Charles Howard perched in the driver’s seat of a 1906 Buick in San Francisco
Upon his discharge from the Army in 1903, Charles Howard boards a train for San Francisco, arriving there with 21 cents in his pocket, or so he famously claimed. He becomes a self-made millionaire but first he had to un-make himself. Although his father was wealthy, he was by all accounts, as described by Charles Howard’s great grandson, “a real scoundrel,” a philanderer and shady businessman. Howard decided to cut all ties to his father. On borrowed cash, he opened a bicycle shop.
By 1905, Howard is convinced that the next big trend would be automobiles, so he traveled to Detroit and pitches a plan to open a dealership for Buicks, which has been introduced just two years prior. He returned to San Francisco with an exclusive distributorship for eight Western States. In 1906, GM built over two thousand Buicks, so Howard had products to sell on the West Coast. Then came the Great Earthquake that destroyed his dealership building, but he managed to save three Buicks and made a small fortune by renting them to move supplies and the wounded. Everyone took notice – they were the only automobiles in town. Howard was a born salesman and a master of merchandising. A year after the Earthquake, he personally drove a new two-cylinder Buick from San Francisco to Oakland via San Jose. Newspapers grabbed the story. People lined the roads to watch. The trip took five hours.
The first Buick sold in California, a top of the line 1905 model
In 1910, a trainload of 134 Buicks was shipped to San Francisco, and Howard made sure to publicize the event – it became an instant tourist attraction. Two years later, he displayed a rail load of 254 sparkling new cars, and then topped that with his greatest show: seventy-five rail cars carrying 375 new Buicks, which was the largest first-class freight shipment in history up to that time. The trains were routed through small towns in an all-daylight procession. In a pure marketing stunt, Howard led a caravan of Buicks into Yosemite Valley where motor vehicles were prohibited. He was nearly arrested. Again, the headlines blared. All of this ballyhoo worked. Within a few years, one out of ten Buicks built was sold through Charles Howard’s distributorship. By 1912, California ranked second after New York in new car registrations.The showroom on Gate Avenue couldn’t hold Howard’s ambition. He moved the operation to a new four-story building on Van Ness at California Avenue. It had a 22- foot ceiling and included opera house-style semicircular staircases and 40,000 square feet of floor space.
When the head of General Motors fell into financial trouble by overextending the company through acquisitions, it was Charles Howard who loaned him $3 million, in the process obtaining GM stock which would quickly lead to financial fortune. During the 1920s Howard was dubbed “the world’s largest motorcar dealer.” The entrepreneur lived the California Dream writ large. Newspapers declared that “he belonged to every golf club in the state of California.” His 163-foot yacht was berthed at the St. Francis Yacht Club. Howard could also retreat from city life on his 16,000-acre cattle ranch.
At the beginning of his career, Charles Howard famously quipped, “I wouldn’t give $50 for the fastest horse alive.” He spent his later years racing some of the most acclaimed horses of the era. In 1950, his steed, Noor, defeated Kentucky Derby winner Citation three times, setting new records on each occasion. But Charles Howard is best remembered for his amazing thoroughbred Seabiscuit, who became better known and celebrated than the owner himself.
Seabiscuit had lineage as a grandson of the great Man-O-War, but the horse didn’t look like a winner. He was small. One expert called him “rough looking, pretty knobby.” He ate too much and slept too long. He ran like he looked, winning only 9 of his first 46 races. In 1936 Howard spent $7500 to buy Seabiscuit, primarily for breeding purposes, not necessarily to compete. However, Howard’s seasoned horse trainer, Tom Smith, saw competitive potential and began a regimen that would transform the underachiever into a national and international inspiration. Seabiscuit’s incredible popular appeal came at time when horse racing competed only with baseball as front page sports news. The National Football League had just been formed. There was no National Basketball Association. Television broadcasting is a decade away. It was also the depths of the Great Depression. People craved entertainment escapes and unlikely heroes, even if they were four legged. Under Howard and his trainer, Seabiscuit began to win and win convincingly. His jockey, Red Pollard, had similarities to the horse. Red was a former boxer who had knocked around racing for years with an undistinguished record. In 1937, Seabiscuit won 11 of 15 races and was the year’s leading money winner in the United States. War Admiral, having won the Triple Crown that season, was voted the most prestigious honor – the American Horse of the Year Award.
On November 1, 1938, Seabiscuit met War Admiral in what was dubbed the “Match of the Century.” Trains were run from all over the country to bring fans to the race, and the estimated 40,000 at the track were joined by some 40 million listening on the radio – almost one-third of the U.S. population. War Admiral was the favorite (1–4 with most bookmakers) and a nearly unanimous selection of the writers and tipsters. Seabiscuit won by four lengths even though War Admiral had his best time on that track. The little horse than can was named American Horse of the Year for 1938. When the celebrity retired two years two years, Howard owned horse racing’s all-time leading money winner. Put out to stud, he was, siring 108 foals.
A man and his horse
Terry Hamburg, Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation