An American Car Saga: Have You Ever Seen a Climber or a Premocar?

Author Alan Naldrett has had a passion for many years. Through his research, he’s learned that there’s far more to the American car scene than just your standard Ford or Chevy. Read on to learn more about early American car companies, and models like the Bacon!

By Alan Naldrett

If one were to ask the average person “how many U.S. auto companies do you think there were besides Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors?” you would probably get a wide variety of answers, ranging from seven or eight to “several hundred.” However, the actual number is closer to more than a thousand! Why were there so many car companies? When horseless carriages were first seen in the 1890s, building one became the latest “fad,” replacing the previous big thing, bicycles. Building a car was something many people wanted to do, and many made the attempt, damn the cost!

President Warren Harding in a Premocar, built in Birmingham, Alabama. (From the author’s collection)
President Warren Harding in a Premocar, built in Birmingham, Alabama. (From the author’s collection).

The newly fledgling auto industry at first seemed more consolidated on the East Coast, with Massachusetts and Connecticut producing electric and steam vehicles, and selling them to the public during the late 1890s. But by 1900, new auto companies had been created in the Midwest, with Cleveland and the rest of Ohio having a multitude of auto companies within its borders. Indiana also had many car companies scattered throughout the state, with a majority in Indianapolis, but major car companies also in smaller cities like Kokomo, South Bend, Auburn, Connersville, and Elkhart.

Around 1905, Michigan began to become the leader in auto companies, starting with the Ford Motor Company, and other car companies setting up shop in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction area. Meanwhile, auto innovator Billy Durant began forming General Motors in Flint, Michigan by buying the rights to manufacture the Buick. Many other major auto companies started in or moved to Detroit, including Hudson, Packard, and Chalmers. Other Michigan cities produced autos, including Kalamazoo, which had Checker Cab and four other companies, and Grand Rapids, with four companies. The cities of Kalamazoo, Saginaw, Battle Creek, Alpena, and Pontiac all had car companies in their boundaries.

The 1923 Climber from Arkansas (Courtesy of Wikipedia).
The 1923 Climber from Arkansas (Courtesy of Wikipedia).

By 1950 however, almost all the smaller car companies had fallen by the wayside, most of them either liquidated or absorbed into a larger corporation. Some companies managed to stay in business, but discontinued producing cars. For instance, the Studebaker Corporation morphed slowly into an air-conditioning manufacturer. During this time period, the larger car companies came to be known as the “Big Three,” and included Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. There was also the “Little Four,” which included Nash, Studebaker, Packard, and Hudson.

However, even the Little Four struggled during the 50s. A price war between Ford and General Motors to establish the most popular “family car” hurt the smaller companies immensely, as they could not compete against the two major companies’ lower prices. To stave off bankruptcy, Hudson and Nash combined to form the American Motor Company, and Studebaker and Packard joined forces. But by 1980, The Big Three were the last auto companies left, with American Motors the only survivor of the independent car corporations.

Advertisement for Kleiber Cars from San Francisco. The company continued in trucks after they discontinued automobiles.
Advertisement for Kleiber Cars from San Francisco. The company continued in trucks after they discontinued automobiles.

Besides these various examples, there were plenty of other car companies, many of which were very successful and well-known in their day. Almost every state in the U.S. has hosted one or more car companies within its boundaries.  Many were “regional brands,” only sold within the state and surrounding environs. Some of the notable ones include the Premocar of Alabama, the Climber of Arkansas, California’s Kleiber, and the Glide from Illinois. Some of these regional companies lasted many years, but eventually fell to the wayside with the growth of national companies.

The proliferation of car companies nationwide can be seen when viewing the floor plans for the 1909 New York Auto show. Looking at the space allocations, one sees a lot of car companies that were “national brands,” with a wide and large distribution across the US: On the top row of the chart is the “Hupp,” Company, which just getting started with a small space in the show. The Hupp Motor Company, maker of the Hupmobile, would later become a major Detroit auto company. Also, at the top of the chart is National, a large and successful Indiana company, and Oakland, which was later purchased by GM and became Pontiac. One row down is Maxwell, which would later become Chrysler.

1909 New York Auto Show space allocation (From the author’s collection).
1909 New York Auto Show space allocation (From the author’s collection).

With so many car companies, a lot of names were repeated over the years. Some of the most popular names were Ajax, American, Anderson, Aurora, California, Clark, Cleveland, Comet, Continental, Crown, Davis, Detroit, Eagle, Empire, Falcon, Ideal, Imperial, International, Keystone, Logan, Martin, Meteor, Monarch, Morse, New Era, Penn, Pilgrim, Rockaway, Standard, Traveler, Vaughn, Victor, and Wolverine.  Each was the name of at least 3 or more different, unrelated auto companies! There were at least 10 auto companies called “American.” But there were also a lot of names that (thankfully) only one company ever used. These included Bugmobile, Ben Hur, Barley, Blood, Car-Nation (aka Carnation), Everybody’s, Hanger, Marvel, Peter Pan, Rushmobile, Seven Little Buffalos, Studillac, United States Long Distance, and my personal favorite, Bacon.

Advertisement for the Glide, manufactured on Glide Street in Peoria, Illinois. (From the author’s collection).
Advertisement for the Glide, manufactured on Glide Street in Peoria, Illinois. (From the author’s collection).

This is, of course, just a fraction of the successful and semi-successful car companies. In the 1913 New York Auto Show in Madison Square Garden, there were over 600 companies represented. Today, there are over 20 independent automakers manufacturing cars within the United States, although many of them manufacture only a few cars per year. Most of these companies that managed to go into production were in business for about three to ten years. Many of the companies, like the Cole Motor Company of Indianapolis, had a healthy run and left their owners rich and happy. But the majority, of course, fell by the wayside. Otherwise, we would have as many car companies today as there are soda and beer brands, restaurant chains, or even websites on the Internet!

About the Author
Alan Naldrett divides his time between being a librarian, lecturer and author, having written and co-written three local history books and a Michigan history book as well as a number of history columns. He is a life member of the Chesterfield Historical Society and the New Baltimore Historical Society, and a past vice-chairman of the Macomb County Historical Commission. Alan earned a bachelor's degree at Michigan State University and master's degrees in information science and archival science.

If you want to see more of Alan's work, check out his book below!

Do you have a favorite early American car model? Let us know in the comments!
Posted: 9/10/2018| with 0 comments

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