Imagine a time when electric cars and other environmentally friendly models outsell gas-powered cars 4-to-1. Imagine hundreds of automakers in competition, with new innovations announced almost every month. Sound impossible? It’s not. Welcome to the state of the American automotive industry in … 1900. Yes, electric and steam-powered cars ruled the roads — what few there were — in that era and hundreds of manufacturers were making cars across America. Here’s a look back at some of the notable former manufacturers that ultimately crashed, so to speak, from brand names you’ve probably never heard of to more famous models you might remember riding in with your parents or grandparents.
10. Columbia Automobile Co.
One major challenge in the automotive industry today is how to make alternative-fuel cars more appealing to owners of gas-powered vehicles. In the year 1900, that wasn’t a problem — an electric vehicle dominated sales, and these cars seemed to have a significant edge on their gasoline counterparts. The Columbia Automobile Co.’s Electric Runabout ranked No. 1 in automobile sales in 1900, and with 1,500 models sold from 1899-1900, it became the first company to sell more than 1,000 models. Electric vehicles accounted for roughly 40 percent of the autos on the road at the time. About 40 percent were powered by steam, and only 20 percent had gasoline engines. In a foreshadowing of the present day, people soon opted for faster and more dependable gasoline-powered cars.
9. REO Motor Car Co.
This company is probably best known today for inspiring the name of the classic rock band REO Speedwagon. But this Lansing, Michigan-based manufacturer built cars, trucks and even buses from 1905 through 1975. From 1905 through roughly 1915, REO was annually among the top 10 in U.S. auto sales, before losing market share to upstarts such as the Ford Motor Co. And yes, the REO Speed Wagon was an actual vehicle, a primitive version of the modern pickup truck.
There’s not much to say here that wasn’t outlined in mostly factual detail in the overlooked 1988 Francis Ford Coppola film, Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Preston Tucker’s 1948 Tucker Sedan, nicknamed the “Tucker Torpedo,” appeared to be years ahead of its time, with an aluminum block, disc brakes, fuel injection and swiveling “Cyclops” headlight that turned with the steering wheel. But bad publicity, lawsuits by prospective dealers and charges of impropriety by the Securities and Exchange Commission — Tucker was found not guilty on all counts — ruined the company. In the end, Tucker produced just 51 cars, which are highly valued on the collectibles market today. In early 2012, a collector paid $2.9 million for a Tucker.
7. Crosley Motors Inc.
Powel Crosley Jr. certainly had an innovative streak. As the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Crosley’s team hosted the first night game in Major League Baseball history on May 24, 1935. Crosley found success in many different businesses, including baseball and radio broadcasting, but he had more mixed results after founding a car manufacturing company with his engineering-minded brother, Lewis, in 1939. Crosley suffered from terrible timing — World War II halted all domestic U.S. car production in 1942 — but his company developed some interesting innovations. Some automotive historians credit Crosley with being the first automaker to use the term “sport-utility” vehicle, and the company introduced America’s first subcompact car, along with such features as four-wheel, caliper-type disc brakes. Crosley Motors Inc. sold roughly 75,000 vehicles from 1946 through 1952 before ceasing production.
Founded in Tarrytown, New York, just outside New York City, Maxwell ranked high in the top 10 among best-selling cars from 1905 through 1919. When the company struggled after World War I, Walter P. Chrysler stepped in to buy controlling interest in the company. Maxwell’s assets became part of the new Chrysler Corp.
5. DeLorean Motor Co.
It seems odd that a car that most people have never seen on the highway is recognized around the world. But the DeLorean is one of the most recognizable cars in automotive history, thanks to its star turn in the popular 1985 film Back to the Future. Where everything turned out well in the end for Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd’s characters in that flick, John DeLorean’s company fizzled. A brilliant automotive engineer and visionary who developed some of the most-beloved muscle cars in history, including the Pontiac GTO and Firebird, DeLorean set out in the mid-1970s to build his own car. His DeLorean DMC 12 prototype, with its aerodynamic design, stainless-steel body and gullwing doors, caused a stir in the automotive world when the first prototype surfaced in 1976, but production didn’t begin until 1981. DeLorean’s arrest for drug trafficking in 1982 doomed the company to failure, even though he was later cleared. Only about 9,000 DeLoreans were made during the entire run in 1981-82.
4. Nash Motors
Although the Detroit area has been regarded as the home of U.S. auto manufacturing since the early 20th century, hundreds of others automakers were active before World War II, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. Nash Motors, which originated in 1916 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, enjoyed more success than most, building cars under the Nash brand until 1957. That run was punctuated by a 1937 merger with the Kelvinator Corp. — yes, the refrigerator manufacturer. And although the last Nash model was manufactured in 1957, the car’s bloodlines continued for another couple of decades, as the Nash-Kelvinator brand merged with the Hudson Motor Car Co. in 1954 to create the American Motors Corp. Beyond its famous brand name, Nash developed some enduring automotive innovations, including several new heating and cooling system designs and seat belts, first offered as an option in 1949.
Packard enjoyed one of the most successful runs in U.S. automotive history, manufacturing autos from 1899 through 1958. The company introduced the first cars to feature a modern steering wheel and air conditioning, first offered in 1940. Packards sold well for years and had an excellent reputation. Problems developed following World War II when Packard offered lower-priced cars and even taxicabs, with models stylistically identical to its high-priced luxury brand. A merger with the financially troubled Studebaker Corp. didn’t help matters, and the last Packard roiled off the assembly line in 1958.
2. Hudson Motor Car Co.
As noted above, Hudson merged with Nash-Kelvinator in 1954 to form American Motors Corp. Hudson had been an iconic American auto name since its birth in Detroit in 1909. The brand name might be best remembered today for its dominance in the early years of NASCAR auto racing. Hudson Hornet drivers Tim Flock and Herb Thomas combined to win three championships in NASCAR’s top series in the early 1950s, no small feat in a sport that has been dominated by the “Big Three” manufacturers through the years. The Hudson brand name was discontinued in 1957.
1. Stanley Motor Carriage Co.
As noted earlier, gasoline-powered cars accounted for only about one-fifth of the auto sales in the first few years of the 20th century. Electric cars and steam-powered cars were the vehicles of choice for most. The Stanley Motor Carriage Co. led the way in the steam-powered category, with its cars nicknamed “Stanley Steamers.” Stanley ranked among the best-sellers in the first few years of the century, but the better efficiency and power offered by gasoline engines eventually led to its demise. Oddly enough, although the thought of riding next to a steam engine sounds incredibly dangerous to our modern senses — maritime history is full of ship disasters sparked by exploding boilers — there are no reports of a Stanley boiler exploding. In fact, as gasoline engines became more predominant, Stanley tried to sow doubt about that technology, hinting that the “internal explosion engine” might be unsafe. The last Stanley autos were produced in 1924.