If you’re a fan of obscure, weird cars, chances are you know of the 1952-1954 Allstate. If you aren’t aware, it was essentially a Kaiser Henry J, a cheap affordable small runabout. Henry J. Kaiser, the man, not the car, approached the Sears-Roebuck company to sell his car in their stores and their monolithic catalogue. Back then, it really made a lot of sense. The Sears catalogue was, as any Boomer will tell you, the Amazon of it’s day. You could buy pretty much anything your heart desired with just a quick mail order, and pick it up at any Sears store in a couple of weeks.
Sears’ image as a retailer also fit the Henry J quite well. Sears back then was a much cheaper and “lower-class” retailer compared to the other department stores of the time, and their clientele would likely be much more interested in a cheap reliable car compared to the patrons of higher-end department stores. Remember, this was before the ubiquity of discount stores like Walmart and Target. You did have five-and-dime stores like Woolworth and Kresge, but they weren’t fully fledged department stores like the Woolco and K-Mart chains they would eventually spawn. Either way, the Allstate made sense. Sales were lacklustre however, mainly due to people just continuing to go to dedicated dealers to buy a car instead of Sears. Sears was for buying church clothes and tools and these new-fangled electricity-powered vacuum floor cleaners. Not cars.
The Allstate wasn’t Sears-Roebuck’s first attempt at selling a car however. Enter the Sears High Wheeler. Another rebadge, this time of a Lincoln (no, not that one) built in Sears’ home turf of Chicago. The cars were only available via catalogue, as Sears didn’t yet have the department store presence they would develop after the Second World War. The car was sold between 1908 and 1912, and was once again rather well suited to Sears’ budget-conscious customers. Sears’ catalogue service had big pull in rural areas, since they didn’t have big fancy department stores, and the large-wheels, cheap price, and toughness of the Sears was well suited to rural customers. This was before the Model T really took off, mind you.
Despite this though, the Sears was quite outdated, even for the early 1910s. One wouldn’t be stupid for confusing it with a much earlier pre-1900 car like a Duryea or an early De Dion-Bouton. Steering was still done via tiller instead of a more conventional steering wheel, and the carriage-like construction made it basically as outdated at the time as the Nissan Frontier is now. It was also quite slow, with a top speed of 25 MPH at a time when a Ford could get to the blistering speed of 45. Hence it’s discontinuation in 1912, leaving rural car buyers to be snapped up by Ford.
The first two are relatively well known, but there was a very obscure third attempt by Sears to get into the car business. Enter the XDH-1. Calling it an attempt by Sears to get into the car business might be a bit disingenuous however, as it was a prototype likely never intended for series production.
Rather, it was a showcase of the technology of Sears’ DieHard battery brand that was built in 1977. It started out as it’s life as a surprisingly exotic (by Sears standards) Fiat 128 coupé. They stripped out the engine and replaced it with a bank of 20 DieHard marine batteries, providing an amount of power that I can’t quite find any specific information about. They also gave it a rather Vauxhall Firenza-esque droop snoot front end, making it look quite a bit more futuristic than the regular 128.
The XDH-1 was really quite a good EV for it’s time. But really that’s like saying you have a particularly good kind of cancer. It’s still cancer. And the XDH-1 is still a 70s EV, in the days before the EV-1 and Elon Musk, this is the pinnacle of electric cars. Unlike other electric cars of the time like the Citicar, it was capable highway speeds, reaching a top speed of about 70 MPH in the days when Americans were limited to 55 on interstates. And, being based on a contemporary Fiat, it was roomy enough to carry humans and was basically a really quiet, slow car. Range was honestly also quite impressive for the time, getting anywhere between 60-90 miles on a charge according to Sears. Once again, not mindblowing by today’s standards, but quite excellent for the time.
The XDH-1, like I said, was never really meant to be a serious production car. If it were to be produced, it would’ve likely been to expensive to catch anyone’s eye. Especially not if they sold it at Sears. If it was sold, could it have meant EVs would become a more serious prospect, sooner? Likely not, but it’s fun to imagine a world where EVs are mainstream by the 90s. Instead though, the XDH-1 was quietly forgotten about apart from a few weirdos like me and the idea of electric cars would be abandoned again once the oil crises subsided in the early 80s, leaving the GM Impact concept to revive interest in the idea, and we all know how that saga ended.
And now Sears are gone too, likely to fade into the history books along with their automotive creations. It’s funny how such a previously forward-thinking company can suddenly do a complete 180 and drive themselves into the ground. Sears were ahead of their time with mail-order, which we now call Amazon, they had an actually kinda drivable EV in the 70s, and they were one of the first companies to truly embrace video games in their partnership with Atari.