Washington County was home to the highly innovative and reputable Kissel Car Company, originally spelled ‘Kissel Kar’ for the Kissel family’s German heritage. The Kissel Car Company expanded Hartford’s population and economy by leaps and bounds. They joined the race in the automotive industry, competing with Ford, General Motors, and other thriving brands. Even though the company’s business lasted only 25 years, it achieved much, and the automotive industry was influenced by its success.


The Kissel Car Company was established by Louis Kissel and his sons in June 1906, with $50,000 capital. One can only wonder if he ever dreamed that his small-scale business would become a million-dollar corporation that once represented the largest industry in the county. Who knew?

The Kissel Car Company started manufacturing cars in two small buildings with a team of seventy men. As their automobiles became a popular contemporary commodity, the business quickly expanded. Spanning over 16 acres, the Kissel Car Company factories, each specialized in its department, formed their own little city. 

1920s Kissel Car Factory in Early Washington County, Wisconsin
The Kissel Factory during the 1920s

As the vehicles were built, they were carried from department to department, each specializing in a particular step, each contributing to the renowned final project. 

To start, the motor and frame were produced in the foundry and forging departments The Kissel Car Company used heat-treating ovens to prevent crystallization of the stainless steel, or at least as well as possible for the current technology. Parts that bore the most friction and wear, like transmission gears, shafts, and levers were exposed to the intense heat. The Kissel Cars were renowned for their soft, graceful maneuverability. With this in mind, the company performed exhaustive tests on the springs of each car. Adjusting it individually to calculate the strain and reduce vibration. 

The car would then travel to the brass and aluminum foundries and afterward to the buffing and polishing rooms. Next were the bodybuilding, upholstery, and finishing departments, where everything from door handles to cushions are carefully created, tested, added, and then tested again. The workers are diligent, ensuring the quality production of each vehicle. Each department had access to the finest modern equipment and ample space for work. 

For a Detailed Account and Visual Component Regarding This Process: 

The Kissel Car Company manufactured touring cars, limousines, coupes, motor trucks, ambulances, police patrol automobiles, and fire trucks.

1928 Kissel car
A Kissel car from 1928

From year to year, The Kissel Car Company didn’t change much between models. The improvements made were strictly design updates. This is not to say that the Kissel Car Company avoided contemporary inventions, as they would often add durable, soon-to-become standard features to stay ahead of the curve. The perfection and classic quality of a Kissel Car were expected and had the company changed its product, it would surely not have been as successful. 

Here’s one example of Kissel’s intentional design: The Classic Kissel Emblem

In the age of the Kissel Car Company, automobiles were just beginning to sweep across the nation, captivating and invoking curiosity in many. While the use of automobiles was sometimes a contentious decision, it is undoubted that this form of transportation opened extensive opportunities for independent travel. Turning away from the perspective of the ‘devil’s wagon’, many had become strong advocates for expanding roadways and furthering the modern invention of the automobile. To have had such an innovative and reputable company in Washington County is a momentous honor. 


At the height of the Kissel Car Company’s popularity, many celebrities would come to Hartford to purchase their cars. One notably being Amelia Earhart. Amelia Earhart loved her Kissel Gold Bug Speedster that she nicknamed the “The Yellow Peril.” She drove the car across America, towards Washington state, and then up into Canada. The sleek design of the Kissel Gold Bug combined European classic influences with modern technology and adventure. It was by far one of the most popular models. 

The Adventures of Amelia Earhart’s Yellow Peril

Kissel gold bug built in Washington County, Wisconsin
‘A Kissel Gold Bug From the Wisconsin Automotive Museum’


Unfortunately, when the Great Depression hit, the Kissel Car Company struggled to stay in business and had to close its doors in 1931. However, the legacy of the Kissel Car Company has not been forgotten. The business positively influenced Washington County in various ways. Today, we remember the Kissel Car Company, and other Wisconsin transportation manufacturers, at the Wisconsin Automotive Museum in Hartford, Wisconsin. Their collection includes many, well-preserved Kissel models, displayed to be cherished for decades to come. 


“Amelia Earhart and her Kissel Gold Bug Speedster.” Classic Speedsters. May 24, 2019.

Kissel Speedster. Photograph. Wisconsin Auto Museum.

Kissel Factory 1920s. Photograph. Wisconsin Auto Museum.  

1928 Kissel. Photograph. Wisconsin Auto Museum.

Quickert, Carl. “The Chief Industries.” In Washington County, Wisconsin: Past and Present, 233-235. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2008. Previously published as “The Chief Industries,” in Washington County, Wisconsin: Past and Present (1912): 233-235. 

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