Forget the Detroit Three, the automakers who shaped the American auto industry
We all know how much the Detroit Three helped shape the American auto industry. Without Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, the history, present and future of the American auto industry would have been very different.
But that doesn’t mean we should overlook the small players, those without the giant backing and government grants, and the deep pockets. There were times when cars from smaller, more self-sustaining companies made a huge dent in Big Three sales, enough to inspire them to build competitive models. These small manufacturers competed successfully with the big American manufacturers, whether in the memory of consumers or on the racetrack.
So here are the smaller but equally important American automakers who have impacted the industry with their innovations. Which of these companies would you consider the most important of all companies or cars?
Hudson Motors: the creators of the Hornet
When you say Hudson, the first car that comes to mind is the fabulous Hudson Hornet, a car that has been so successful on the race track, it gave Ford and GM the jitters. The company was established in 1909 as the Hudson Motor Car Company and began with four-cylinder models.
In 1913, they released the Super Six engine, an engine with a lot of power, enough for the Hudson models to break car records. Of course, it also helps that this same company merged with Nash-Kelvinator to form the American Motors Corporation. More on that later.
Crosley Motors: Do you remember the Hotshots?
By 1939, Powel Crosley Jr. was known as Henry Ford of radio and had amassed a fortune making radios. Soon he decided America was ready for a small car. And so in 1949 came the HotShot sports car with the famous bug-eye headlights and no trunk.
Crosley cars used the mass market’s first single overhead camshaft engine, and they were also the first modern automaker to use disc brakes. While HotShots ruled 750cc sports car racing in the 1950s, they are largely forgotten by everyone except car collectors today.
Franklin Automobile Company: Air-cooled engines only
In 1905 Franklin Automobile Company cars operated with six-cylinder engines, and by 1907 they had automatic spark advance. What’s even cooler is that they ran air-cooled engines at a time when all other manufacturers were making water-cooled engines.
The company existed from 1905 to 1934, with the Franklin 9B and the Runabout, which stood out because it did not need a radiator. And cars used so much lightweight aluminum that Franklin was perhaps the biggest consumer of metal in the world at that time.
Excalibur Automobile: the best replica
The Excalibur Automobile was America’s first replica and the man behind it was none other than revered designer Brooks Stevens, who also worked with Studebaker. This is why, when he manually mounted a fiberglass bodywork on a Studebaker chassis and transmission, it was quickly nicknamed the “Mercebaker”, as it was modeled on the 1927 Mercedes Benz SSK.
The performances were top notch and the style retro, sufficient for celebrities like Steve McQueen, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Liberace get one. Today there are many auto clubs determined to keep this car alive, even though the company is not.
American Motors Corporation: From the Ashes of Hudson
Call the AMC a phoenix, born out of the conflagration (read merger) of Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson Motor Car Company. If the Detroit Three were the Detroit Four, AMC would have been the fourth, as it was the fourth-largest automaker in the United States, until it was finally acquired and assimilated by Chrysler in 1987.
The company itself only lasted 33 years, but it gave us the AMC AMX, the Javelin, the Pacer, and unfortunately even the Gremlin. And let’s not forget the underrated AMC Rambler Rebel and the AMX3 which has remained a concept car but still commands admiration.
Panoz Auto Development Company: From Mans toâ¦
When you hear Panoz, you think of Don Panoz. The pharmacy mogul who later founded the American Le Mans Series. But the automaker was born from the idea of ââDaniel Panoz, his son, who first worked for Irish automaker Thompson. When the company was wound up, Dan bought the rights to one of the chassis, designed by Frank Costin, of the renowned Maserati and Lotus.
In 1990, Panoz released a Roadster, which became the 1996 AIV (Aluminum-Intensive Vehicle) Roadster. They followed up with the Esperante Spyder GT and today we know this company as someone who makes homemade cars for the privileged few who can afford them.
Checker Motors Corporation: That of Kalamazoo
Why is Kalamazoo famous? The cab, of course, and this cab was actually the brainchild of Morris Marklin and the Checker Motor Corporation. The company was founded in 1922 and while it only made taxis at the beginning, in 1947 it also made passenger cars. At a time when no American automaker gave a mileage guarantee, Checker said its vehicles were ready to go 200,000 miles or more.
Memorable models also include the Aerobus, a popular stretch station wagon as a shuttle, and the Medicar, limousines for people with reduced mobility. In 1999, all New York Checkers taxis were taken out of service and that is even more of a shame.
Avanti Motor Corporation: Born Studebaker
When Studebaker became popular, one of the dealers recognized that there was still a market for its sports car model, the Avanti. So Nate Altman and his business partner Leo Newman bought the rights to Avanti from Studebaker and named the company Avanti Motor Corporation. AMC if you will.
Studebaker died in 1963, but Avanti Motor Corporation became the seventh largest automaker in the United States in 1975. From its inception until the bubble burst, they made the Avanti II with the same small block Chevy, with increasing displacement. and power.
Apollo: this one reached the moon
Okay not really. But it didn’t crash either. This Apollo, the dream of three friends named Milt Brown, Ron Plescia and Ned Davis, was a company that wanted to get the most out of great sports cars like Europeans did, but with American firmness. And so they made an agreement with the Carrozzeria Intermeccanica which gave them the bodies.
The Apollo GT was born then and it looked like a Ferrari and looked like a Ferrari, only your neighborhood mechanic could fix it in the blink of an eye. Public demand led to the Apollo 5000GT, carrying Buick’s 5.0-liter V8 but looking so Italian no one believed it was American.
Vehicle production group: those who think niche
When we think of cars, we think of cars that are fast, expensive, and even those that fit a bigger picture. But what about the smaller image? What if you made vehicles for people with reduced mobility? And so, in 2011, the Florida-based Vehicle Production Group LLC made wheelchair accessible taxis called MV-1. As in Mobility Vehicle-1.
Hailed as a progressive step, it has prompted other automakers to stand up and scratch their heads for solutions like this. Unfortunately, in 2013 production ceased, but now more and more car manufacturers have started to cater for the needs of people with disabilities. So at least the thinking continued, even though the company didn’t.
Sources: Hemmings, TheGlobeAndMail, Road & Track
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