by C.T. Ham Mfg. of Rochester, New York. The only badging is a small Sears nameplate affixed to the trunk. The button-tufted leather bench presents in excellent condition, with a light patina to the surface of the leather. Controls include two foot-pedals, a hand brake and the tiller which incorporates the throttle and spark levers.
The construction of the Model K is typical for the period, with the carriage-style wooden body sitting atop the frame, with suspension by cart springs, and the engine mounted amidships beneath the seat. After many years in a private collection, this little Sears remains in excellent running order. The two-cylinder engine comes to life readily, running smoothly and sending power through a friction drive to the rear axle via a pair of chains. Mechanically, it is a simple and robust machine, designed to be serviced in the field with ease. The engine and undercarriage are in clean, orderly condition, with a light patina that is appropriate for the age and quality of the restoration.
This Sears Model K is a lovely example of an early high-wheel motor buggy, wonderfully suited for use with groups like the Horseless Carriage Club, Antique Automobile Club or Veteran Car Club. Exclusivity is assured, as only a fraction of the original 3,500 examples survive. It is a fascinating piece of American history, a rare and charming machine from a bustling period for the American motoring industry when everyone from barnyard engineers to the nation's most successful retailer tried their hand at the automobile business.