Charles H. Metz: Transporting Waltham to National and International Fame
By Isabella Perruzzi, Grade 4 Grade FitzGerald Elementary School
Do you know what Nipper Maher Park; the “saw-toothed” building on Seyon Street and the Gore Estate in Waltham Massachusetts and the Ford Museum in Dearborn Michigan have in common? Charles H. Metz.
Charles Herman Metz was an inventor and a genius. He was born in Utica NY on October 17, 1863. When Charles Metz reached the sixth grade he quit school to work with this father who was a carpenter. This is when he got interested in making bikes and racing.
In 1885 Charles Metz won the High Wheel Bicycle Championship in New York State.
A high wheel bicycle had a very large front wheel and when a rider had to stop quickly sometimes they would fly over the handlebars. This was where the saying “taking a header” started. Today we ride bicycles that have the same size wheels. These were called safety bicycles and became very popular for transportation and racing.
Charles Metz wanted to build a better and safer racing bicycle so he moved to Massachusetts to design bikes for the Union Cycle Club in Newton Highlands. In 1893 he started his own bicycle company with three partners and $100,000. The company was called the Waltham Manufacturing Company (WMC) and was incorporated in Maine but located in Crescent Park on Rumford Avenue in Waltham.
Mr. Metz called his bicycles “Orient” racing bicycles after the Orient Fire Insurance Company where he sold insurance in NY. The Orient race bicycle was designed like the European race bicycle. But Metz improved the design because of his ideas for lighter wheels and gears. The lighter wheels were made with wooden rims instead of metal. The lighter gears were made of nickel alloy. Nickel was too hard for most people to cut but Charles Metz knew that the tool companies in Waltham were the best in the world and they were able to cut the metal for his designs. The Orient race bike weighed about 20 pounds and was very popular with professional racers in America and in Europe. Other race bikes weighed over 40 pounds.
Waltham Bicycle Park opened on May 30, 1894. Bicycle racing was a very popular national sport and Waltham Bicycle Park was the fastest dirt racetrack in the country. Many bike race records were set on Orient bicycles at Waltham Bicycle Park. This helped the Orient bicycle become popular and the company sold a lot of bikes. When two people were killed in a race at the Waltham Bicycle Park the park became a sports field. Today the field is called Nipper Maher Park and if you look in just the right spot, you can see some of the racetrack.
Mr. Metz held over 20 patents. His most famous design for safety was the “Left Thread” Pedal. This was popular because before his design both pedals were right thread and sometimes the left pedal would fall off while you were riding. His most famous bicycle design was a ten-rider race bicycle called the Ori-ten that he built in 1896.
Charles Metz designed and made bicycles for more than one rider because many riders on one bike could go faster and they were used to “pace” the one-man bicycle to help them race faster. The Ori-ten was built as a publicity stunt. Only one was made. After its race days were over, the Ori-ten was ridden by “The Bloomer Girls” in shows all over the US and Europe. The Ori-ten is now on display in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Motorized bicycles were used to pace racers in Europe. But the motor bicycles used a dangerous drip oil engine made by DeDion-Button in France. Mr. Metz improved on an Aster engine from France and attached it to his Orient bicycle to make a safer motor bicycle. The safer pacer motor bicycle became so popular that in 1898, the Orient-Aster, made by Waltham Manufacturing Company, was the first US mass production motorcycle sold to the public. Soon people were riding Orient motorcycles in major cities around the country. You could go from Waltham to New York in 17 hours for the cost of 15 cents. WMC produced motorcycles and quadricycles that sold for around $250 from 1898 to 1901.
In 1898, Charles Metz made one of the first electric cars. Charles Coffin from General Electric Company in Lynn, MA sponsored the car. They showed the car at the 1898 Madison Square Automobile Show. He did not make any more because he thought that gasoline would be more popular.
In late 1901, Charles Metz produced the Orient Model 1902 gasoline car. About 50 cars were sold at a price of $875.00 each.
In 1902, Charles Metz left Waltham Manufacturing Company and started his own company on Whitney Avenue to build more motorcycles. His Metz motorcycle was so good that it set the American one-mile record at 1 minute and 10 seconds. In 1906 Metz’s company and the Marsh Company of Brockton merged. Together they built the Marsh-Metz motorcycle that was one of the best machines on the market.
In 1908, the Waltham Manufacturing Company ran out of money and in trouble. The owners wanted Charles Metz to come back. Mr. Metz came back as the new owner. Mr. Metz designed the “Plan Car” to raise money fast. His idea was to sell the 2-cylinder Plan Car as 14 kits that mechanical people would buy and put together themselves. Each kit sold for $25 each. The Plan Car was popular around the country. But not everybody was a good mechanic so there were some problems. Mr. Metz stopped selling the Plan Car when all the old debts were paid. Then he changed the name of the company to the Metz Company.
By 1911 Metz cars were popular again and the company needed more space. In early 1911, Charles Metz bought the Gore Estate. The Metz Company used the first floor of the mansion to show the new cars.
Charles Metz was also interested in airplanes. He built the Waltham Aerodrome on the grounds of the estate. In June 1911, he held the first airplane meet in New England. The meet lasted for three days and was the most successful in the United States as of that time. On June 17, Bunker Hill Day, there were 30,000 paid admissions to the air show. Charles Metz also made 6-cylinder airplanes. His airplanes were not a success.
Charles Metz decided that he should enter three 1912 Metz Car in the 1911 Glidden Tour to give them a good road test. The Glidden Tour was a famous automobile race that was held every year from 1905 to 1913. The race started and ended in a different state each year. The roads were really bad and some parts of the route were very dangerous. All three Metz cars finished the 1,500-mile race with perfect scores but did not have enough points to win the trophy. The company made 3,000 1912 Metz cars.
In 1913, another team of three Metz cars entered the 1,300-mile Glidden Tour. This time they came in 1st, 2nd and 3rd and had enough points to win the Glidden Trophy. When the Metz team returned to Waltham, Mayor John L Harvey had a big parade and gave Mr. Metz a silver cup for the honor he brought to Waltham.
After they won the race, Metz cars were really popular and a lot of people wanted to buy them. Metz Company needed more space so he used the land around the estate grounds and built a 3-story brick building. The building is still at the corner of River Street and Seyon Street. Metz also built the huge saw-tooth building on Seyon Street.
BY 1915, Metz Company produced over 7,200 cars. The Metz Model 22 car sold at a price of $475.00. The 1915 Metz car was the most popular American car sold outside the United States. They were even more popular than even the Ford Model T.
In 1916, World War I was starting and Charles Metz had to turn over his factory to the United States government to manufacture airplane parts. When the war was over in 1918, the government never paid Metz Company for any of the labor or materials.
Charles Metz changed the name of the company to Waltham Company so people would not think of his German name. He could not sell enough cars to keep his company open. In 1923, the company declared bankruptcy and the buildings and assets were sold. His company failed because of things he could not change.
The last Metz car was produced in 1923 and Charles Metz drove it to Glendale, California where he moved with his family. He started a building company with his sons. Charles Metz died on June 29, 1937.
Charles Herman Metz brought fun, fame and fortune to Waltham for over 30 years. Thank you Charles Metz, especially for the Ori-ten.
Thank you to Mr. Al Arena at The Waltham Museum, Mr. Fred Widmer and Mr. Bob Howatt at the Charles River Museum of Industry, and Jan Zwicker at the Waltham Public Library. They talked to me and my mom for a really long time and gave me research materials to help me write my essay on Charles Metz.