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May 18, 2016

Hamilton County’s Only Car Company

Hamilton County’s Only Car Company: Fodrea-Malott and their “Beetle Flyer”

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Discussions about automobile technology for the Indianapolis 500 bring to mind how, a century ago, two young men tried to establish a company to manufacture automobiles here in the county. Although not a lot of details are known, (suggested dates for the venture range from 1899 to 1910), we have enough information to get a sense of what a start-up business had to go through at the turn of the twentieth century.

HC Auto 2The company was established in Noblesville and the most likely date is 1908-1909. It was the brainchild of two men – William L. Fodrea (born 1872) and Charles K. Malott (born 1889). Both were from families with some standing in the community. Malott’s father was a livestock buyer. Charles himself made his living as a chauffer, which at that time, since many car owners weren’t mechanically knowledgeable, meant anyone who was hired out to drive an automobile. Charles knew enough about engines that he was able to patent a new kind of sparkplug in 1920. However, knowing about machines and knowing about business are two different things. In June of 1909, a pretty chorus girl hired Charles to drive her from Noblesville to Chicago. When they arrived, she paid him with a check – which turned out to be one of many which she had forged. Although she was later arrested, it’s not known if Charles ever got his money or not.

His partner, William Fodrea, was very mechanically oriented. He received at least six patents between 1906 and 1927. His father was County Recorder and his sister was one of the most popular teachers in Noblesville. However, William probably kept to the background in the business dealings of the company. He had been arrested for murder in January of 1901 when an alleged romantic rival had been found shot in the head with a shotgun. The trial attracted a great deal of attention, particularly since the main witness against him was one of the town’s most notorious prostitutes. Her lack of credibility worked to his advantage, and, in June of 1902, the jury found him not guilty. At one point in the trial, in order to support his respectable reputation, it was mentioned that he had tinkered with engines since he had been a small child.

HC AutoThe impetus for the car company may have been Fodrea’s 1906 patent application for a new kind of vehicle transmission. The first and only vehicle for the company was christened the “Beetle Flyer”. Local stories say that the factory was set up in the carriage shed of the Malott family home at 15th and Grant Streets. The stories also say that you had to push the vehicle to start it. There is a possibility that there were as many as eight employees. These people are listed in the 1908 city directory as working for an automobile maker. Of course, this was happening before Henry Ford developed the concept of the assembly line, so the cars would have been built by hand and one at a time. A descendent of the Malotts said that while the car got good gas mileage, it was top heavy and had terrible vibration problems.

What may have caused the company to fold was a mishap by Charles Malott. The practice at the time was to purchase parts for the vehicles from other manufacturers and bring them to Noblesville to be put together. In early December of 1909, Malott was driving an automobile loaded with tires and supplies on Kentucky Avenue in Indianapolis when suddenly, the car caught on fire. While Charles was uninjured, the vehicle was destroyed and most of the supplies were burnt. Most sources agree that the company disappeared soon after this.

William Fodrea later moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, and continued to work on mechanical devices. Charles Malott eventually moved to California. While their automobile enterprise was unsuccessful, they showed spirit and drive in putting it together. They also showed a willingness to try new technologies. Today, Hamilton County is again encouraging the growth of alternative technology. Perhaps in the future, the county will become the home of some new and successful version of the “Beetle Flyer”.