Detroit might be the Motor City today, but Cleveland made a good run at the title
Earlier this month, to celebrate National Ohio Day, Paul Sakalas at Summit’s OnAllCylinders blog did something that this Buckeye State native should have done a long time ago: run down the top 10 reasons why Ohio—and not Michigan—might be the important state in the history of the American automobile.
It’s a good list, one that we should expect from Summit Racing (named after the Ohio county in which it’s based) and one that includes a few prominent assembly plants (Lordstown, Norwood, Marysville, and Brook Park via the 351 Cleveland), a number of well-known aftermarket companies besides Summit (just what do you think Flaming River was named after?), Art Arfons, and Crosley. While these all contributed in their own ways to automotive history, however, the majority of the list was just things that come to mind when gearheads think of Ohio or trivia. I’d argue that only two items from Summit’s list—Charles Kettering, who was born in Ohio and who established the Dayton Electronics Company (a.k.a. Delco), and the Akron-based rubber industry—significantly impacted the automotive industry in this country.
And that’s a shame, because I know for a fact that Ohio had far more to contribute to U.S. automotive history than those two. After all, as Richard Wager wrote in “Golden Wheels,” a book that enumerates the many automobiles and automotive personalities from Northeast Ohio, including the Firelands, Cleveland really was the first Motor City, well before Detroit took that title. Even after the Model T (along with conservative Cleveland bankers who were risk-averse when it came to the auto industry, as Wager analyzed) helped shift the center of U.S. auto manufacturing northwest, Cleveland remained the second most prolific city in the industry and “still held the distinction of turning out a concentration of high quality, luxurious, expensive cars, which for a decade or so rivaled if not surpassed the output of the Motor City in monetary value.”
All that said, here are my suggestions to improve that list. By no means is this a complete list, either, so let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Any discussion of U.S. automotive firsts should include Duryea (Springfield, Massachusetts), Haynes (Kokomo, Indiana), and Alexander Winton. Winton, who was based in Cleveland and who drove his first automobile in 1896, may not have been the first person in the United States to build a horseless carriage or even the first person in the United States to sell a horseless carriage, but as Wager noted he was the first to sell an automobile built for serial production on the afternoon of March 24, 1898, thus “mark(ing) the beginning of the American automobile industry.”
Winton went on to contribute a number of other firsts to automotive history over his 28-year career as a carmaker, his cars became some of the first to cross the continent, and he reportedly helped coin the term “automobile,” but, as Wager wrote, “possibly more than those of any other car maker, Winton’s efforts made the public want to own a motor car.”
To the general public and to most automotive enthusiasts, Packard may be forever associated with the sprawling Albert Kahn-designed assembly plant on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, but the carmaker spent its formative years in Warren, Ohio, with James Ward Packard and his compatriots even naming the very first car they built in 1899 after the state.
According to Wager, Packard had intended to remain in Ohio, even after it started calling its cars Packards in 1900. The company had looked to build a larger manufacturing plant in Cleveland, but, “as the story goes, the president of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce discouraged Packard, saying the city already had the Winton factory, and anyway, the largest clothespin factory in the country had chosen Cleveland for its location.”
Even after the carmaker headed to Detroit in 1903, however, a bit of Packard remained in Ohio. Packard Electric, which the Packard family started to produce cabling and wiring for its cars, continued to operate out of Warren and eventually became a subsidiary of GM in 1932.
Born Berna Eli Oldfield in Wauseon, Ohio, Barney Oldfield became automotive racing’s first superstar. William F. Nolan’s biography of Oldfield calls him “America’s legendary speed king.” More than just a native of the state, Oldfield—who started out in bicycle racing before switching to automobiles—billed himself as “the bicycle champion of Ohio” (despite not actually winning the championship). His automotive racing career, however, started with Henry Ford in 1902 and skyrocketed with his win over a fellow Buckeye, Alexander Winton.
Hundreds of carmakers built battery-electric vehicles during the first few decades of the automobile industry, enough so that it’s fairly difficult to tell who really built the first electric car. Cleveland alone boasted 100 such companies, according to Wager. Among those was perhaps the most well-known and most prolific early EV builder, Baker Electric. Established in 1898, Baker made a name for itself in racing with its Torpedo. The company’s cars also became favorites of Thomas Edison, who wrote that if Baker continued building high-quality cars, the “gasoline buggies” wouldn’t stand a chance on the market.
While that proved not to be the case, Baker—and Rauch & Lang, with which Baker merged in 1916—lasted as a carmaker until the Twenties, before switching to auto body construction, supplying the major Detroit manufacturers, including Ford, with coachwork for their cars