I’ve heard it said that America has had a long love affair with the automobile.
If that’s true, a lot of the romance began in Indiana. Over a century ago, there were so many car companies around Indianapolis that four local businessmen considered it a wise investment to construct a test track. Carl Fisher, Arthur Newby, Frank Wheeler, and Jim Allison purchased 320 acres northwest of Indianapolis and built a 2.5 mile oval roadway for car makers who might like to assess the worthiness of their machines.
Perhaps they would want to do a little racing there, too. The result: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway
History is not clear as to exactly who invented the first automobile. Popular opinion often gives the honor to Henry Ford. Ford did much to make the car available to common people, but he most certainly was not the first person to produce a “horseless carriage.”
There are several inventors who got into the car game early enough to deserve to be called “pioneers.” At the top of the list is a scientist from Kokomo, Elwood Haynes, who built a very early automobile in 1894. Kokomo school children can tell you that Haynes tested his new car out on Pumpkinvine Pike southeast of town.
Folks in the capital city might contend that their town saw the first car. C. H. Black claimed that he had his little car running up and down the streets of Indianapolis (and scaring the daylights out of the horses) as early as 1891.
At any rate, it is clear that Hoosiers were early enthusiasts of automobiles. Maybe it was the rhythmic putt-putt of the internal combustion engine or the magic of a self-propelled machine. Perhaps it was the thrill of going 10-miles an hour or more.
Whatever the attraction, Hoosiers were eager to get moving. They went out to their garages and started building cars for themselves.
By the time the first race took place at the new Indianapolis Speedway, there were over 250 different makes of cars and trucks being built in Indiana. Some of the names echo down the golden halls of automobile history: Auburn, Cole, Stutz, Maxwell, Marmon, Cord, Studebaker and, in a class all by itself, the inimitable Duesenberg.
These brands were the royalty of the road, but many other Indiana companies earned respect and success, at least for a few years, in the fledgling auto industry. Cars were turned out in more than 50 cities in the state. Indianapolis alone had at least 56 different manufacturers at one time or another.
Franklin was home to the Indiana Motor Manufacturing Company which produced two models from 1909 - 1914. One was named the “Cameron.” Another was the “Continental.” The 1909 edition of “The Horseless Age,” an early car magazine, advertised the “Continental 35” five-passenger touring car, brand new for $1,400. Let the record show that the average annual salary in 1909 was around $800.
Cars were rolling out of factories in almost every Hoosier town. There were two in Shelbyville. The “Clark” and the “Meteor” both originated there. Buyers of the Clark paid $1400 for the 30 horsepower model. Those who had a lust for speed could fork over $1750 for the more powerful 40 horsepower version.
In Columbus, the Reeves Pulley Company produced automobiles in the first decade of the 19th century. With nameplates like the “Octoauto” and the “Sextoauto,” the Reeves cars must have aroused some curiosity.
From Hammond to New Albany, South Bend to Evansville, Richmond to Terre Haute, manufacturers of “new-fangled vehicles” covered the state. Small car companies reached their zenith during the first 15 years of the 19th century.
By the start of World War I, many of the factories had closed. Gone were jaunty machines with names like Comet, Handy Wagon, Pathfinder. Cyclop, Dixie, Hercules, and Wizard.
Most of those that survived into the 1920’s went down with Wall Street in ‘29.
Studebaker lasted the longest, rolling the last car off the line in 1963.
As the automobile business continues to evolve, Indiana can be proud of the role it played as a primary birthplace of the industry over 100 years ago. A lot of cars have come down the road since that time. I guess you could say that we Hoosiers have had quite a ride.
Another kind of