A Brief History of the Marathon Motor works Automobile

In 1884, the Southern Engine and Boiler Works opened to business in Jackson, Tennessee. The company manufactured gasoline engines and boilers for industrial use. In the first twenty years, by 1904, it had grown into the largest plants of its kind in the nation.

By now, the automobile was the new darling of the industry, as literally, hundreds of companies jumped into their manufacture and production. Most new car brand names belonged to companies that bought and assembled components into complete cars. Fewer, more ambitious companies manufactured the entire vehicle to their own designs for engine, chassis, running gear and suspension.

At Southern Engine and Boiler Works, a young apprentice engineer, William Henry Collier, accepted the challenge of complete design. His enthusiasm -- and yes, genius – persuaded the directors of the company to let him to build his car.

The company newsletter reported Collier put the first gasoline engine into an automobile in 1906. In recounting the occasion, the newsletter bluntly reported, "… should move, but don't." It was another year, 1907, before Collier had a car that "actually could be depended on to go, and come back." With this success, eager investors poured $50,000 into the company by 1908.

Newspaper reports at the time put the production figures of 1907 at 20 cars, 1908 at 200, and a whopping 400 units actually on the road during 1909. The car was called Southern. During this time, another manufacturer was found using the Southern name. A competition was held, and a Jackson, Tennessee, high school girl supposedly came up with the winning name "Marathon".

In late 1910, the company relocated to larger facilities in Nashville, Tennessee, where new models were added and production soared, but still could not keep up with demand. Collier remained in charge of manufacture, and H.H. Brooks handled sales. Each subsequent model found enthusiastic buyers and dealers from all over the world. European countries plus Brazil, Chile, Australia and China flocked to Nashville begging for more cars. Production capacity, reported at 10,000 a year by 1912, could not begin to fill demand, but the number of cars actually built is not known. Collier was controlled by constantly changing the board of directors who apparently forced the company into some unwise business decisions. There were hints of impropriety, such as company officers selling cars "out the back door," and suppliers were suing for nonpayment.

In late 1913, Brooks left to join a large dealership in Indianapolis, the Herff brothers, who eventually bought all the machinery in Nashville and by 1915, continued manufacturing the car in Indianapolis under the new name, Herff-Brooks, which lasted two years. Thus, 1914 marked the end of the Marathon, and the city of Nashville as the manufacturer of a car that, at the time, seemed destined to dominate the market.

By 1909, two models were offered – the A9, a five-seat touring car, and B9, a rumble seat roadster. Both had 35 horsepower four-cylinder engines, with the cylinder blocks cast in pairs. Cylinders had a 4.25-inch bore and a 4.5-inch stroke, sitting atop a two-piece aluminum crankcase. A unique feature was a vertical shaft at the rear of the block that drove a pump in the crankcase that splashed lubricant for the cylinders above. The usual spark and throttle levers were on the steering wheel. The price of either car was $1,500, but tops were an optional extra expense.

Real Estate Potential Recognized


The oldest, as well as the only two-story building was built circa 1881. Most of the other buildings were built between 1881 and 1912. Because of the different types of architecture involved, the 1988 renovation of the buildings created spaces that are truly unique.

In the ruins of a building in Jackson, Tennessee, he discovered left-behind evidence of the Marathon story and launched a quest for one of the actual cars, ending with success in 1990.

Since then, Walker has overseen development of his Marathon Village into a four-block complex of artists' and photographers' studios, offices, radio station and salons – even Corsair Artizan distillery.

Some buildings in the complex still are undergoing renovation, but the effort already has ensured that the Marathon name of Nashville's early automotive fame will live on in the 21st Century.

The redevelopment of the 32,000 square feet administration office building, 130,000 square feet factory into commercial studio space is in its twenty-fifth year of continual renovation. During this time, there have been three distinct phases of redevelopment.

  • The First Phase: Includes redevelopment of 32,000 square feet office/administration building, complete with office suites.

  • The Second Phase: Includes redevelopment of the foundry building.

  • The Third Phase: Includes auto factory site work, sidewalks, parking lots and lights, main and secondary entrances, mail house, landscaping, and installation of the interior courtyard at 1210 Clinton Street.

  • The Fourth Phase: Will be ongoing renovation until completion of the entire project.