The innovative American Motors Company of Indianapolis, IN, is best remembered for their famous “Underslung” models. These striking designs placed the frame rails below the axles, giving a significantly reduced center of gravity along with a sporting profile. Significantly oversized wheels remedied the problem of ground clearance. This design innovation resulted in a chassis with remarkably sure handling while still retaining the necessary clearances to handle the poor road conditions of the day. The effect of the underslung chassis, with its big wheels, was dramatic and memorable and helped make the Underslung a style and performance icon of the pre-war era. These charismatic machines have been prized since the day they were built, and the owners were a list of automotive luminaries. Captain Larz Anderson bought one new, and another became one of Briggs Cunningham’s first and most prized antique automobiles. The car is one of the ultimate machines of its day and highly sought after for both its looks and advanced technical specifications, and the chance to purchase a great Underslung is an exceptionally rare thing indeed.  

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1914 American Underslung Model 644 Touring
Number Produced:45,000 total production
Original List Price:$4,500
Tune Up Cost:$1,000
Chassis Number Location:N/A
Engine Number Location:Stamped on crankcase
Club Info:Horseless Carriage Club
Alternatives:1912 Packard Model 30, 1906 White Model F, 1915 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

This car, Lot 105, sold for $748,000, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Quail Lodge Auction on August 16, 2013, in Carmel, CA.

In the early 1900s, Indianapolis was home to more than three dozen automobile manufacturers. Some, like Lindsay, which was in business only in 1902 and 1903, were brief footnotes in history. Others, such as Marmon, Duesenberg and Stutz, helped shape the future of the automotive industry.

The American Motors Company, which was in business between 1906 and 1914, produced more than 45,000 vehicles and was the third-most-prolific of the Indianapolis automobile manufacturers.

The story of the American Motors Company and the famed American Underslung is really the tale of two designs. Two lumber barons founded the company in 1905. They hired Harry C. Stutz to design their cars, which were first shown at the 1906 New York Auto Show. Harry Stutz is often credited with the underslung design but, in fact, that distinction goes to Chief Engineer Fred Tone.

In 1906, Tone was intrigued when a shipment of frames was delivered to American Motors upside-down. This provided the inspiration for an idea to mount the frames under the axles, and the “underslung” was conceived. From that point on, all American roadsters were underslung, but their touring cars and sedans were constructed with the conventional chassis design.

Riding high

The American Underslung was promoted as “The Safest Car on Earth” because of its low center of gravity — which did improve handling. However, the engine was mounted so high that the car was as prone to rolling over as any conventional design. To provide ground clearance for the questionable roads of the era, the car rode on huge 40-inch tires, and the fenders were even with the top of the radiator.

In 1910, the American Motors Company adopted the slogan: “A Car For The Discriminating Few.” This proved prophetic, as there were few buyers indeed. By 1912, with new management, all models rode on the underslung chassis and the “American Underslung” was the official car name. New models were announced for 1914 with the slogan “America’s Most Luxurious Car,” but the limited cash flow and heavy debt strained their finances, and by November 1913 the company was in receivership.

Famous collector Bill Harrah bought our subject car during the 1950s from the original owner, and it was restored in his shops during 1964–65. The original tufted red leather upholstery, which was in magnificent condition, was retained and has been preserved to this day.

Not a bargain, but worth the cost

After Harrah died, the car was sold at public auction. George Dragone bought the car in 2005. It received a first-place award at the 2006 AACA Fall Meet, and a Rhode Island dealer recently advertised the car for sale for $785,000.

The Harrah American Underslung sold here now wears an older — but very presentable — restoration. The car obviously sold for less than the earlier asking price, but that does not necessarily make it a bargain. DR134479 is unique, historically significant and extremely rare. However, if showing the car is in the future, it is in need of serious freshening. As such, it was acquired at the high end of the market, but that will soon be forgotten after the adulation it receives at its first outing with the new owner. ?

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)



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