Albert Champion: The Boston Years
By Rich Street
This piece is incomplete and awaiting further information. Last update: 01-18-06
Albert Joseph Champion, was born April 5th, 1878 in France. He started his working life at twelve as an errand boy in the Clement Bicycle plant in Paris. He became an excellent bicyclist and his quickness was noted by his employers who encouraged him to try his luck at bike racing. Young Albert did quite well and racing became a passion, eventually he won the middle distance bicycle championship of France in 1894.
In 1899 Charles Metz hired the international cycling “super-star,” Albert Champion, to help promote the Waltham Manufacturing Company’s Orient bicycle brand. Metz had produced the first motorized bicycles in America in 1898. These motorized cycles, the first American motor cycle, were a motor mounted on a tandem bicycle and operated by two men, one to steer and one to tend the engine, and used to pace bicycle riders. The first pacer was further expanded to a 3-seater with two engines and Champion was placed in charge of testing and maintaining both types of motorized pacers at the Waltham bicycle track.
Champion first shows up in American census records in June, 1900, as a lodger in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts and employed as a “Professional Bicyclist.” According to the census document he had arrived in the United States in 1899 and just been here a year and was still single.
This is the same year the New England Electric Vehicle Transportation Company leased space in the Cyclorama building. The Cyclorama building, which had originally opened to the public on December 22, 1884, with a painting depicting "The Battle of Gettysburg," on a 50 by 400 foot canvas, had declined over the years. It was now to become a garage to manufacture automobiles, but according to the Boston Center for the Arts, its present tenant, fraudulent loans and low productivity forced the electric vehicle company to vacate the premises by 1901. Setting the stage for things to come.
On July 31, 1900, Metz showcased his motorized invention at the Charles River Race Park in Boston. This public debut of a motor-driven Orient became the first officially recorded motorcycle speed contest in the United States. Albert Champion rode 5 miles in a little more than 7 minutes.
Metz left the Waltham Manufacturing Company in 1902 and started his own company in Waltham where he starting producing the Metz motorcycle. I have no data to support or deny the supposition that Champion followed Metz to his new business.
One popular story among spark plug aficionados is that while both men were still working for Waltham Manufacturing, Metz convinced Albert Champion to file his first spark plug patent. This patent is supposed to be the basis of the present day AC and Champion Spark Plug Companies. I have reviewed literally thousands of patents and so far, cannot disprove this story true, nor can I confirm it. If the patent is out there it has yet to be cited. A 1948 document from Champion Spark Plug Company says that patent 998,304 issued July 18, 1911 was believed to be the first to be issued to that company. Patents issued in 1910 to Albert Schmidt who assigned them to the Champion Ignition Company were the first found for the A-C company.
Albert Champion had now gained fame in both bicycles and the new motorized bicycle called a motorcycle, but there was a new wheeled vehicle being raced, the automobile. Late in 1903 the Packard automobile racing team took their new “Gray Wolf” car to Brooklyn for the last races of the season. Without the regular driver, they made the decision to entrust the Gray Wolf to the professional bicycle and motorcycle racer named Albert Champion.
In the series of races Champion’s famous ego grew as he took a third in his first race, then a second in the second race. On the second lap of his last race it all ended when he lost control and crashed through the fence. Champion, a “bloody mess” was taken to Kings County Hospital with compound fractures of the thigh that all but ended his professional bicycle racing career. Upon hearing of the accident, the car’s designer, Charles Schmidt, was supposedly furious at Champion for wrecking his engineering masterpiece.
Albert went home to France for nearly a year. he was supposed to be recovering, but they could not keep him away from the bike tracks in France, Prussia, and Germany. According to cycling historian, Peter Nye, in 1904, with his wounds still infected, he won the French national motorpacing title against the top names of the day in Paris, at the Parc des Princes outdoor velodrome.
On March 5, 1905 he arrived at Ellis Island, New York from France.
On June 20, 1905 we find Albert starting in business at the Cyclorama building in Boston with Frank D. and Spencer Stranahan. Frank Stranahan was issued the first stock certificate in the new Albert Champion Company for 51 shares, the majority interest, but Albert Champion signs the certificate as president.
The Cyclorama building, being quite large, housed not only the new Albert Champion Company, but also the Buick Motor Car agency, and the Tremont Garage. Frank Stranahan was president and treasurer of the Tremont Garage in 1905. Additional Stranahan and other business ventures were housed in the building over the next few years.
On November 16, 1905 in an advertisement seen in The Automobile, the Albert Champion Company lists itself as importers. Their product list includes: “Nieuport Patented Spark Coil, Ignition Wire, Guaranteed Oil Proof Magneto, Low and High Tension Spark Plug, and Everything for electrical ignition. Sole U.S. AGENT.”
Late in 1905 Albert made a trip back to France. He arrived back in America on the 2nd of January, 1906, at the age of 27, a married man.
The 1906 Boston City Directory lists Albert Champion’s line of work as "automobiles" at the 541 Tremont address. On June 20, 1906 Frank Stranahan receives certificate #5 for 15 shares. Why this share transfer is made is unknown. Late in 1906 Champion makes another of his annual winter trips back to France. He arrives back stateside December 29, 1906. Interestingly, on these early trips he lists his permanent residence as Paris.
Nearly three months later, in March, 1907, Marie Champion returns from a trip to France.
In February of 1907 an advertisement for the Albert Champion Company featured the Nuiport spark plug and the "Champion High Tension Spark Plug Terminal." In November the ad had the same illustration, but with the Champion name on the spark plug.
In a May 1907 issue of the Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal published by Trade Advertising & Publishing Co, Philadelphia we see a one 1/2 page advertisement comprising of a 'letter' telling Mr Champion how happy the customer is with his Gianoli High Tension magneto. The address is Albert Champion Co, Manufacturers and Importers, 525-545 Tremont St, Boston Mass. At some point the Albert Champion began manufacturing there own version of this coil that looks very similar or repackaging it under their own name.
Frank and Spencer Stanahan are doing well enough to send a younger brother off to Harvard. Young Robert Stranahan, prior to obtaining his degree, left Harvard in February 1907 with a leave of absence of a year and a half. This gave him an eighteen month head start in business on his class mates from Harvard. According to him he “wasted” the first six months of his leave trying various lines, including real estate, before settling in with a job with his brothers at the Albert Champion Company in Boston in about August of 1907.
I don’t know if the relationship between Albert Champion and the Stranahan brothers started decaying in 1905, causing the stock transfer, if things fell apart later after the arrival of Robert the result was that we see Albert start looking back to bicycling for a way out. By late in 1907 Albert is frequently found track side at the bicycle races and is quick to offer his opinions of the racers to the press. He is often quoted in the press.
In February 1908 Albert rode an exhibition bicycle race at the Park Square track in Boston. The Boston Daily Globe article on the race states, “Champion, who was one of the greatest riders of his day, is in training for competition. Like all the others, he cannot keep away from the track, although he has a prosperous business. The follow month, in March, there is considerable hype around his bid to return to bicycle racing. The article explains that he had been a successful rider for 12 years and was returning to racing after a four year lay off. Later in March another article state that the upcoming race will decide if Champion continues to try to re-enter bicycle racing.
In 1908 the Albert Champion Company moved and was listed in city directory at 36 Whittier Street in Roxbury. Albert Champion was listed as manager, Frank Stranahan was listed as treasurer, and Robert Stranahan was clerk at the Whittier address. Spencer is no longer listed in directory.
Rumor has it that Albert left the Albert Champion Company as early as late 1907, but in the spring of 1908 both Albert Champion and Albert Schmidt left Boston, and moved to Flint, Michigan. In a calculated move, they were up and producing spark plugs just prior to the incorporation of the Buick Motor Company on September 16, 1908. Schmidt and Champion set up shop in a third-floor room of the Buick factory.
It is interesting to note that the Buick agency ceases operation at the Stranahan’s Tremont Garage location in the Cyclorama building prior to Albert Champion’s arrival in Flint.
From 1909-1910, there was a listing for Albert Champion Company, automobile supplies, at the Whittier street address.
For more information on what happens next proceed to the AC or Stranahan stories.