(Aug. 11, 1872-Aug. 4, 1928). Allison was one of the founders of the INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY and the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. He also established a machine shop that became two divisions of General Motors Corporation, Allison Gas Turbine and Allison Transmission.

A large two-story, brick house in the Arts and Crafts and Prairie School styles. It has a columned portico entrance and a stone terrace wrapping around the right side of the house.
Riverdale, James and Sara Allison’s home, 1913 Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

Allison was born in Niles, Michigan, the second of three sons of Noah and Myra Allison. His father, a native of Indiana, moved to Indianapolis in 1880 and was involved in various enterprises before establishing the Allison Coupon Company. James quit school at the age of 12 to work in the family business. After his father’s death in 1890, he and his two brothers took over the company.

In 1909 Allison formed a partnership with entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher and inventor Perry Avery to establish the Concentrated Acetylene Company, which compressed acetylene gas into canisters for use in automobile headlights. Subsequently, Fisher and Allison purchased Avery’s shares and changed the company’s name to Prest-O-Lite.

Explosions at the plant prompted an ordinance prohibiting the production of volatile gas within city limits. The operation thus moved, in 1912, to the vicinity of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track was another enterprise by Allison and Fisher, in cooperation with Frank H. Wheeler and Arthur C. Newby, and in 1911 had been the site of the inaugural Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.

Allison established the Allison Speedway Team Company, a machine shop located on the Prest-O-Lite grounds, in 1913, four years before Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation purchased Prest-O-Lite. Allison moved his remaining company to a new building in 1920 and it became the Allison Engineering Company.

During World War I, the company had provided the Nordyke And Marmon Company with tools, jigs, fixtures, and gauges used in the production of Liberty aircraft engines. Subsequently, Allison received additional government contracts to build crawler-type tractors, whippet tanks (World War I British tanks), and tank tracks.

Although Allison established his Speedway Team Company primarily to work on race cars, he entered cars in the 500-mile race only once. In 1919, Howard “Howdy” Wilcox drove one of Allison’s two entries to victory. Allison later became sole owner of the track and in 1927 sold it to Eddie Rickenbacker.

After Allison’s death in 1928, General Motors Corporation acquired the Allison Engineering Company. Under its guidance, Allison’s machine shop grew to become the second-largest Indianapolis employer and a major supplier of aircraft engines and hardware.

Allison was reputed to be a perfectionist. A hard-working businessman involved in many enterprises, he had vast real estate holdings in Indianapolis and Florida. In the Indianapolis area, he was largely responsible for the development of the town of Speedway. In Miami, Florida, he built a hospital and an aquarium.

Allison served on the board of directors in numerous industries and businesses, including banking. Though twice married, he had no children. His Indianapolis home on Cold Springs Road is known as one of the Marian University Mansions located on the Marian University campus.

Revised February 2021

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