William E. Metzger was one of the automotive industry pioneers responsible for its early growth – especially in Detroit – but today, except for automotive historians, he remains one of the least known. A salesman and promoter of rare talent, Metzger opened the nation’s first independent car dealership in Detroit in 1897, and also organized America’s first Auto Show, also in Detroit, in 1899 – at a time when there were very few cars in existence.
Born in Illinois in 1868, he moved to Detroit at the age of ten with his father. He graduated from Detroit High School in 1885 and immediately got a job at the Hudson & Symington furniture store, owned by future department store magnate Joseph L. Hudson. As a young man, Metzger became enamored of bicycle riding, becoming the first president of the Detroit Wheelman’s Club and finishing a number of 100-mile bicycle rides. Soon his hobby became his business: in 1891, Metzger joined Stanley B. Huber to open Huber & Metzger, a bicycle shop located in the center of downtown Detroit. The store soon became one of the largest in the country, and dealt directly with suppliers in England.
In 1895, Metzger attended the world’s first automobile show in London. Impressed with what he saw, he returned to Detroit convinced of the automobile’s future, and immediately sold his share in his bicycle business. Metzger built America’s first automobile dealership, which opened in 1897, selling Waverly Electric cars. The following year, Metzger added steamers, then gasoline-powered cars built by various companies. In 1899, Metzger met Ransom E. Olds and negotiated a deal to start selling Oldsmobiles. In fact, Metzger sold the very first Oldsmobile, and was a factor in the Olds Motor Works becoming the first automaker to build cars in large volumes.
In 1899, Metzger helped organize the Detroit Auto Show and the next year, helped organize the New York Auto Show at Madison Square Garden. He also promoted racing, putting up the $200 prize won by Barney Oldfield driving the famed Ford 999 — a win that had a substantial impact on Henry Ford’s fortunes. In 1900, he organized the Northern Motor Car Co. Two years later, Metzger, along with Henry Leland, organized the Cadillac Motor Car Co. Metzger stayed at Cadillac as sales manager until 1908, but was looking for new challenges. In that year, Metzger acquired controlling interest in the Northern Motor Car Co., and Northern merged with the Wayne Automobile Company, controlled by Byron Everitt and Walter Flanders to form the E-M-F Company, the letters E-M-F standing for Everitt, Metzger and Flanders. It was a great match, initially, as Flanders, who had broken away from Henry Ford, was one of the most capable engineers in the industry, and Metzger was one of its greatest salesmen.
The company arranged for Studebaker to market their cars through their vast carriage dealer network. Metzger soon became disenchanted with the partnership with Studebaker and left the company, taking Byron Everitt with him. With the settlement money, Metzger and Everitt began the Metzger Motor Car Company, producing a car called the Everitt. In 1912, Walter Flanders rejoined his former partners, recapitalized the firm, and renamed it the Flanders Motor Company.
Ironically, Flanders was taken over by Studebaker. In 1921, Everitt, Metzger, and Flanders reunited once again to produce the short-lived Rickenbacker automobile. Metzger left the auto industry for the aircraft industry but was unable to make a similar impact. A heart attack claimed his life on April 11, 1933.