Charles Howard opened a Buick dealership in San Francisco at a time when nearly everyone in the city used horses - not cars - to get around town. This image, circa 1906, depicts Howard (on the left) in his Buick racer. Online, courtesy Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation. PD
In 1903, Charles Howard arrived in San Francisco with 21 cents. Like his contemporaries, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Howard opened a bicycle repair shop. Soon, however, customers were asking him to work on more than bikes.
Owners of broken-down contraptions, called automobiles, needed someone to repair their frequently unreliable cars. Charles Howard believed there was a real opportunity for him with those newfangled vehicles.
When the 1906 earthquake devastated San Francisco, Howard used his showroom cars as rescue vehicles when horses were injured or refused to go down the city’s burning streets. Since San Francisco’s horse-loving public wasn’t much interested in buying Howard’s cars before the quake, using those vehicles as ambulances was an excellent way to demonstrate what cars could do.
After the quake, Howard (who was a marketing genius) started to really sell his cars when he agreed to take horses in trade. His skills at valuing horses grew as a direct result of building his automobile dealerships.
Seabiscuit’s future owner also knew he would have to teach people how to drive if he expected to sell anything in the early years of the automotive business.
That business was good to Charles Howard. It ultimately made him extremely wealthy. But it also contributed to one of his most devastating losses.
Charles’ son, Frank R. Howard, was fifteen when he was seriously injured in a 1926 vehicle accident on the Howard family property. Because there were no nearby hospitals with life-saving equipment, Frank died. His grief-stricken father donated money to build a new hospital in the town of Willits, California.
Construction began in 1927, and the first patient was admitted in 1928. The hospital, part of the Adventist Health Care System, is still called Frank R. Howard Memorial.
To help him cope with the loss of his son, Howard developed an interest in horse racing.
After Frankie died, Howard’s first marriage - which was already in trouble - ended in divorce. He fell in love with the older sister of his son’s wife and married Marcela Zabala in 1932. The two shared a love of horses.
One of those horses was called Seabiscuit.