The History of Motor Wheel
Standing guard over the monolithic, historic Prudden Factory, the iconic smoke stack keeps watch over the thousands of passersby that frequent Saginaw and Oakland Streets in downtown Lansing. The staple of the former motor wheel factory can be seen from afar, with the word "Prudden" proudly displayed, reminder of a historic past which began over 100 years ago.
When Ransom E. Olds Detroit factory burned, the search was on for a new location, one which would be equally prevalent and economically profitable. R.E. Olds chose Lansing mainly due to his biggest wheel supplier, William K. Prudden. The W. K. Prudden Company was the world's largest producer of both wood and steel wheels. In 1924, the Prudden Company employed as many people as the State of Michigan in 2000. By 1934, Motor Wheel controlled 1/3 of the entire nation's wheel business, more than any other single wheel manufacturer.
The Man Behind the Wheel
Growing up in Georgia, William K. Prudden was insanely passionate for horses and sulky racing. Prudden bred trotters and was constantly in search of ways to improve racing performance. In 1898, at age 39, Prudden decided to leave his main focus of real estate and make his pastime his business. He brought in machinery and stock from Chicago to Lansing, starting a factory which produced rubber-tired wheels for the purpose of racing sulkies and other vehicles. His understanding of wheel physics and manufacturing enabled Prudden to innovate. He became one of a few men in the country that truly understood the science of making rubber-tired wheels. Prudden was poised to lead the nation's wheel business and naturally grew to supply the infant automobile industry. He revolutionized not only the wheel industry but automobiles as well by creating a footing for increasingly heavy and more powerful cars.
W.K. Prudden also played a major role in road paving, at a time when brick-paved roads were the infrequent exception to dirt roadways. He is responsible for the first paved stretch of highway outside of Wayne County (Wayne County was first in the nation to pave roads). Nevertheless, perhaps his most significant milestone was the innovation of the wooden artillery wheel which led to a military contract of $3 million in 1917. Construction of Plant 1 at 725 E. Saginaw, now 707 Prudden Street, began in 1916 and manufacturing commenced in 1918. In 1920, Prudden Wheel merged with two other major companies and become known as the Motor Wheel Company.
By 1964, Motor Wheel had become a subsidiary of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. In 1974, Hayes Wheels acquired Motor Wheel through a transaction which was valued at $1.1 billion and the following year, the factory known as Plant 1, was vacated.
Motor Wheel had also expanded to factories in other parts of the nation. Throughout their production, Motor Wheel continued to innovate, with products such as the RunFlat which became standard equipment on the world-renowned Hummer vehicle. As a major employer in Lansing for many years, Motor Wheel used Plant 1 for over 85 years. The Eyde Company attempted to refurbish the building for commercial use in 1985-88, but the factory did not accommodate this function.
Even though the factory was vacated so long ago, its architecture and history still remain. The distinctive design of the factory was the first form of American architecture to influence the Europeans. Albert Kahn, in association with industrialist Henry Ford, developed the concrete spandrel technology that allowed for expansive windows and wide open floor plans. This openness and substantial natural light served the changing requirements of the manufacturing environment well and will provide these same characteristics for future residents.
The Motor Wheel factory, along with its symbolic "Prudden" smoke stack, stands today as a historical landmark for Lansing and its automotive industry. William K. Prudden developed a company and structure that was indicative of the times and has withstood the challenges of the automotive and business industries for more than 100 years. W.K. Prudden is considered the forefather of the modern wheel industry, a generous philanthropist and innovative industrialist, who powered the growth of Lansing's economy.