Q: Greg, I enjoy reading about the old cars and the companies that were around back when I was young. Can you give us some information on those car companies in America that an 82-year-old remembers? How many were there in the beginning and how many now? Thanks.
-- Harry B., from Pennsylvania.
A: Harry, I'd be happy to help. Starting from 1900 to 1919, an unbelievable number of 2,000 American companies were involved in the construction of horseless motor vehicles. Back then, internal combustion, electric and steam were all utilized to some extent, but it was Henry Ford that receives credit for the first mass-produced car in 1908, which we all know as the Model T.
Ford relied on the Model T all the way until 1927 when he ushered in the Model A. During this time, the major competition caught up to Ford's exceptionally produced cars. Not surprisingly, many of the smaller companies just couldn't keep up and closed doors, resulting in the larger manufacturers forging ahead.
General Motors (GM), founded in 1908 and its first model was the Buick. GM became a giant of sorts as it utilized even better production methods than Ford. GM then purchased Oakland (Pontiac) in 1909, and blended the model with its soon to become popular Oldsmobile, Chevrolet and Cadillac brands in a highly successful long term strategic marketing plan. However, Ford didn't just sit by, and adapted well to the GM threat. This is how the official "GM vs. Ford" era began, which remains to this day.
The third powerhouse we all came to know originally went by the name Maxwell, which continued its climb and in 1925 became Chrysler Corporation. In 1928, Chrysler made a deal with the Dodge Brothers and the Dodge joined the popular DeSoto and Plymouth lines. This gave Chrysler a great lineup, joining its luxury Imperial that debuted in 1926.
These three companies formed the "Big Three" that we still refer to here in 2016. They successfully utilized their superior assembly line power and price advantage to eliminate the competition. Specifically, by the depression of 1929, American car manufacturers shrunk from 2,000 initially to just 98. During the 1930s, at the height of the depression, this number dwindled all the way down to 44.
At the beginning of the 1940s, Chrysler, Ford and GM accounted for 90 percent of all U.S. car sales, with the rest divided between Packard, Hudson, Nash-Kelvinator, Studebaker, Checker, Crosley and Willys-Overland/Jeep.
In the late 40s and early 50s, Tucker and Kaiser-Frazer joined the fray while Nash-Kelvinator, which produced the Rambler, merged with Hudson to become American Motors in 1954. Studebaker and Packard also joined forces in 1954 and lasted until 1963. Honorable mention goes to the Avanti Car Company, which tried to make a go of it following Studebaker's closing. Avanti operated out of Canada and then again in the states under five different ownerships through 2007.
Crosley, the small car and truck line operated by Cincinnati native Powel Crosley Jr., owner of the Cincinnati Reds and Crosley Radio, closed its doors in 1952, while Kaiser purchased Willys-Overland and lasted until 1955 as a car builder. In 1956, Kaiser concentrated on the Willys-Overland Jeep and Jeep truck/station wagon vehicles. The company was re-named Kaiser Jeep Corporation until 1970, when Kaiser sold the Jeep line to American Motors and exited the car/truck manufacturing business. Preston Tucker made just 51 of his famous car, recounted in the movie "Tucker" which I always recommend viewing. Today, 47 Tuckers still survive and are collector diamonds.
Some of the other independents that gave it a good try were Malcolm Bricklin and his SV-1 gull wing and Madman Muntz and his Muntz Jet (we've written of these two before). We'll also give a tip of the hat to John DeLorean and his stainless DMC-12. DeLorean, Godfather of the Pontiac GTO along with PR pro Jim Wangers, is noteworthy because he was forced to build his DMC-12 overseas after failing to come to terms with an American workforce. Other American companies included American Bantam and King Midget.
By 1976, only 11 car companies were left, with many consolidating their businesses. Checker Motor Company, famous for its taxi cabs, hung on in auto manufacturing until 1982 as one of the last independents, relying on Chevrolet engines and transmissions in its final years. Checker Motors produced underbody stampings for the "Big Three" at its home plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, although, not surprisingly, it filed for bankruptcy in January 2009.
Chrysler gobbled up American Motors in 1987, acquiring the popular Jeep line as the trump card. Then, Daimler AG, Mercedes-Benz parent, bought Chrysler in 1998, only to unload it in 2007 to Cerberus Capital Management LLC, a private American company. Chrysler went into bankruptcy reorganization a second time in its history until savior Fiat came along in 2009 with a restructure plan. Established in 2014 as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), it is today the seventh largest auto manufacturer in the world.
So, to answer your question, when you add the electric car company Tesla, which debuted in 2008, to the American car company equation, we now have four American-bred car/truck manufacturers, down from 2,000. (And I think Tesla Motors will make it, too).
Thanks for your letter.
-- Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other Gatehouse Media publications. He welcomes reader input at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or email at email@example.com.