I was recently reading the biography of Virgil Exner, Virgil Exner, Visioneer, and discovered an interesting facet of the American auto industry, one that dates to the very infancy of the automobile. Even though the industry was quite diverse in the years before 1960 to a large degree this was illusionary.
As an example, consider the contributions of Raymond Loewy. His company, for whom Virgil Exner worked, was responsible for the styling of the 1932 through 1934 Hupmobile, International trucks for 1939, the 1939 Studebaker Champion and the 1941 Studebakers.
Many of the stylists enlisted for work on the prewar Studebaker had been instrumental in the design of numerous 1930s models. To name just a few there was Clare Hodgeman from Oldsmobile, Paul Zimmerman from Chevrolet and Virgil Exner from Pontiac.
Consider Henry Leland and his links as well as contributions to the evolution of the American automobile. In June of 1901, under contract to Olds Motor Works, he designed a new engine for use in an improved model that company had in the works.
A fire at Olds shelved that project but through a fortuitous series of events, his engine became the foundation for an American legend. The inability of Henry Ford to produce a vehicle the company could sell profitably resulted in the hiring of Leland as an engineering consultant for the Henry Ford Company.
Henry Ford was incensed by this perceived slight and left the company with the demand his name no longer be used. With the expertise of Leland, his new engine, and a fresh injection of investment a new company, Cadillac, began producing a vehicle that would become the standard of the world.
Leland played a key role in the formation of another American icon. In 1917, he left Cadillac to found a company to produce aircraft engines. With the signing of the Armistice, he turned the extensive resources of Lincoln toward the production of a quality automobile that would eventually become one of the leading luxury cars in America.
Herb Snow was chief engineer for Auburn when assigned the task of designing a frame for the new Cord. The resultant “X” frame would become an industry standard for many open cars in the years that followed.
Snow would lend his expertise to numerous other projects. A few would have far reaching implications and would leave us with a plethora of what if questions. Perhaps the most notable of these would be a series of experimental taxis built by Checker in the 1940s; a front wheel drive, transverse mounted engine version and a rear wheel drive, rear mounted engine model.
Then there is the short story of what happened to the classically styled Cord 810 and 812. The body dies, jigs, and tools for producing these bodies, bought by Hupmobile, resulted in the short lived Hupmobile Skylark and Graham Hollywood of 1939 and 1940.
This is not the only Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg model given a rebirth. The dies, jigs and related equipment for the 1934 Auburn were purchased by Corbitt, a truck manufacturing company located in Henderson, North Carolina. The result was the 1935 and 1936 Corbitt trucks and busses were quite stylish, after all they the entire front clip was identical to the earlier Auburn!
Quite often, the lineage of the cars themselves includes some fascinating cousins. Maxwell begat Chrysler but it was Buick that begat Maxwell through frustration by that company’s primary investor. It was James Packard’s frustration with Winton that begat Packard, the demise of Marmon begat Marmon-Herrington, a leading manufacturer of early four-wheel drive trucks, and Oldsmobile begat REO.
The intertwining of these links extends beyond the American automotive industry; they stretch to all four corners of the globe. American Austin began production in 1930 but these cars were essentially British Austin Seven cars outfitted for the American market.
Sales proved to be less than anemic and even reorganization as American Bantam, the company responsible for the initial Jeep prototype, failed to resolve that problem. Though the cars produced are less than memorable, the companies’ contributions were far reaching. The supplying of dies, jigs, tools, and engineers, to a consortium of Japanese investors proved to be the foundation for a Japanese automobile manufacturer, Datsun.
The men most instrumental for the initial success of Hudson had expertise derived form work for other manufacturers. Roy Chapin and Howard Coffin were veterans of Olds Motor Works as well as of Thomas-Detroit and Chalmers-Detroit. George Dunham and Roscoe Jackson also had initiated their automotive careers with Olds.
Few individuals, however, have woven as many automotive tapestries as William Durant. In November of 1904, he purchased Buick. Four incredible years later the success of Buick became the cornerstone for Durant’s empire, a company that carried the name General Motors.
From this root came the contributions of Charles Nash, long time employee of Durant and president of Buick in 1912. We also have the creation of a company that combined the name recognition of Swiss born racing legend Louis Chevrolet and the business acumen of Durant, and the launching of Walter Chrysler as an independent agent.
A lesser-known chapter of Durant’s involvement in the American automobile industry is the creation of Durant, a company that wrote the final chapter for Locomobile. Its legacy also included the Flint, the Mason Motor Truck Company, the Star; an American version of the French built Mathis and options such as the “Pullman” that transformed the seats into a bed with the pull of a handle.
Connecting the dots as they run through the history of the American automotive industry is a fascinating exercise. The result is a picture quite different from what we might expect or have been led to believe.

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