History Of American Car Companies And Where The Industry Is Headed

Greg Zyla
Q: Greg, I’m part of a bunch of car lovers who go to the area car shows and love to talk cars. Can you tell us some history on car companies in America and also what you think is coming in the future? How many car companies were there and can you comment on where the car industry is headed? Thanks very much Clint K., Jacksonville, Florida.
A: Clint, I’d be glad to answer your questions as best I can.
From the years 1900 to 1919, some 2,000 American companies were involved in some way with the construction of motor vehicles. Henry Ford receives credit for building the first mass-produced car in 1908 with the Model T. Along the way, and while still building the Model T., Ford actually shut down his plant several times to re-tool for his second car, the 1927 Model A.
Through it all, the competition caught up to Ford’s assembly line advances and produced quality automobiles as the smaller companies folded. Larger concerns forged ahead with General Motors (GM), founded in 1908 with its Buick line, becoming a giant thanks to even better production methods than Ford. However, Ford adapted well to GM’s threat, and the two went head-to-head for superiority.
A third powerhouse, Maxwell, continued its climb and in 1925 became Chrysler Corporation, which then purchased Dodge in 1928. Their cars and trucks were very popular, and these companies formed the “Big Three” that we know today.
This Big Three wheeled its power and affordable price as the number of U.S. car companies by 1929 had shrunk to 98. During the 1930s, this number dwindled to 44.
At the beginning of the 1940s, The Big Three accounted for 90-percent of all U.S. car sales, with the rest divided between Packard, Hudson, Nash-Kelvinator, Checker, American Bantam/Austin, Studebaker, Crosley and Willys-Overland/Jeep.
In the early ’50s, Tucker, Muntz and Kaiser-Frazer joined the fray. Nash-Kelvinator, which produced the Rambler, merged with Hudson to become American Motors in 1954, while Studebaker and Packard also joined forces in 1954 and lasted until 1963.
Crosley closed its doors in 1952, American Austin, now just building trailers, closed shop in 1954 while Earl “Madman” Muntz tried car building with Frank Kurtis in 1950 and closed shop in 1954 with his Muntz Jet. Kaiser purchased Willys-Overland, stopped car production in 1955 and then 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 manufacturing business. Preston Tucker made just 51 of his famous car, recounted in the movie “Tucker,” which I recommend viewing.
By 1976, only 11 car companies were left, with many consolidating their businesses. Checker Motor Company, one of the many car companies founded in the 1920s, was famous for its taxi cabs and hung on in auto manufacturing until 1982 as one of the last independents.
Chrysler gobbled up American Motors in 1987, acquiring the popular Jeep line as its trump card along with the strong sales of Dodge Ram trucks. These years would be Chrysler’s last as an official American company as first a partnership with Renault in the mid 1980s was followed by a sale to Daimler AG, parent of Mercedes-Benz, in 1998. Daimler gave up in 2007, selling Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management LLC, a private American company. After several troubled years, Chrysler found a savior in Fiat, and today operates as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles after a successful reorganization and some U.S. Government assistance. GM also received assistance during the serious recession in 2008, although Ford never took a penny.
Today, California-based electric car manufacturer Tesla has joined the American manufacturing fray, and makes a fine all electric automobile. Further, many foreign car companies including Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz also build cars in the United States but are still official foreign car companies. Thanks to their many assembly plants in the states, these car companies employ thousands of American workers that build quality foreign cars.
As for the future, we’re already there. General Motors huge multinational footprint includes factories in Hungary, Columbia, Egypt, Brazil, Japan, India, Ecuador, Thailand, Argentina, Russia, Mexico, Canada and France in addition to co-ops in China and Australia. Today, General Motors has reorganized after bankruptcy reorganization as General Motors LLC.
This all helps explain further that today’s American cars have much worldwide manufacturing influence. Fiat Chrysler offers its Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Lancia, Fiat 500/Abarth, RAM Trucks, Jeep, and Maserati brands and may be the best example of a most interesting current bloodline. Fiat’s Ferrari was spun off in 2016 and gave Fiat Chrysler shareholders stock in Ferrari (ticker RACE) in a needed corporate business disassociation. Regardless of this split and public offering “separation,” Ferrari and Fiat will always be joined at the hip.
In ending, the days of Ford, GM and Chrysler all having their own vehicles built 100-percent in America are over and won’t ever return. We must admit, however, that today’s modern multinational cars and trucks are way better and safer than ever, while progress in electric cars will continue until one day, not that far off, the modern internal combustion powered car will be as rare as the electric cars were 20 years ago when the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius came to America.
Hope this all helps and thanks for your letter.
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