AN EMPIRE OF TIN & CHROME
KING OF THE ROAD
By Jim Hinckley
With the introduction of the new Toyota Tundra the last bastion of American automotive dominance was breeched. The all-American pick up truck now must share the road, the work, and the glory that comes with a job well done.
There was a time not so long ago when competition for American built trucks and automobiles was miniscule at best. Automotive manufacturers in most every industrialized country labored under the fact that the vehicles of choice, often by a rather large percentage were those built in the good old USA. Ironically, in large part this overwhelming success led to the globalization of industry and development of international trade that has transformed the American auto industry into one where Dodge products are assembled in Mexico and Nissan’s are built in the states.
The industry has come full circle. It was the sale of heavy manufacturing equipment at Graham’s Lafayette, Indiana, facility, coupled with the supervision of four company engineers, as well as body dies, from American Bantam, that are the foundation for Japans automobile industry and on its first manufacturers, Datsun. Ford modernized Soviet production methods with the establishment of tractor factories during the 1920s and was a major manufacturer of automobiles in England since 1911, in Germany since 1925, in France, and in Australia since 1925.
Initially there was a well-deserved perception European automobiles were superior to those built in the United States. Even though no longer the case by 1914, William Durant capitalized on this to build an empire on the name of Swiss born racing legend Louis Chevrolet.
By 1920, the United States was the undisputed leader in automobile manufacturing and development. An industry wide study that year showed that not only was Ford the world leader in automobile sales and production they were the leader by a mile with one of every three cars sold in the world being built by that company.
During the teens, the three “P’s” (Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow) dominated the international luxury car market. Peerless and Pierce-Arrow passed from center stage but Packard remained a dominant force in this market even in early post war years and at times even outsold Rolls Royce even in the colonies of the British Empire.
By 1930, Cadillac and Lincoln were also dominating contenders in this market, a position they would hold throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Cadillac slogan, “The Standard of the World” was more than mere advertising hype.
World War I marked the launching of American dominance in production of trucks. During the war, the durability of Jeffery Quad (4×4) trucks became as legendary as the Jeep in World War II.
After the war liquidation through Motor Reception Parks of a large number of surplus American military vehicles, including Jeffery trucks and Dodge touring cars in Europe as well as North Africa further expanded exposure to American built vehicles. The result was an almost instantaneous explosion in demand for more.
Throughout much of the 1920’s and 1930’s, at the prestigious Paris Le Salon de l’Automobile, twenty five to fifty percent of vehicles displayed were American models. At the annual automobile shows in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, during this period almost every American automobile manufacturer was represented.
The 1920’s were, in large part, a prosperous time. This as well as a relative lack of trade barriers fueled the export of American built vehicles to unprecedented heights. In Australia, one of the largest markets for these automobiles and trucks, two thirds of all cars registered annually had been manufactured in the United States. By the mid 1930’s ninety percent of all automobiles, the majority of which were in commercial operation, in Japan were American models.
In France as the rising number of American produced vehicles threatened to swamp the nations automobile industry stiff tariffs were levied. To stay in the market Ford purchased the French manufacturer Mathis creating Matford. Other American companies followed suite with similar endeavors.
The Great Depression as well as increasing import tariffs checked this supremacy but did not stop it. Checker, in the 1950s, sold the majority of the first generation Aerobus in Turkey, and shortly before World War II, in Egypt, Studebaker was often the volume leader.
In the Union of South Africa by 1935 more than one half of all motor vehicles in use was of American manufacture. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, during the 1920’s, Auburn, Studebaker, Graham, Chrysler, Marmon, and Hupmobile, among others, constructed some of their most luxurious showrooms in Rio de Janeiro.
Even in the Soviet Union and China, American manufacturers were well represented as evidenced with a rare parade of automobiles through the Red Square of Moscow in 1925 led by a Lincoln and the Emperor of Manchukuo (Japanese occupied Manchuria) choosing a 1933 Lincoln limousine for his transportation. Cuba, well known for its fleets of vintage automobiles, is a time capsule of America’s automotive dominance even in the post war world.
The superior performance and quality of the Duesenberg gave the American lexicon a new comparative term, a Duesey. Through Lend Lease in World War II trucks built by Studebaker gave the Soviet lexicon new slang for indestructible, Stude.
In the post war years European coachbuilders were contracted to build, on American chassis, dream cars such as the Chrysler Norseman or Checker Centurion. However, more often than not when wealthy clients called upon these old world artisans to construct one off models the chassis upon which these custom creations were built were American.
In Switzerland, the durable Checker was the chassis of choice one of that countries leading manufacture of ambulances. Seton of Sweden, a special markets auto producer, chose Checker for similar reasons. Moreover, in the early 1960s the State Department ordered several Checker built limousines for embassy duty in countries such as the Soviet Union where Lincoln or Cadillac built vehicles had proved to be to fragile for the extreme conditions.
Today corporations are multinational behemoths that have blurred the brand names as well as nation of origin. More often than not the attempt to “buy” an American automobile is an exercise in self deception. Unless, of course, one chooses to forgo a few modern amenities and select a former king of the road, a vestige of the great empire that was the American auto industry for their transportation needs.