Dozens of bookstores shelves are devoted to success stories – but how many words are devoted to the fine art of failing?
That is why Alan Naldrett’s new book is so intriguing. “Lost Car Companies of Detroit” tells the stories of the auto companies that failed. That died. That never made it past the starting stages. Some were naïve entrepreneurs who misplaced their optimism. Some were experienced manufacturers who just didn’t have the right idea at the right time.
Even if you’re not an auto buff or historian, this book is a revelation of just how many companies started in Detroit. And how many failed in Detroit. There are more than 200 auto-related businesses profiled in Naldrett’s book, all of which tried their luck in the Motor City. But, as he wisely notes, they may have failed but they ultimately helped to shape the industry and the designs that are on the road today.
“Motorcars of all types represent both power and beauty. All around the world people love their cars—Detroit has the addition of the history and the ever-present culture celebrating the automobile,” Naldrett said.
The personalities found within these pages are as grand as the automobiles they created. There’s J.J. Cole, who forgot to put breaks on his new car. So on his test run, Cole had to drive it in circles until it ran out of gas. David D. Buick went from being the founder of his own leading auto company to working the information desk at the Detroit Board of Trade. And who could forget William “Billy” Durant or Ransom Eli Olds, whose fame was firmly established when his Speedwagon went on to inspire the name of an awesome 1970s band?
“Lost Car Companies of Detroit,” $21.99, is published by The History Press. As of Monday, it will be available at local retailers, online bookstores or through Arcadia Publishing and The History press at www.arcadiapublishing.com or (888) 313-2665.
Full disclosure: I also have published books with The History Press. I sat next to Naldrett at a local history writers’ book fair, and I adored the idea for this book. We shared stories of our favorite failures, like Eddie Rickenbacker’s short-lived car manufactured just down the street from where we were sitting. I have a preview copy, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. I get nothing for this story or review other than the satisfaction of sharing this cool book and a love of Detroit history. Just for the record.
Q: What was your inspiration for this book?
A: Coming from the Motor City, I’ve always liked autos. But because I’m a Baby Boomer, growing up I chiefly knew about the “Big Three” companies. Also, AMC was still around and I vaguely remembered Packard. So I would be interested whenever I heard of a company not owned by Ford, GM, Chrysler, or AMC, all of whom were headquartered in the Detroit area.
Ironically, it’s while I lived in California in the 1980s that I found out about many of the old Detroit brands. I moved into a house in Berkeley, California where there was a three-car garage and I thought I would get a garage for my car. But I soon discovered that the owner used the garage to house his THREE Hudsons, all built in Detroit of course. This was when I realized the reverence with which even non-Detroiters hold the old cars and realized that all the other car companies that I had heard about but were gone by the time I was in elementary school, like Packard and Hudson, were ALL from Detroit!
While I was working on my previous book, The Lost Towns of Eastern Michigan, my fiancé Lynn and I were looking around for signs of the old towns that were annexed by Detroit. While doing that we came across many of the old auto factories, which are mostly still around. This got me interested in the number of old factories still around, and which auto companies had used them. Once I went down that rabbit hole, I started collecting pictures of the old factories. There were a LOT of auto company factory pictures in the old postcard shows we went to. (Evidently, the companies were as proud of their factories as they were of their cars.)
But I discovered that with tons of books about Henry Ford, GM, and even Chrysler, there were very few about the over 200 other car companies. And most of those few were published over thirty years ago.
So I realized that although there is still plenty of information about cars in general out there, the stories of the auto companies that came before the Big Three hadn’t been told in a while and weren’t as accessible.
Q: What did you learn from doing this book?
A: I think I have a lot better understanding of how Detroit became the Motor City. Henry Ford and Ransom Olds coming from the area was important, as well as Billy Durant. Detroit had the raw materials, including iron and wood (wood was used for many of the early car frames). It also had water and rail transportation. But I think the main reason was the collusion among the different auto makers. New England, especially Massachusetts, had lots of electric car makers. But they were spread out all over the area, and there was little communication between the different companies, workers, and innovators.
Conversely, the Detroit area had most of the carmakers converge in roughly the same area, the Milwaukee Junction, which was the nexus of two train lines. Many of the chief auto innovators would move from one company to the next, taking their ideas with them and spreading them among the various car companies. Roy Chapin worked for Chalmers Motors and Olds Motor Works before forming Hudson Motor Company. The Dodge Brothers worked for Ford and Olds. If one company came up with a major improvement, because of the companies’ close proximity it wasn’t long before the other companies would know about it.
Q: Any big lessons we can learn from these defunct companies?
A: Looking at the total car market picture through the years, one of the main problems was that there were too many luxury cars and not enough people that could afford to buy them. There was Duesenberg, Cord, and Auburns from the Auburn Motor Company, three different companies that made luxury cars known as the three P’s: Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow. There were Cadillacs, Lincolns, and luxury Chryslers and Oldsmobiles. Also, Ruxton, Wills Ste. Claire, Studebaker, Paige-Graham and Stevens-Duryea luxury cars, and many others! And the mid-range cars weren’t very affordable either for the middle class or lower classes. Henry Ford’s Model T was so successful because it was affordable for everyone.
Motorcars were also the fad of the day. First it was bicycles, then it was motorcars. This led to many people getting into the business that were shysters, like the men who got a loan on an imaginary 200 assembled Dragon motorcars in an imaginary warehouse. There were also incompetents, like the legendary Archie Andrews (not the comic character), whose machinations led to the demise of four different auto companies, including the one that made the legendary Hupmobile.
The companies that survived were the ones that played well with others. Hudson and Nash merged and wanted Packard to join them. The President of Packard Motors, James Nance, wouldn’t join unless HE could be president of the new company, to be called American Motors Company. American Motors survived to become part of Chrysler while Packard eventually became part of Studebaker and disappeared as a car marque and a few years later, Studebaker disappeared altogether.