This is how Detroit became the Motor City
A twist of fate, boardroom reshuffle or a few more sales at a once-promising and now long-forgotten car company could have drastically changed what “The Motor City” brings to mind.
Detroit has remained synonymous with America’s car industry through the highest of economic highs and the lowest of financial lows. Accordingly, Motown’s fortunes have largely swung to the beat of the Big Three automakers: Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.
However, at the 20th century’s dawn, the field was wide open as to where the nation’s booming car business might eventually create a home for itself. In those early days, when cars remained little more than lumbering mechanized carriages – minus the ponies once employed to pull it down the road – a number of cities could claim to be leading the auto business.
Early heavyweights like the White Motor Company and Winton called Cleveland home. Indianapolis had none other than the prestigious Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg triumvirate on its resume. Locomobile and Mercer Motor Cars, manufacturers of some of the fastest and most bespoke cars of the era, hailed from Connecticut and New Jersey.
Meanwhile, circa 1896 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Duryea Motor Wagon would come to be recognized as the first serial production car sold in the U.S. Until that point, American cars had all been built to order, with little or no commonality of design between models. In total, exactly 13 Duryea motorcars found happy homes that year.
As cars demanded a rethinking of Detroit and other cities’ infrastructure and zoning requirements, the best means of replacing traditional ‘horsepower’ (if you pardon the pun) was, in itself, also very open to debate.
“At the turn of the century, in 1900, steam power, gasoline, and electric cars were all competing with each other on pretty equal footing,” explains Bill Rothermel, secretary of the board of directors of The Elegance at Hershey.
“Cleveland was probably the second runner up at that time, after Detroit…you had a predominance of electric car manufacturers in Cleveland. When the gasoline automobile became the predominant car, the majority [of manufacturers] were in Detroit.”
Asked what helped to establish gas-powered cars’ supremacy, Rothermel’s answer is brutally simple: “Standard Oil.” The oil giant, he says, was instrumental in building the infrastructure needed to make gasoline cars viable. In the days before dedicated filling stations, running out of gas meant your best bet for a refill was the local pharmacy or, possibly, a hardware store.
Gas-fueled cars also received help from rivals’ serious practicality problems. Rothermel refers to early steam-powered cars as “time bombs,” due to their mechanical complexity, bubbling boilers and, not least of which, a laborious starting process that usually required 20 minutes or more to prepare a steam car for driving.
Electric cars, while undeniably quieter and cleaner than steam or gas, had the same limited driving range and lengthy charging issues that often plague modern EVs.
Logistics and good timing played equally vital roles in Detroit’s rise, according to Matthew Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford Museum. “Halfway between the coal fields of Kentucky and the iron ore of Minnesota and Wisconsin…[Detroit] also had extensive railroads and the transportation system of the Great Lakes.”
Anderson asserts that the physical location of Detroit, plunked right in the middle of the country, along with the city’s pre-existing industrial strengths, helped forge Detroit’s starring role in the car world.
“There was a lot of machinery being built here,” says Anderson. “Tobacco was big business; stoves were also one of Detroit’s biggest businesses. And by 1900, one-third of residents were foreign born.”
New innovations and new arrivals created a bustling cauldron of engineering, innovation, collaboration and, ultimately, fierce rivalries.
In terms of product and sheer sales figures, the Ford Model T, above all others, is credited with cementing Detroit’s legacy. Yet before getting to Henry’s breakthrough, a lesser known, though no less revolutionary American automobile deserves recognition.
Built from 1901 to 1907, the Curved Dash Oldsmobile initiated massive changes in the way cars were built, and how they were enjoyed. Light and simple to drive (by the era’s standards), this bantam-weight car carried a price tag that made it affordable to customers who weren’t lumber barons or railroad tycoons.
Car buyers were finally becoming car drivers, too. The elite chauffeur-driven crowd was about to be surpassed by a general public that wanted the fun and freedom that came with ‘automobiling’ – a term once used to refer to the newfound liberty afforded by car ownership.
“It was the Curved Dash Oldsmobile that showed the world that the automobile was not just a toy for rich people, but a viable commercial reality,” says Clifford Lewis, member of the Curved Dash Oldsmobile Club and proud owner of a 1904 model.
The Curved Dash Oldsmobile pioneered the use of interchangeable parts, quality control and, yes, even the very beginnings of the automobile assembly line. Each example was built in stations, with the car being moved on rollers from one station to the next until it was complete.
“The Olds was far and away the easiest car to drive of its era,” says Lewis. “The one lever, no clutch layout was extremely easy to use for machinery of the day. It was also rugged, robust and could be fixed by a good blacksmith in any village in the country.”
By the time the Ford Model T entered production in 1908, the tide was already turning well and truly in Detroit’s favor. “The Model T, if anything, it was the icing on the cake. Detroit was already well on its way to becoming the Motor City. The Model T just took everything to another level,” says Anderson.
It wasn’t simply because Ford Motor Company sold loads of Model Ts – more than 19 million by the time production ended in 1927 – or that the base price became cheaper and cheaper almost every year. The Model T absolutely revolutionized every aspect of the auto industry, from how cars were built to the assembly-line workers’ lives. Obviously, it also changed the lives of the people who previously couldn’t afford a reliable, simple car.
The moving assembly line, a five day work week, rugged and easy to fix mechanical parts, and a pay rate of five dollars per day (roughly twice the going rate for other automobile assembly workers) made the Model T – not to mention a job with Ford itself – the envy of the industry. A higher rate of pay ensured workers were no longer transitory, liable to jump from one company to the other at the drop of a hat, or the promise of a few cents more an hour. Laborers fled to Detroit, and stayed in Detroit.
Invariably, this led to more highly skilled workers entering the automotive workplace and, perhaps to the detriment of Ford’s rivals, a workforce that demanded better pay for its services.
In total, it’s estimated that roughly 2,000 American automobile companies have come and gone over the years. Some were industrial behemoths which lasted for decades, others only backyard shops with a car or two to their credit. Engineering advancements, the Great Depression, two World Wars and, occasionally, cutthroat business maneuvers would winnow the field down to less than a handful of key players.
Both White and Stanley steam cars chugged their last by the mid-1920s. The debonair Pierce-Arrow luxury car brand, the pride of Buffalo, along with Indianapolis’s indomitable Duesenberg both disappeared by the late ‘30s. One of Cleveland’s other once-booming car companies, Rauch & Lang, didn’t even make it that far into the history books.
Greg Wallace, director of GM’s Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich., credits much of Detroit’s success to how interlinked the city’s early players in the car industry had been from the outset. With larger-than-life personalities as residents – men like Henry Ford, the Dodge Brothers, Ransom Olds, Henry Leland and “Billy” Durant, co-founder of both General Motors and Chevrolet – the city seemed destined to become the world’s automotive showcase.
“There wasn’t anything that ever came close to unseating Detroit,” Wallace explains, while acknowledging the efforts of other cities and car companies. “I think the automobile business is like building a beehive. Once it’s built, it’s very hard to move.”
(Editor’s note: The earlier inaccuracies have been corrected.)