10 Forgotten American Automakers Lost in the Mists of Time
Updated June 30, 2017
Throughout automotive industry’s history, we’ve witnessed the ups and downs of pretty much all major automakers. It’s a cycle of life, of sorts. While ups come and go, downs – as history’s taught us – can often be more permanent state of affairs. And there’s no bigger down for an automaker than ceasing to exist altogether. We’ve witnessed numerous such turns of events in the auto industry. Whether through mergers, bankruptcy or buyouts – myriad of carmakers have simply gone extinct. Phasing out of Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Mercury and Plymouth, for instance, still hurts the automobile aficionados in the US. These wounds are still fresh, however, and will require time to heal. Just as they’ll require time to be forgotten.
This time, we’re reflecting on more ancient history. We’ll be paying homage to some of the pioneers of the American car industry that have largely been forgotten by now. Unfairly, if I might add. However, we’ll also try to balance things just right without being too cryptic. After all, there were more than 1,800 car manufacturers in America by 1930. We could have picked any single one of them and there would still be a huge chance you hadn’t heard about any of them ever. Apparently, starting up the auto industry business in the brass era was like opening a small chain of convenience stores. This is why we’ll bring you the 10 largely forgotten American automakers that still played an important role in their time. Being the obvious choices, many of you should still remember a few.
Packard is a prime example that buying out competition doesn’t have to be a good thing. In fact, former luxury American automaker practically signed their own demise when they bought debt-ridden Studebaker. But more on that later.
Being established in 1899, Packard hails from the 19th century. Carmaker was founded in Warren, Ohio, before moving to Detroit in 1903, after being bought out by Henry Bourne Joy. Extremely expensive for their time, Packards represented the epitome of American motordom luxury back then. Together with Pierce-Arrow and Peerless, Packard represented one of the “Three P’s” of American automotive royalty. With the slogan: “Ask the Man Who Owns One”, extremely good sales and overseas markets established in 61 countries, Packards duly deserved their blue blood status. After all, Japan’s royal family rode in them, among others.
However, Packard’s image of a luxury automaker started fading away after the great depression when their first affordable middle-class models emerged. This new model of business saw further expansion after the WWII, but by then, Packard simply couldn’t compete with the Big Three’s affordability any more. In 1954, Nash president George Mason proposed a four-way (Packard, Studebaker, Nash, and Hudson) merger of major American independent automakers which, sadly, never materialized. Instead, Packard opted to buy out Studebaker and effectively sealed their fate.
New company, now called Studebaker-Packard had to discontinue the Packard badge in 1958 due to financial difficulties. Thus ended the last true American-made Rolls Royce competitor and company in which the likes of John Zachary DeLorean and James Alvan Macauley earned both their bread and their automotive know-how.
Studebaker continued on for almost a decade more, but eventually succumbed to the similar fate as Packard. Even Packard’s discontinuation couldn’t overcome the sheer size of the baggage (read debt) that Studebaker’s brought into the merger as a dowry.
A company that’s given us Avanti, Lark, and Hawk among others, was established in South Bend, Indiana, in 1852. However, they only entered the auto industry in 1902. Studebaker would earn the reputation for impeccable quality and reliability over the next few decades, but it would all start crashing down after the WWII. Like other independent American car makers, Studebaker too couldn’t compete with the Big Three’s aggressive expansion. Their manufacturing costs were simply too high – mostly due to the fact that Studebaker’s workers were some of the best paid labor force in the industry. Although noble, that’s one of the main reasons Studebaker’s balance sheet ended up in red after 1954. You know the rest. Packard stepped in but it was already too late.
Studebaker soldiered on until 1967 by which both South Bend and Hamilton plants were closed down. That year marked the end of Studebaker as an automaker as they merged with Wagner Electric and Worthington Corporation to form Studebaker-Worthington. Finally, Studebaker name would completely disappear from the account books in 1978 when McGraw-Edison bought the manufacturing corporation formed a decade ago. Thus one of Virgil Exner’s former employers slowly but painfully bowed from the stage.
As already mentioned above, Pierce-Arrow stood out as one of the most important representatives of the American luxury car industry in the brass era and beyond. Established as company in 1865 (Heinz, Pierce and Munschauer) and as automaker in 1901, Pierce-Arrow was also one of the very few American carmakers that have enjoyed success during that time, and managed to survive. At least until the great depression struck, that is. Company closed its doors in 1938 after failing to secure enough sales for their new, revolutionary Silver Arrow limo introduced at the 1933 New York Show.
Intentionally rejecting the idea of introducing a lower priced car in order to secure the cash flow, Pierce-Arrow never really sold that many units anyway. Still, most Hollywood stars and global royalty used to own one of them during Pierce-Arrow’s heyday. Their cars, apart from being synonymous with refinement, were also synonymous with reliability and endurance. They packed hulking 11.7L and 13.5L engines at first, but as time progressed displacements fell while the number of cylinders grew.
Pierce-Arrow will also be remembered as the first automaker to move then conventional headlights from radiator sides into flared housings extending the front fenders. That was back in 1914, mind you. Their Silver Arrow sensation which used to cost $10,000 in the early thirties, now goes for at least a few million. But they rarely cross the auction blocks since only 5 were made and 3 survived.
Oakland Motor Car Company didn’t suffer the fate of many of their coevals. Instead of being discontinued, phased out, declared bankrupt, etc. – Oakland simply changed its name. You may know them as Pontiac these days. Or at least you might have known them as Pontiac until the brand finally suffered the fate they’ve been avoiding for so many decades, back in 2010.
Oakland was founded in 1907, but Edward Murphy – automaker’s principal founder – sold half of his shares to GM after only one year of production. He died shortly after in 1909 when GM acquired the rest of the company. Oaklands were built exclusively in Pontiac, Michigan – the county seat of Oakland County. Now you know how and why Oakland was renamed Pontiac in 1931.
Immediately upon acquiring the brand, GM slotted Oakland above the volume badge Chevrolet, and below Olds, Buick and Caddy. However, gaps still existed. That’s why GM’s divisions started introducing their own sub companies at the worst of times (onset of the great depression). Needless to say, Buick’s Marquette and Olds’s Viking didn’t survive more than two model years. Oakland, on the other hand, introduced a companion marque called Pontiac which relied on the 1926 Pontiac car which was a shorter wheelbase “light six” with lower price tag designed to compete with affordable 4-cylinders of the day. When the great depression struck, and both Marquette and Viking failed, Oakland was simply succeeded by Pontiac making the upstart carmaker the only companion marque to make a true impact in the auto industry world.
Hudson Motor Car Company is one of the independent American carmakers that listened to reason and recognized that in order to fight the Big Three, they need to merge with other independent manufacturers similar in status. In the end, however, even that wasn’t enough.
Hudson was established in 1909, in Detroit, and started manufacturing cars straightaway. Company’s goal was to produce people’s cars. In other words, their philosophy was based on making vehicles cheaper than $1,000 back then. Even though their cars were affordable, this doesn’t mean they weren’t good. In fact, Hudson deserves to be called one of America’s most important automakers. They introduced a number of industry’s firsts. Like the first balanced crankshaft, first dual brakes and first dashboard warning lights for oil pressure, for instance. That balanced crankshaft allowed Hudson to make their in-house straight-six engine of great renown. Hudson Super Six introduced in 1916 generated more power than any of its competitors thanks to higher rotational speed, while remaining as smooth as slower engines.
Hudson was more than just reliable pioneering independent automaker. They also hired the very first female car designer when they signed Betty Thatcher Oros in 1939. Furthermore, they were quite successful in both NASCAR and AAA racing events in the fifties. Fifties, however, weren’t all that kind towards Hudson and co of smaller automakers. Ford/GM sales war made their life increasingly difficult and Hudson was finally acquired by the Nash-Kelvinator corporation in 1954, after facing financial struggles. This merger would launch a new carmaker we now remember as the American Motors Corporation. Of course, AMC would later be acquired by Chrysler, but not before leaving us some of the best looking (read AMX, Javelin) and weirdest looking (read Gremlin, Pacer) cars around.
All Hudson and Nash models were finally phased out in 1957, although Hudson cues like triangular grille guard and other front fascia lines survived in 1958 Rambler Ambassadors and Customs.
Nash was founded a few years later than Hudson. They were established in 1916, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In other words, by the time Nash started making cars, Hudson already pioneered their Super Six mill and propelled themselves as one of the best American carmakers of the time.
Nash, however, had their own industry’s firsts. Their “Weather Eye” heating and ventilation system debuted in 1938 and became a template for all subsequent HVAC systems. In 1941, they made the first ever mass produced unibody car in Nash 600. Then they created the Rambler – America’s first compact. That same year (1950), Nash also offered industry’s first seat belts. They even offered the first American (American-British actually) post-war sports car Nash-Healey designed by Pininfarina in 1951. And, need I say they were present when muscle car scene started kicking too? Nash was one extremely innovative automaker but most of that wouldn’t have been possible hadn’t they merged with the Kelvinator Appliance Company in 1937. Kelvinator’s CEO George W. Mason took the new company forward and, as you already know, sanctioned another merger with Hudson some two decades later.
Duesenberg was established by brothers Frederick and August Duesenberg in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1913. Company quickly moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey in order to join the war effort, never to return to Minnesota again. Instead, they sold their facilities there and moved to Indianapolis where they would remain until the end.
Fred and Augie Duesenberg have held numerous positions in the company. At one time, they weren’t more than mere employees even, working for others occupying higher positions. Although astute engineers, the brothers were never good businessmen. That’s why Duesenberg was finally sold to Cord in 1925. In truth, E.L. Cord only bought the company for Fred and Augie’s engineering skills. Their cars were among the most advanced and reliable vehicles of the time, after all. When Frederick died of pneumonia in 1932, August had to take his older brother’s responsibilities. Company survived initial depression struggles, but finally folded together with Cord’s financial empire in 1937.
During two decades of production, company only birthed three models – initial Model A, extremely rare (13 units) Model X, and their most successful enterprise, Model J. Last of the three was extremely popular among Hollywood elite and royalty across the globe. At least one of the numerous Model J iterations was owned by the likes of Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Mae West, Duke of Windsor, Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, Alfonso XIII of Spain, and even Al Capone. Hollywood stars were actually keeping the company from going under during most of depression as they remained some of the precious few people able to spend close to (sometimes even above) $20,000 on a car at the time.
Cord was the smallest partner in Auburn-Duesenberg-Cord automobile alliance, but it was also probably the most innovative. Sharing Errett Lobban Cord’s name, short-lived automaker served the purpose of building bold, unconventional and captivating cars. It was the Cord 810/812 that first introduced concealed headlamps which wouldn’t see the mass production for decades after. Then again, Cord L-29 is still regarded as the first American car with the front-wheel drive.
Although concept of making revolutionary cars sounds good in theory, it rarely materializes in practice. Such was the case with Cord too. Cord manufactured cars from 1929 to 1932 and again from 1936 to 1937. During that short lifespan, they only sold around 4,400 L-29’s and less than 1,200 810/812’s. Even with only two models across five model years and less than 6,000 total vehicles sold, Cord still represents one of the more important American carmakers. Their boldness and innovative spirit earned them that status.
Unlike the aforementioned Viking and Marquette, LaSalle actually managed to survive long enough to be considered an important automaker. Cadillac’s companion marque, however, didn’t enjoy the long and successful life of the Pontiac brand. It came in 1927 and went off the stage in 1940. But that was still plenty of time to make an impact in the luxury car segment.
LaSalle was introduced in order to help GM get Cadillac back to the top. In 1925, it was Packard who owned the luxury car market, not Cadillac. Packard recognized the needs of many modern men to whom hulking long-wheelbase limos didn’t appeal. They offered lower priced, but still highly quality and refined cars. On the other hand, gap between lower tier Caddy costing $3,195 and upper tier Buick costing $1,925 was staggering. People who could afford something more premium than the Buick but not top of the line, went Packard’s way. This is where LaSalle steps in. Priced at $2,685 in its base form ($100 above the equivalent Packard), LaSalle finally offered GM buyers a competitive premium car.
Little did GM know that LaSalle would become so popular to threaten the Cadillac itself. But that’s exactly what’s happened. Junior was outselling the senior by some margin and even cut Cadillac’s sales in half at one point. However, by 1940 when LaSalle was finally canceled, automaker has already fulfilled its purpose. For once, LaSalle’s middle-luxury niche exclusivity all but disappeared by then, as Buicks reduced the price gap between themselves and Cadillacs. Finally, LaSalle was never as recognized a badge as Cadillac was. It may have taken them some time, but Cadillac now knew how to market middle class car under premium class badge. At least LaSalle went off the stage while on high. Their last year was also their second best-selling year.
DeSoto was Chrysler’s answer to the middle class market’s requirements. They establishet the brand in 1928 and named it after the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto who was the first documented European to have crossed the Mississippi river. DeSoto was intended to compete with Mercury, Oldsmobile, Studebaker and Hudson among others.
DeSoto achieved instant success. In their initial year, DeSotos pushed 81,065 units setting the record for the best-selling first-year model which would stand until 1960 when Ford Falcon sold more than 430,000 units across the range. However, Chrysler would acquire Dodge that very same year and start marketing two mid-priced badges. It wouldn’t take long before Chrysler raised DeSoto’s status compared to that of a Dodge, however.
DeSoto survived until 1961, by which its sales took a sharp decline. New Chrysler Windsor which served as premium badge’s entry-level car further affected DeSoto’s sales. By the time Chrysler announced DeSoto’s discontinuation in late 1960 (month and a half after introducing the 1961 year models), things were a mess. Chrysler and Plymouth dealers were forced to push the remaining models at a loss. In the end, it was mismanagement that doomed DeSoto to failure. Chrysler inadvertently downsized the Chrysler badge which now collided with DeSoto. But that wasn’t the isolated case. They allowed all their sister divisions to compete amongst themselves, and DeSoto ended up with the stick. Finally, problematic dealer networks and 1958 recession put the nail in DeSoto’s coffin. At least we’ll remember DeSoto for the first mass produced American car with pop-up headlights.
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