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Detroit Car Companies You've Never Heard Of
Posted September 13, 2013
The Big 3 are superstars. Ability to adapt, marketing intuition and dumb luck have allowed Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Chrysler to prosper and dominate the American automotive landscape for decades.
But they weren't always the only American automakers on the scene. In the early days there were dozens upon dozens of car companies, all building and innovating in Detroit. Each company hoped to capture some of the Motor City magic and make it big. Companies started by buggy-builders of a bygone era, veterans of the automotive industry and even famous fighter aces have all faded into the shadows of history. Some morphed into well known brands we drive today, and others do nothing more than collect dust in museums.
Click through to find out what happened to the first automotive start-ups:
William C. Anderson started out making carriages about an hour east of Detroit in Port Huron, Mich.Anderson Electric Car Company
Anderson could feel the winds of change. Like many horse and buggy companies, he moved operations to Detroit and entered the automotive age. By 1907, Anderson had built over a hundred "horseless carriages". By 1910 the company was producing 1,500 cars a year.
Anderson's Detroit Electric model could get 200 miles on a single charge on an Edison nickel-iron battery. Of course it only went 20 miles an hour, but that was considered the average speed for city driving at the time.
Famous people like Thomas Edison and even Clara Ford drove Detroit Electrics. As often happens in early car companies, Anderson Electric changed it's name to reflect its most popular model. In 1920 Anderson became The Detroit Electric Car Company. Detroit Electric was the most successful electric car company before World War II, selling over 13,000 vehicles during it's operation.
Anderson Electric's sale slumped after World War I when more efficient combustion engines came on the scene. The company was bankrupted in the 1929 stock market crash. It struggled to stay on for many years, selling limited stock or special orders. The last Detroit Electric was shipped on Feb. 23, 1939.What Happened?
Detroit Electric may have a second life in the Motor City. The brand popped up again in 2008 as a pet project for the former CEO of the Lotus Engineering Group Albert Lam. This year, Detroit Electric rented space in downtown Detroit's historic Fisher Building. They recently revised their plans to build in Detroit however, favoring a new production facility in Holland.
Oakland Motor Car lasted as an independent company from 1907 to 1909 before it was absorbed by General Motors. It was another car company that started out building buggies. Edward M. Murphy founded Oakland Motor Car in the city of Pontiac, Mich., about 45 minutes north of Detroit.What Happened
Oakland's claim to fame was building the first engine that rotated counterclockwise, which was much safer for right handed people to crank.
Benjamin Briscoe has started out with Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company in 1903, and was already a heavy weight in the Detroit auto industry when he founded United States Motor Company in 1910. It was the first attempt to consolidate multiple brands under an umbrella company (GM was also coming into its own around this time). USMC bough 11 struggling companies. At its height the automaker had 18 factories producing 52 different brands.United States Motor Company
Bad management caused the company to go bankrupt only two years later, but the best selling and oldest brand, the Maxwell, survived. When company went into receivership, the government put automotive veteran Walter Flanders in charge. Flanders was no slouch in the automotive business. He was considered a genius manager and is credited with improving work flow at Ford.What Happened?
He sold off most of USMC's assets, and changed the name to the Maxwell Motor Company. In the early 1920s, Maxwell Motor Company would become part of Chrysler. The Maxwell model disappeared in 1924.
Many smaller car companies were founded by people who started out working for one of the future Big 3. Robert Craig Hupp in founded Hupp Motors in 1909 after working for what would become Oldsmobile.Hupp Motor Company
Hupp competed strongly against Ford and Chevrolet. By 1928 sales had reached over 65,000. Hupp bought another small auto maker, Chandler-Cleveland Motors Corporation, for its manufacturing facilities. A car dealer in Hibbing, Minn., used a 7-passenger Hupp as the first vehicle for what became Greyhound.
Hupp was selling larger, more expensive cars in 1925. Like so many early manufacturers, they built way too many models to try and cover every buyer's budget. The result was production volumes so low that no model could be produced in sufficient quantity to produce an operating profit.What Happened?
Sales began to fall during the depression. Squabbles among stockholders and failed hostile takeovers lead to a slow death for the company. The final Hupp car, The Hupmobile Skylark was ready in 1939, a car which Hupp had been taking orders for two years. By the time it was ready most of the orders were cancelled. Only 319 Skylarks were produced.
The last preserved Hupp dealership is in Omaha, Neb.
Ford is known for building cheap, affordable cars, for building them on an assembly line, and for paying his workers a living wage. Two out of three of those landmarks were taught to Ford by Ransom Eli Olds, the actual inventor of the assembly line.REO Motor Car Company
At Olds Motor Works in Detroit, he mass produced the Curved Dash Oldsmobile on an assembly line. He sold the first Oldsmobile for $650, years before Ford's Model T would make the scene. Olds manufactured the first affordable cars for the average American. He sold Olds Motor Works, which would later be renamed for it's most famous model when acquired by General Motors, the Oldsmobile, and started R.E. Olds Motor Car Company. The new company became known as REO or Reo (it was spelled both ways by the company) to avoid a lawsuit with Olds Motors.
Reo Motors held on the longest out of all the companies on this list, but was slipping before World War II and did not survive long afterwards. In 1954, the company sold its vehicle manufacturing operations, its only assets, and went defunct.What Happened?
Rickenbacker Motors did not last long, but the story is too interesting to leave out. Eddie Rickenbacker began building cars in 1908 in Columbus, Ohio, when he worked with the Frayer-Miller Automobile Company. There, he developed a taste for racing and became one of the nation's most famous early race car drivers.Rickenbacker Motor Company
When World War I began, Rickenbacker became a fighter pilot and was eventually one America's top flying aces. While flying some of the first (and most dangerous) fighter planes ever made he shot down 26 Luftwaffe aircraft. He received the French Croix de Guerre and the American Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1922, he founded Rickenbacker Motors. He included the emblem from his squadron, a top hat inside of a ring, on his cars. Some featured a fighter plane hood ornament as well. His sedans, roadsters and sport coupes featured powerful engines and low slung bodies built for balance.
The brand saw initial success in part due to its famous founder's name, but expanded too quickly. Rickenbacker was the first car to feature all-wheel brakes, a development panned by other auto makers as dangerous. Studebaker even took out ads against the brake design, claiming all-wheel brakes would cause the cars to slide and lose control.What Happened?
Eventually other companies adopted it, but the bad press was enough to help kill Rickenbacker. The company took orders for more vehicles then they could produce and by the time production was underway, interest in the company had cooled and many orders were cancelled. Management woes and mishandled dealer relations ended production in 1927 with only 34,500 Rickenbackers made.
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