Retrospect: The story of Keller Motors Corp.

Huntsville automaker's dreams were dashed early

Keller Motors cars are sought after by collectors. (Photo courtesy Alabama Department of Archives & History)

“COMES THE REVOLUTION” read the title atop the full-page advertisement. In the fall of 1947, carmaker George D. Keller detailed his vision of a new, smaller, economically priced American automobile in bold fashion in newspapers across the country. Flush with the promise of deep-pocketed investors and confident of postwar consumer enthusiasm, the president of the Keller Motors Corp. proclaimed the company would produce an astonishing 72,000 cars the following year — all in Huntsville. 

The story of Alabama’s postwar automotive dreams began in San Diego, where engineers at a soon-to-be-shuttered military aircraft factory designed a compact car from existing parts. Made of fiberglass with a convertible top, it boasted a two-cylinder Briggs and Stratton engine and weighed less than 600 pounds. The axles were attached by steel arms encased in rubber, which acted as a novel shock absorber and created a smoother ride. Investor S. A. Williams funded the prototype, which he named the Bobbi-Kar, after his young son. 

Assembled cheaply and quickly with off-the-shelf parts, the Bobbi-Kar’s potential in the car-starved post-World War II consumer market seemed limitless. Returning GIs wanted new cars and there were few to be had. In 1945, only 700 automobiles were manufactured in America. Deposits rolled in from clients eager to purchase the first round of Bobbi-Kars. Williams moved swiftly. He leased a factory, borrowed money and sold franchise rights to 800 prospective car dealers throughout the country. 

At the helm of the budding enterprise was a legitimate automobile executive named George D. Keller. A Colorado native, “Big George” had spent nearly 30 years working for Studebaker. He knew the industry well and saw the potential for smaller vehicles like the Bobbi-Kar. And while much about the Bobbi-Kar may have had a certain plucky, fly-by-night hue, Keller’s participation was an assuring sign to industry insiders and investors. 

Financier Williams engendered no such confidence. When the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) learned of his scheme to sell millions of dollars in unregistered Bobbi-Kar stock, they forbade him from transacting further business in California. Undeterred, Williams relocated Bobbi-Kar to a vacant plant in Birmingham. But his past deeds followed him to the Yellowhammer State; soon Keller and the company’s other financial backers orchestrated a buy-out and bid Williams adieu.   

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The company’s new Alabama owner was Hubert P. Mitchell of Hartselle, a businessman who had operated a roadside café, movie theater, furniture factory and a theatrical prop production company. He purchased Bobbi-Kar for $30,000, canceled most of the existing contracts and set out to find serious investors. Given the reputation of Bobbi-Kar and its former owner, a name change was also in order. Mitchell settled on the Keller Motors Corp., a nod to “Big George,” the company’s illustrious president.

Keller Motors relocated to larger quarters in Huntsville in late 1947, signing a 15-year lease for two buildings at Redstone Arsenal. Company executives estimated a workforce of 6,000 persons and an annual payroll of $30 million. They rolled out a rebranded and slightly larger Bobbi-Kar called the Chief. A second model, the Super Chief, was powered by a four-cylinder, 49-horsepower engine. Both vehicles were priced at less than $1,000 (about $12,000 today). Designed for a top speed of 70 miles per hour, the lightweight Keller cars were predicted to attain 35 miles per gallon of gasoline. They offered convertible and wood-paneled station wagon models. The “woodies” were put into production first, since they required less sheet metal, which was still in short supply. Hubert Mitchell’s furniture business sourced the mountain ash for the wooden side panels from Alabama suppliers. 

Industry observers predicted Keller would find “a rich and ready market” for the vehicles. In October 1948, Keller executives held a public showing of their prototypes at a New York hotel to great acclaim. “Every country in the world is here begging for sales rights,” Mitchell boasted to reporters. Within a few months, the Keller cars were featured in Life Magazine and Popular Science and hailed as an example of the booming and rapidly diversifying automotive industry.

In the spring of 1949, Keller Motors obtained financial backing from an important New York underwriter and thereafter sought the SEC’s permission to float a $5 million common stock issue. The regulatory agency’s review, however, was cautious and slow; many emerging car companies were beset with difficulties. Still, George Keller and his executives were undeterred. While awaiting the SEC’s approval, the company spent $1.25 million in design, legal fees and product promotions. Nearly 1,700 dealers signed contracts to sell the Alabama-made autos. Keller and Mitchell crisscrossed the country laying the groundwork necessary to have a successful and sustainable company. When word came in early October that the SEC had approved the stock offering, Keller and other executives gathered in New York to toast their pending success.     

But it was not to be. On October 5, 1949, not long after the initial stock sale began, George Keller suffered a fatal heart attack. The sale, and Huntsville’s automotive dreams, were put on hold. Keller’s death changed everything for the Alabama company. Without its industry insider, Keller Motors seemed too risky an investment. By 1950, the company was in receivership. Efforts to resurrect it failed. In the end, workers manufactured fewer than 20 Super Chief wagons.     

An altogether different kind of newspaper advertisement marked the end of the Keller Motors Corp. in the fall of 1950: a full-page announcement in the Huntsville Times from a local auction company announced the liquidation sale of the sprawling complex’s remaining office equipment. In 1947, the automobile company boldly touted a revolution that would transform Alabama into a “southern Detroit.” Less than three years later, it faded away with a mournful whimper. In 1988, four decades after the company’s demise, an aging Hubert Mitchell placed his own Super Chief up for sale. Only three vehicles produced by the Keller Motors Corp. are known to still exist. Fittingly, all of them are located in Alabama.

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business
Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This story originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.

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