Johnson Controls Car Manufacturer? The Little Known History of Wisconsin's Largest Company

May 31, 2016

The Johnson Controls name is one of the most iconic brands in Milwaukee today. Their products, high-tech batteries and temperature regulators like thermostats, are leaders in their industries. But if things had gone differently, the company could have been just as well-known in a different industry.

Auto carriage ad from Johnson Controls.
Credit Johnson Controls

Today employees at Johnson Controls headquarters in Glendale pass a little piece of that history every day as they walk one of the corridors on the campus: a 1910 Johnson Empress sedan. 

"I think most people, of course, if they think of the name Johnson Controls they think about our temperature control systems. But in fact, we had a great early history in the first decade of the twentieth century manufacturing automobiles," says Ken Wirth, global manager of record and archives management at Johnson Controls. 

There may be less than a dozen of the Johnson Controls vehicles left in existence, including two owned by the company. Only six Johnson Empress sedans were ever created. Wirth believes evidence indicates the Empress at the Glendale campus may have belonged to a very important person, at least for Johnson Controls. 

"Warren Johnson himself, the founder of Johnson Controls, owned one of these 50 horsepower vehicles," he says. "My feeling, my gut feeling is that this could very well have been Johnson's vehicle."