1930s (Depression Era) Buick Car Dealer Buys Horse…but what a Horse!

Old-New Story by June Morrall

“I wouldn’t give 850 for the best horse living,” said Charles Stewart Howard in 1907.

Years later the pioneer distributor of Buick motorcars might have laughed at his comment.

In the 1930s the distributor-turned-auto-magnate paid many thousands of dollars for the finest thoroughbreds, including the legendary, beloved Seabiscuit, a top-money-winning racehorse that brought cheering fans to their feet when they thundered toward the finish line at Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo.

There was no rise and fall to Charles S. Howard’s rags-to-riches story. His career soared from one high level to the next.

Born in Marietta, Georgia, C.S. Howard enlisted in the army, fought in the Spanish-American war and looked to the West Coast to seek his fortune. He often regaled any and all listeners with the saga of his humble origins, and how he arrived in San Francisco with only two dimes and a penny in his pocket.

Howard was an uncommonly ambitious fellow who opened a bicycle repair shop on Van Ness Avenue. All day long he hardly noticed the parade of horse-drawn carriages passing his storefront, but the occasional gasoline buggy made him drop his tools to admire the man-made machine.

The horse and motorcar were bitter, natural enemies, thought Howard. He predicted motorcars would replace the horse as the popular mode of transportation. The automobile was here to stay, and C.S. Howard set out to be part of that revolutionary future.

Detroit, Michigan was the place to study motorcars, and Howard was drawn to learn his craft. At the Buick Motor Car Company, he established valuable contacts that would pay rich dividends later. He befriended William C. Durant, former horse-drawn carriage manufacturer and founder of General Motors in 1908, an impressive connection.

Although he may not have realized it, Howard was in the right place at the right time.

When C.S. Howard returned to San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire, he was the Buck distributor for eight Western states, with an inventory of two four-cylinder Buicks. He placed his precious vehicles in a stockroom but lost everything in a devastating fire. Undeterred, the optimistic Howard used the insurance money to start over just in time to sell Buick’s sleek White Streak, a hot selling roadster favored by doctors and salesmen.

His Buick motorcars were winning the war against the horse. Despite primitive roads, the m man-made vehicle could carry the driver and his family on scenic trips to the Peninsula, through the giant redwoods, one of the gateways to the Coastside.

But the horse was “king” and didn’t sink into oblivion easily. It still dominated the city’s dusty, pockmarked streets. The public was suspicious of the noisy gasoline buggy that was banned as a nuisance from Golden Gate Park. Yosemite and the Stanford University campus. Worse, popular opinion held that motorcars were a novelty, a fad that would quickly pass.

It was going to be a challenge to change people’s habits, an uphill public relations battle. Bursting with ambition and vision, C.S. Howard was prepared for the fray, reasoning that the path to success was to modify the image of the motorcar.

A talented intuitive fellow, he launched a campaign to focus positive attention on motorcars. Smiling and confident, C.S. Howard was photographed behind the wheel of his own stock models.

He chaired “runs and tours” committees. He demonstrated the reliability of motorcars by entering endurance contests, including “dusty hill climbs, road races and speed tests” held at the Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno—ironically, the home of the “sport of Kings.”

Not all of his publicity stunts were successful. A tire-changing contest failed when only a handful of contestants signed up for the unpleasant task.

But this was a  minor setback. It was becoming clear — even to his critics — that C.S. Howard  had succeeded in elevating the motorcar from its lowly status as a novelty.

Then he conceived his most brilliant idea yet, a plan that would dramatically increase the sales of cars. Until 1910 C.S. Howard’s inventory consisted of a few vehicles. Potential buyers were not able to make a  selection and drive away in the motorcar of their choice. This drove Howard crazy. He was losing sales. If the potential buyer could browse through a substantial inventory of Buicks, sales would  soar.

And he was right.

Although it had never been done before, why not ask Detroit to ship him 124 new Buicks by train? Howard’s idea was compelling and Detroit loved it. They shipped a trainload of Buicks, and many called this a first in automobile history.

One year later, 224 Buicks arrived and a second train followed with 228. When a train carrying 375 cars arrived, all previous records were broken. By 1913 the Howard Automobile Company was shipping cars all over California.

C.S. Howard had earned his success. He, along with his wife, Fannie May, and sons, Charles, Jr. and Lindsay, moved to exclusive San Mateo Park. The boys were raised to follow in their father’s footsteps and they, too, went into the car business. In 1927 hundreds of Peninsula residents gathered at Burlingame;s “Auto Row”to celebrate the Grand Opening of Howard Buick, a sparkling new showroom operated by the young brothers.

It didn’t hurt business that their father was known as ‘the world’s greatest automobile distributor.”

Along the way C.S. Howard had made another fortuitous investment, one that would bring him tremendous wealth. He had purchased shares of General Motors stock before WW I at a low price, and it was presumed that he sold them before the shares plummeted from their highs during the great crash of 1929. If these reports were accurate, Howard made a killing on the trades.

As a respected, charitable member of the Peninsula community, he established the Howard Foundation, granting $150,000 for a sanatorium in Belmont for poor children stricken with tuberculosis and rheumatic fever. Burlingame resident Dr. Max Rothschild, an internationally known tuberculosis expert, was appointed as medical director of the small institution.

By 1930 Howard had relinquished part of his sales empire, retaining only his outlet in the automobile-loving state of California — and his marriage was on the rocks.

Litigation kept his name in the public eye as his bitter divorce from Fannie May ended a 30=year marriage. She subsequently married her attorney, Edmond E. Herrscher, and in 1932 C.S.Howard  married C.S. Zabala, a member of a distinguished California family.

Howard now embarked on the “celebrity” chapter of his life, indulging himself in the hobbies and pastimes of the super-rich, taking up yachting, hunting big game and breeding thoroughbred racehorses at Ridgewood, his 35,000-acre ranch at Willits in Mendocino County.

He purchased the palatial yacht, Aras, equipped with a luxurious main saloon, dining room, veranda, cafe and gymnasium. For its maiden voyage, Howard invited friends and scientists on an adventurous cruise to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.

Eight thousand miles later, Howard returned to San Francisco with a rare collection of birds and reptiles, including a very tame tropical seabird called “the blue-footed booby.” In addition, there were flamingoes, penguins and iguanas, all of which he donated to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

A few years  later he traveled  to Africa on a five month safari, bagging a black maned lion and a fifteen foot python on the same day.

But the automobile magnate won his most enduring fame as the owner of “Seabiscuit,” the great champion thoroughbred who smashed all existing records and won the hearts of the people.

In the 1930s Howard purchased the “undersized, crooked legged racehorse for about 88,000 from co-owner Ogden Mills, grandson of D.O. Mills, the Peninsula’s famous banker (Millbrae is named for him where he built his mansion.)

“Seabiscuit” was a horse that nobody believed could win. The experts sniffed when when they looked at this “runt of a colt.” Both Howard and his trainer, Tom Smith, dissented and smelled a big winner in Seabiscuit. They were right, but had no idea this animal was destined for immortality.

“In the latter half of the Depression, Seabiscuit was nothing short of a cultural icon in America, enjoying adulation so intense and broad-based it transcended sport,” wrote Laura Hillenbrand in her book, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,”seabiscuit


which also became a highly rated motion picture. 

The famous racehorse received more media coverage than FDR or Hitler, notes the acclaimed author.

Seabiscuit’s “appearances smashed attendance records at nearly every major track,” wrote Hillenbrand, and drew two of the three largest throngs ever to see a horse race in the U.S.” The horse that nobody wanted became so popular that crowds came just to watch his workouts.

When Seabiscuit was put out to pasture at Howard’s Ridgewood ranch, he lived the life of an equine celebrity, visited by thousands of fans. Some of the “little Biscuits” he sired became champions in their own right.

Seabiscuit and his owner aged gracefully. When the famous horse died in 1947, Howard buried him at the Willits ranch, planting an oak sapling over his hidden grave.

Three years later the dynamic Charles Stewart Howard passed away at his Hillsborough home, leaving an estimated fortune of 840 million.

C.W.Howard contributed to Californian’s worldwide reputation as “the greatest consumers of automobiles on the globe.” He introduced the motorcar to the American West but he will mostly be remembered as the owner of the great thoroughbred, Seabiscuit.


A New-old story by June Morrall




more coming