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Another Good Story Ruined: Gen. Otis' Armored Car [2nd Update]

August 29, 2010 | 10:21 am


Behold the war machine of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis! A 1910 Franklin Model H landaulet!

May 21, 1910, Franklin Virtually no one who writes about The Times and Gen. Harrison Gray Otis can resist referring to a cannon mounted on his car. Otis is “the man you love to hate” of Los Angeles history, and what could be more delicious than the armor-plated Otis-mobile with its fearsome artillery piece.

Sorry. It was an auto horn. Honk!

At right, a May 21, 1910, article in The Times describes the custom Franklin. Curiously enough, although Otis wasn’t a shy man, The Times was coy about who owned the new vehicle.  

It’s a bit difficult to tell from the photo, but the front of the car (which was air-cooled and had no radiator) resembled a large cannon – at least according to The Times. The bronze car horn was meant to emphasize this military appearance. Here’s a modern photo of a Franklin, which shows the rounded hood and front grille. And yes, it looks a bit like a cannon.

Let’s roll backward through a few examples and see who got it wrong. Ready? 

"Otis began tooling around town in an armored car with machine guns mounted on the hood," "Before the Storm," Rick Perlstein, 2009. [Ooh! Machine guns! I like this one!]

“... Harrison Gray Otis "patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood,"  “Dominion From Sea to Sea” by Bruce Cummings, 2009.

[Update] "He mounted a cannon on the hood of his limousine and made sure his chauffeur was prepared to repel, at his command, any enemy attacks," "American Lightning," Howard Blum, 2008.

“ emphasize his truculence, he later had a small, functional cannon installed on the hood of his Packard touring car,”  "American Urban Politics in a Global Age," by Paul Kantor and Dennis R. Judd, 2008. [A Packard? Oops!]

Gen. Harrison Gray Otis "continued to live in a perpetual state of combat readiness, dressing for work in uniform and mounting a small cannon on the hood of his car," "High Steel," by Jim Rasenberger, 2004.

[Updated Aug. 29, 2010: "a small, functional cannon was installed on the hood of Otis' touring car to intimidate onlookers," "City of Quartz," Mike Davis, 1992.]

"While Harrison Gray Otis patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood..." "Water and Power," William L. Kahrl, 1983.

"Otis took to riding around Los Angeles in a huge touring car with a cannon mounted on it," "The Powers That Be," David Halberstam, 1979. [Not the late David Halberstam! Nooooo!].

[Updated  Aug. 27, 2010: "Otis toured the city with a small cannon mounted on his car," "Thinking Big," Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolf, 1977.]

"While Harrison Gray Otis patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood…," California Historical Quarterly, 1976.

Let’s skip a bit. I think we’re getting close to the roots here.

The story of the cannon appears in Morrow Mayo’s 1933 book “Los Angeles,” “Otis had a small cannon mounted on his automobile and went dashing about like a general at the front.”

And we find it in Louis Adamic’s 1931 book, “Dynamite,” “… while fighting the unions, he mounted a small cannon on the hood of his automobile!” 

If anyone finds an earlier example, please send it along.

Note: The mystery isn’t over. The “prominent citizen” who bought the car had this inscribed on it: 1G. 1B. 1R. Cal. SSA. GV WYB. Any guesses?