Car companies thrived in 1900s Indiana

Two decades after Elwood Haynes drove his newfangled horseless buggy down a Kokomo street, cars had become all the rage in Indiana.

“From the beginning, Hoosiers loved cars,” historian James H. Madison writes in “Hoosiers — A New History of Indiana.” They loved driving them, and they loved making them.

As of 1919, Indiana boasted 172 companies building cars or car parts in more than 30 cities and towns. The automotive belt included Kokomo, Marion, Anderson, New Castle, Muncie, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Auburn and Indianapolis.

“Hoosiers loved cars so much because the auto industry put a lot of food on a lot of tables,” notes Drew Van De Wielle, curator of collections at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend.

By 1925, the Indiana Highway Commission reported, “Horse-drawn traffic has almost disappeared from our main highways.”

Whether for driving to work, church or a Sunday spin in the country, the cars were so effectively marketed that consumers started buying them on installment plans.

Several Hoosier models attracted a national following for their sleek lines, bright colors and reliable engines. Among the more popular: Auburn, Cole, Cord, Duesenberg, Marmon and Stutz. In 1909, Indiana ranked second only to Henry Ford’s Michigan in the number of cars produced.

The most successful of the classic carmakers was Studebaker Brothers, based in South Bend, which had been making carriages and wagons since 1868. In the mid 1880s, it was the world’s largest maker of horse-drawn equipment with annual sales topping $2 million.

When the car came along at the turn of the century, the brothers wisely changed course, producing their first electric car in 1902 and gas-powered vehicles by 1904. In 1910, the company acquired the second largest carmaker in Detroit and the following year reorganized as Studebaker Corp.

The Great Depression and two world wars affected Studebaker’s sales and product lines, as they did all carmakers, but the company weathered the storms and continued to produce popular models into the 1950s, including the 1947 Starlight Coupe and the 1950 “Bullet Nose.” In 1950, more than 343,000 cars and trucks rolled off its lines, generating a $22.5-million profit.

The Auburn Automobile Company achieved similar prestige after a rocky launch in 1903. When entrepreneur E.L. Cord took over operations, he revived the company applying the philosophy: “novelty sells.” He lowered prices, ordered eye-catching paint combinations and added state-of-the art eight-cylinder engines.

In 1926, Cord acquired the failing Duesenberg Motor Company of Indianapolis, named for brothers Fred and August Duesenberg, German immigrants who had developed a reputation for engineering.

Cord assigned Fred Duesenberg the job of designing a high-powered luxury car that would outclass everything on the market. The Model J featured a 265-horsepower engine and reached speeds of 115 mph.

A changing labor market and mastery of mass production by the Big Three Automakers — GM, Ford and Chrysler — spelled the demise of the independent Hoosier-owned companies. Most went out of business during the Great Depression. Auburn ceased production in 1936. Studebaker hung on until 1966.

If you go

Studebaker National Museum: 201 S. Chapin Street, South Bend

Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum: 1600 S. Wayne Street, Auburn

This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.