When we think of carmakers, we automatically think of Detroit. After all, that’s where the Big Three – Chrysler, Ford and General Motors – reside. But the history of American car building started in Indiana.
Elwood Haynes built his first gasoline-powered car in 1894 in Kokomo. The initial test drive saw Haynes tool down the street for a mile and a half at seven miles-per-hour.
A year later he was joined by the Apperson brothers, who are credited with developing the first profitable car company in America. By 1916 they had sold 7,000 cars. The company went out of business in the 1920s, but the street where their factory was located in Kokomo still bears their name.
Early car manufacturing blossomed in the Hoosier state, and at one time some 250 companies in 40 different Indiana cities were making cars or car parts.
Some companies lasted only a few years. Cole Motors, for instance, built cars in Indianapolis from 1909 to 1925 and is remembered mostly for giving a car to President William Howard Taft. The Milburn was an all-electric automobile built in Mishawaka. President Woodrow Wilson bought Milburns for his Secret Service agents.
Indiana manufactured cars tended to be high quality and expensive. Most, like the Apperson were built by hand. August Duesenberg boasted of his memorable vehicles, “I make them hell for strong!” One Duesenberg ad also guaranteed the cars could do 125mph – in reverse.
Stutz made a big splash with its cars – especially the sporty Bearcat – during the Roaring Twenties, but went bankrupt in 1936. Likewise, Cord and Auburn, noted for their innovation and superb quality, failed to survive the Great Depression.
The most notable exception was Studebaker, who parlayed a farm wagon building into a car company that thrived in South Bend until 1963.
While the Appersons built cars in Kokomo, other manufacturers focused on car parts. Headlights, for example, were pioneered in Kokomo, and sealed-beam headlights were first manufactured there. Chrome bumpers were first made in Kokomo and so were the first efficient carburetors, made by the Kingston Company.
The pneumatic tire was developed in Kokomo and so was the process for adding carbon black to rubber to strengthen the tires and turn them from white – rubber’s natural color – to black. That company later invented the white wall tire, which graced every car built until a couple decades ago.
As a sidebar to this rich auto history, Elwood Haynes is best known for inventing stainless steel, a product that earned him a lot more money than his cars ever did.
And when George Kingston got tired of making carburetors, he started making roller skates – also in Kokomo.