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In The Shadow of the Motor Speedway: The Allison Machine Shop in Speedway, Indiana

Heading into the end of May, most eyes are turned towards the west side of Indianapolis and preparations for the running of the Indianapolis 500 race. The race is technically held in Speedway, which in its early years was something of a suburb of Indianapolis, and was later enveloped by the city, through the latter’s outward growth and the Unigov plan of the 1960’s. However, Speedway has remained an excluded town, separate from Indianapolis. The city of Speedway was part of a grand plan of the founders of the Motor Speedway, Carl Fisher, Arthur Newby, Frank Wheeler, and James Allison, to build a town which would support their operations at the track, and for Allison, his own industrial operations in the area. A part of Allison's original operations is still located at 1200 Main Street in the town. But before we look at that building, some background.


Before the founding of the Motor Speedway in 1909, Allison and Fisher, along with partner Percy Avery, had in 1904 established the Concentrate Acetylene Company (later renamed the Prest-O-Lite Company), one of the first manufacturers of automobile headlights. Their factory was originally located north of downtown Indianapolis at 28th and Pennsylvania, but industrial accidents (of the explosive nature) associated with the manufacture of the lights, forced the operation to be moved to several locations around Indianapolis before the factory was moved outside of downtown Indianapolis. The factory for this endeavor was eventually based in Speedway, and its success made millions for both Fisher and Allison and paved the way for future partnerships between the two men, including the opening of the Motor Speedway.

Indianapolis News, Sept. 15, 1915

In 1912 Allison completed construction on a massive new manufacturing facility for Prest-O-Lite just southwest of the Motor Speedway. Not long after in 1915, he and Fisher, along with other partners, incorporated the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company, which focused on developing racing cars for use at the Motor Speedway and elsewhere. The company was based out of a shop on Georgia Street in downtown Indianapolis, but in 1916 at Allison’s suggestion, the company was moved to a more convenient location near the Motor Speedway. At the same time, Allison and Fisher made a business trade, with Allison becoming the sole owner of the Speedway Team Company, and Fisher taking over the Prest-O-Lite operations.

The new location for the Speedway Team was just down the street from the Motor Speedway, and along the city of Speedway’s Main Street. The original machine shop constructed to support the team’s operations was a one-story brick building located on the southwest corner of 13th and Main Streets. I only located one photo of the machine shop in its original form which was posted to a Historic Indianapolis blog post and may be viewed here. The awnings visible in this photo are on the front of the building. Eventually the operation would expand, occupying the entire block between 12th and 13th Streets (which still stands, see below), with a two-story central section, flanked by one story warehouse/factory type wings to the north and south.


In 1916-17, expansion plans were developed to enlarge the Speedway Team’s footprint on Main Street from the original machine shop. The IUPUI Library Archives contain an extensive collection of materials related to the Allison Transmission company and include a set of schematics and plans for this machine shop, and its various phases of expansion. The plan below shows the original machine shop, and the planned expansion to the south (left on this diagram) of that building. The original machine shop is identified to the right as “Allison Machine Shop,” at the corner of Main and 13th Streets. A new building, located to the level of the existing machine shop, is identified as “two story addition.” Note the alley way between the machine shop and the two-story addition.


A link to the full file can be accessed here, but the line drawings for the exterior of the machine shop is pictured below. The schematic shows a series of seven windows on the north side, although those windows are blocked today. A smoke stack was also added during this time and is visible in later photos.


Note that an addition to was added to the back of the building later which extended the original machine shop beyond what is in these plans. On the east side of the building, which faces Main Street, the schematic shows a door, although today there are only windows.

Allison Transmission History Indianapolis
Indianapolis News, January 21, 1918

The breakout of the Great War, and especially the entry of the United States into the conflict in 1917, led to a demand for military hardware and machinery, especially engines and engine parts for vehicles and aircraft, particularly the so-called Liberty engine, used in many World War I era aircraft, and later modified for other uses. In response, Allison changed the focus of the company to military work and renamed the racing company the Allison Experimental Company. He also sought to expand existing machine shop building, which included the two-story brick building referenced above to be constructed immediately to the south of machine shop, and within the same block. Like the plans for the original building, the IUPUI Library Archives contain the full proposed plans for these expansions.


The image below provides more detail of the two-story addition, as it would be seen from the front (facing Main Street), and the rear of the property, near the alleyway. The two-story section appears much the same today, although the windows on the first floor are boarded up, and the main entrance is in the center of the front of the addition, and not on the right side as shown below.

Addition to machine shop for J.A. Allison, Allison Transmission Archival Collection, IUPUI Libraries

Plans for the new two-story addition also included details for the inside of the new structure, including details about offices, doors, windows, and other parts of the future construction. Those plans can be viewed in more detail via the link to the collection above.


The newly expanded machine shop is shown in the image below, depicted with the employees posing in front along Main Street. Another image, below, shows the original machine shop and the two-story addition (left side of photo) and the alleyway between the two around 1920. The image shows a group of presumably Allison employees and vehicles and is taken from the middle of Main Street. Unclear why the trucks bear the "Allison Service Co." name.

Allison Transmission Archival Collection, IUPUI Libraries

Also, around 1920, the company’s name was changed again, from Allison Experimental Company to Allison Engineering Company. The Indianapolis Times reported on the proposed name changed on October 8, 1920, and in January 1921, the name change was formalized, as reported by the Indianapolis Star.

Indianapolis Times, October 8, 1920

Indianapolis Star, January 6, 1921

The efforts of the newly rechristened company continued to be focused on the construction of aircraft parts and engines, building on the experience gained on such projects during, and immediately after, World War I. In 1924 the company constructed the first engine of its own design, a 24-cylinder monster which produced over 1,200 horsepower. The design was experimental, and did not enter production, but was the kicking off point to future engine work.


A photo from 1921 shows the entire company arrayed in front of the Allison buildings on Main Street. The full-sized image may be viewed here, part of the Allison Transmission Collection at the IUPUI Library (hosted through Indiana Memory at the State Library).

Operations continued to be run out these two structures into the late 1920’s, and beyond Allison’s death in 1928. In the spring of 1929, Allison was purchased by General Motors, becoming a division of the automaker. An appraisal report in 1929, just before the company was purchased by GM, details all of Allison’s operations in Speedway, noting the large plants which had been constructed to the south (referred to as the Engine Rebuilding Plants), along with the original buildings on Main Street. At the time, the original campus at 1200 Main Street was called the “Experimental Plant,” with the two story 1917 building being used for offices. Several auxiliary structures, such as material buildings and sheds were also on the property.


The purchase by GM spurred an expansion of operations, and new additions were made to the facilities in Speedway. In 1937, an expansion was done on the Main Street “Experimental Plant" campus. The alleyway between the original machine shop and the two-story addition was enclosed, and an expansion to the south expanded the company's operations across the entire block. The plans below show the new alleyway addition, along with the proposed southern addition. The southern addition ended up being slightly larger, pushing the building all way to 12th Street on the south, following an additional expansion in 1940.

By 1948 the complex had been filled out even further and was now known as "Plant No. 1" of the Allison Engineering Division of General Motors as shown on the Sanborn Map (below) from that year. The orange section of this map is the two-story office section of the building. The Sanborn map indicates this section was built in 1925, although as discussed above, it was constructed several years before.

IUPUI Sanborn and Baist Collection, 1948 Sanborn Collection

In 1973 the Indianapolis News reported that Plant No. 1 would be converted to a training facility for sales and service personnel of Allison. A photo of the building accompanying the story shows all the windows boarded up, aside from a few left open in the two-story addition.


In 1990 the Allison divisions of General Motors celebrated their 75th anniversary of the original company's founding in 1915 as the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company. The event was held at Plant No. 1. Just four years later, in May of 1994, General Motors placed Plant No. 1, or "the birthplace of Allison Transmision and Allison Engine Co.", as it was called by the Indianapolis Star, up for sale. The training operations which had been hosted at the property were being reallocated to other Allison properties. The Star also noted that the original plant was within sight of the Motor Speedway, "another institution where [James A.] Allison was the founder."


In 1997 Riley and Scott Race Car Engineering was operating out of the building, based on help wanted ads in the Indianapolis Star. Its current usage is unclear. The building today has no markers or indication of its prior usage on the structure itself. Allison signage had been installed on the two-story section of the building, but that has since been removed. However, on the southeast corner of this building, at 12th Street, there is a historical marker, place by the Indiana Historical Bureau in 2015, announcing the name of the structure as the Allison Machine Shop. The full text of the markers can be viewed here.

Allison Transmission Speedway Indianapolis history
Historical Marker on the southeast corner of the Allison Building at 12th and Main Street. Photo Credit: Alex Wisemiller

As seen in the photos above, the windows on the first floor of Plant No. 1 are nearly all boarded or bricked up. The windows facing Main Street are decorated with racing related themes, while those on the sides are mostly blank (see below).

Credit: Alex Wisemiller


Sources:


Indianapolis News: July 7, 1917, January 21, 1918, July 12, 1919, March 21, 1929, February 25, 1965,


Indianapolis Star: August 8, 1925, May 25, 1929, July 19, 1929, July 21, 1935, April 27, 1990, July 23, 1990, May 11, 1994, May 27, 2018,


Allison Power of Excellence 1915-1990: Allison Transmission Division, General Motors Corporation, https://archive.org/details/allisonpowerofex0000sonn_e8p2/mode/2up


Allison Transmission Archival Collection, digitized and hosted by Indiana University Indianapolis Library, https://www.ulib.iupui.edu/digitalcollections/AT


Allison Machine Shop Historical Marker, https://www.in.gov/history/state-historical-markers/find-a-marker/find-historical-markers-by-county/indiana-historical-markers-by-county/allison-machine-shop/




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