When we think of automobile manufacturing in the USA, the first place that comes to mind, of course, is Detroit. It’s no secret that domestically Detroit is still king, though the truth is that most of the manufacturing isn’t actually located inside Detroit proper. That metropolitan area has for a long time been known as Motor City (Photo 1).

Of course, the nearby states of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky currently all rank among the top producers of vehicles and auto parts, and are similarly atop the list of available jobs and gross revenues for the industry. But it wasn’t always like that.

In the early days there were a large number of manufacturers all over the eastern part of the country. New York was a major hub for cars such as the luxury Pierce Arrow (Photo 2), as were Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Even Kentucky was turning out a few cars with the Lexington marquee (Photo 3). The company didn’t last long, at least not in Lexington, but we’ll get to that later.

And while it’s true that the major car brands all hailed from Detroit, with the likes of Chevrolet (Photo 4), Buick (Photo 5), Dodge (Photo 6), Cadillac (Photo 7), Lincoln (Photo 8), Chrysler (Photo 9), and, of course, Ford (Photo 10). These companies and others all moved forward and created the Big Three of Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, and, following World War II, completely dominated not only the American car market, but the car market of the world.

The companies of the Big Three weren’t the only ones coming out of Detroit in the early days. Small firms such as Chalmers (Photo 11) and Saxon (Photo 12) were born in Southeastern Michigan and had short runs in the industry. Detroit Electric (Photo 13) was one of the earliest successful manufacturers of electric vehicles.

Other early companies had a taste of success, including the Essex (Photo 14). In the early 20th Century they were credited with starting the trend away from open bodied touring cars, which made driving in the cold much more comfortable. As a stand-alone company, they only lasted until 1922, but survived another 11 years after it was bought by the Detroit-based firm Hudson.

The Hupp Motor Company, founded in 1908, found huge early success with their Hupmobile (Photo 15). Unfortunately, the need to compete with larger models, and especially engines, led to a decline in sales prior to 1929 and then the ultimate failure of the company during the Great Depression.

Many companies that enjoyed some early success found themselves swallowed up by the larger, burgeoning manufacturers. Such was the case with Maxwell (Photo 16), which was technically the predecessor of Chrysler. Another, Graham-Paige (Photo 17), which during World War II became part of Kaiser-Frazier, which later bought up the ailing Willys Overland Company, but more on them later. Eventually all of this became part of American Motors, another company doomed to fail because of the Big Three.

Perhaps the most famous of the “independent” Detroit companies was Packard (Photo 18). Packard was one of the most luxurious auto makers in the world. Starting with its first production model in 1899, Packard made some of the finest motor cars for over 50 years until the ravages of the economy, the buying trends of the American public and, of course, the power of the Big Three forced it to merge with another once powerful firm that was also struggling at the time. And that is where our story really begins.

Peter Studebaker was a Dutch immigrant who arrived in what became this country in 1736. He built his first business, a mill, in Maryland, which thrived. He was also instrumental in building roads, wagon trails really, and ultimately his company began making wagons for local farmers. Peter’s business model was unique at the time but quickly showed what a savvy businessman he was. He would buy land, connect it with a road and then establish mills and wagon manufacturing on that land. Through this method his family moved the business west.

It didn’t hurt that the company’s wagons were so much more advanced than anything else being manufactured. People started coming from all over to purchase their famed Conestoga wagon (Photo 19), the wagon that moved so many settlers west.

There were five Studebaker sons and by the mid-19th century, two had made their way to South Bend, Indiana, where they set up shop as blacksmiths and started making wagons. Their timing couldn’t have been better as they were poised for the hoard of people flocking to California in search of gold. The next big boost came when the US Army put in a large order for wagons. Add that to the successful wheelbarrow business operated by a third brother and the Studebakers were thriving making anything with wheels.

The Civil War brought even more expansion as they supplied more wagons for the Union Army. Following the war, the company thrived as the government ordered wagons and carriages in large quantities. This led to the Studebakers having the largest vehicle production plant perhaps in the world.

Though the brothers all passed away before really seeing it, the next generation, including one son-in-law, Fred Fish, made the logical move from wagons to motor vehicles. Even before the turn of the 20th Century, Studebaker was working on developing an automobile. At first they experimented with electric cars (Photo 20) but early in the 1900s they were making gasoline power cars such as this 1904 Model C (Photo 21).

Studebaker automobiles became something of a cornerstone for what was soon a growing motor vehicle business in Indiana. It continued to grow, making quality cars (Photo 22) and increasing their revenues by expanding their sales network. Soon they were more than an Indian or even a Midwest concern. People all over the country were buying cars from this company in Indiana.

By the Roaring 20s there were a staggering number of automobile companies based in the Hoosier state. Some were names that were familiar, such as Briggs and Stratton (Photo 23) and Crosley (Photo 24), which actually didn’t appear until 1939 but was made in Indiana nonetheless. Others, such as Izzer (Photo 25), Black (Photo 26), Hayes (Photo 27), and Apperson (Photo 28) were lesser known brands that did not last long enough to make it into the automotive mainstream.

While close to 40 companies called Indianapolis home, there were literally dozens and dozens of car plants throughout the state. In fact, one of the larger production centers with 10 companies headquartered there at one time or another was Richmond.

Sitting not far from the Ohio border and just west of Dayton, Richmond seemed an unlikely spot to be a major manufacturing hub in the early 20th Century. It isn’t located on a major waterway and, while it was served by major railroads that travelled between major cities like Indianapolis and Columbus, it was not a large manufacturing hub. Still, a number of car companies managed to have some success there.

The Pilot Motor Car Company was born out of the Seidel Buggy Company in 1909 and made cars until 1924. The slogan “The Car Ahead” helped the firm sell up to 1,000 vehicles a year (Photo 29) but competition and, what owner George Seidel called cut throat tactics of “Eastern money interest,” forced the company into receivership.

Many Richmond-based companies did not have nearly as long of a history as the Pilot. The Richmond Automobile Company (Photo 30) operated for only a couple of years from 1902 until 1903. This is not to be confused with the Richmond (Photo 31) manufactured by Wayne Works. The business actually started making farm tools in the 1870s but ran automobile production from 1904 until 1917. The G.W. Davis Motor Car Company made automobiles from 1908 until 1929, turning out touring cars such as this 1919 model (Photo 32).

Perhaps the best known of the Richmond companies was the Westcott Motor Car Company. While they didn’t necessarily outlive the other local businesses, beginning production in 1909 and lasting until 1925, the quality of their cars and their slogan, “the car with the longer life,” made them successful sellers throughout the country. But the type of quality seen in this 1919 model (Photo 33) cost money and by the time they shuddered their doors they were in debt over $800,000.

Richmond is a pleasant drive from Cincinnati and is well worth the trip for anyone interested in the old car hobby. The Wayne County Historical Museum has a wing dedicated to classic and antique cars, many from locally-based companies. Also, while you’re there, travel through downtown a little to the west and check out the Model T Ford Club of America Museum.

Generally, the first thing that comes to mind for most people when they think of Indiana is the famed annual race and the Speedway, which was the first course built for automobile racing in the USA. Built in 1909, the first 500-mile race took place two years later and brought instant fame to an Indianapolis-based car company. An aside, the museum inside the Speedway is another great trip for fans of old cars and racing alike.

Marmon’s parent company was founded in 1851, but automobile manufacturing didn’t start up until 1902. They were moving along like many other small car companies until 1911 when the now infamous Marmon Wasp (Photo 34) won that inaugural Indianapolis 500. Since their fame was based on racing, the company turned out models built just for that purpose, such as this 1916 34A Runabout (Photo 35) but they also made luxury models such as this 1933 Sixteen convertible sedan (Photo 36).

Another Indy based business entered a car in that first 500-mile race, only they had no history of motorsport whatsoever. In fact, the Ideal Motor Car Company built the car for the sole purpose of running that race in 1911. Though it finished 11th, it became the talk of the industry. Known as “the car that made good in a day,” there were soon people asking to buy one. In 1912 the company was renamed as the Stutz Motor Company and began making what would become the most famous roadsters of the 1920s and 1930s. The Stutz Bearcat (Photo 37) was immortalized by the media and has come to represent that era.

Based in Terra Haute, the Overland Automobile Company started in 1903. It moved to Indianapolis in 1905. While many people aren’t familiar with this company, prior to World War I, only Ford sold more cars than Overland. John Willys would buy the firm in 1908 and change the name to Willys-Overland, which was based in Toledo. Overlands continued to be made in Indy for several years, though, and produced beauties such as this 1916 Model 86 (Photo 38). The last Overland was made in 1926 but its legacy lives on today. Financial problems hit Willys, like many other companies, which led to mergers and ultimately a buyout by Chrysler. The most famous Willys product and the reason Chrysler bought them was the Jeep.

Attend any Concours event throughout the country and the odds are that you will see one if not more of the three most sought-after Indiana cars. In 1900, the Elkhart Carriage Company began manufacturing automobiles under the Auburn banner. The company lasted until 1937 and produced some of the most spectacular classic cars in history, as is evident in this 1933 Auburn 8-105 Salon Eight Sedan (Photo 39) and this 1928 8-88 Boattail Speedster (Photo 40).

The Great Depression took its toll on Auburn but before it got there the company dipped into two other spectacular automobiles. Duesenberg Motor Cars was founded in 1913 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but was bought by Auburn owner E.L. Cord in 1926 and operations were moved to Indiana. Cord immediately took what was already a well-respected luxury car to the next level. This 1931 Model J (Photo 41) is often considered the acme of luxury automobiles.

Producing two luxury lines during the Depression was not the recipe for success. So what did Cord do? He introduced a third luxury vehicle named after himself. The Cord L-29 (Photo 42) was one of the most technically advanced vehicles of the day and continues to be one of the most highly admired cars in the country.

Any car lover should take a trip up to Auburn to visit one of the best car museums in the country, the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, which is filled with examples of these three luxury lines but also a large number of other Indiana cars. Sitting right next door is the National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States and one exit away is the Early Ford V8 Foundation Museum. All are worth a visit.

All of these Indiana-based companies and more almost made Indiana the automobile capital of America. Unfortunately, they all failed prior to or during the Depression. The Depression took a vast number of businesses across the country, but one Indiana company survived. And that brings us back to Studebaker.

Few if any companies were prepared for the Depression, but Studebaker had been booming and had a rather large cash reserve to help prop them up. When it became obvious that the downturn in the economy was going to last a while, Studebaker began work on a small, low-cost economy car. Named after Notre Dame football coach Knute Rokne, the car (Photo 43) that was supposed to help them weather the times didn’t sell. The experiment was such a bust that the board of directors forced a change in leadership.

With a frugal new leader, the company was back by 1933. They re-structured and managed to gain financing from Lehman Brothers. Their next new car, the Champion (Photo 44) did so well that by the end of the decade they were able to build a new plant in California. Then, during World War II, they turned their attention to the manufacture of trucks and actually ranked in the top 30 among all U.S. corporations for building wartime materials.

Studebaker had made it through the double whammy of the Depression and WWII that had caused the demise of so many other car companies. By the end of the war they began turning out some of the most advanced and best looking cars on the roads. Under the pen of Chief Designer Virgil Exner, such cars as the Commander (Photo 45), the Champion (Photo 46), and the Golden Hawk (Photo 47), the early 1950 were relatively successful. Then Ford announced a huge expansion and massive price cuts, which were matched by General Motors. The two mega-companies, and to a lesser degree, Chrysler, were able to sell cars for lower per unit profits because of the sheer numbers being produced. Independent companies such as Studebaker could not compete. By 1956 they were forced into a merger with the small, also troubled, Packard.

With hopes pinned on the Lark (Photo 48), the Studebaker-Packard company tried to tread water but Studebaker’s debt prior to the merger was too high. Even as they were planning what would be the most sophisticated and technically advanced car of the early 1960s, the Avanti (Photo 49), red ink continued to flow and the home of Studebaker in South Bend was closed in 1963. The company limped along for four more years but just couldn’t compete with the Big Three and finally closed shop.

The legacy of Studebaker lives on in South Bend with another of one of the best car museums in the country. The Studebaker National Museum is a treasure trove of Studebaker cars, trucks, and memorabilia what tells the whole story of this amazing company.

Today, Indiana ranks in the top three in automobile manufacturing, industry jobs, and industry-related revenue. Detroit is and will always be Motor City but there was a time when our neighbor to the west was hosting more different car companies and turning out some of the finest vehicles in the country. Had economic times been different or if some of these companies had decided to merge or buy each other earlier, who knows what may have happened going into the 1930s and beyond. Perhaps Indiana would have become the center of the automobile universe.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4

Photo 5

Photo 6

Photo 7

Photo 8

Photo 9

Photo 10

Photo 11

Photo 12

Photo 13

Photo 14

Photo 15

Photo 16

Photo 17

Photo 18

Photo 19

Photo 20

Photo 21

Photo 22

Photo 23

Photo 24

Photo 25

Photo 26

Photo 27

Photo 28

Photo 29

Photo 30

Photo 31

Photo 32

Photo 33

Photo 34

Photo 35

Photo 36

Photo 37

Photo 38

Photo 39

Photo 40

Photo 41

Photo 42

Photo 43

Photo 44

Photo 45

Photo 46

Photo 47

Photo 48

Photo 49