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Michigan Means Cars to Most Americans

  • Ted Landphair

This elegant 1930 Duesenberg J is on display at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana.

This elegant 1930 Duesenberg J is on display at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana.

But the industry got its start in cornfields next door

Recently, we tried one of those word-association games on our colleagues here at VOA. We used the word Indiana and asked for the first thing that came to mind.

Farms, one person said. Notre Dame University football, said someone else. Another blurted out Hoosiers, the obscure nickname for people who come from that Midwest state.

No one said automobiles, except the person who mentioned the famous Indianapolis 500 auto race. The ad on the left, for a San Francisco auto dealer, touts the merits of the 1929 Stutz, one of the classic cars made in Indiana.

The ad on the left, for a San Francisco auto dealer, touts the merits of the 1929 Stutz, one of the classic cars made in Indiana.

But the fact is that the U.S. automobile industry got its start in agrarian Indiana. It was settled largely by German farmers and craftsmen, and wheelwrights and woodworkers carved beautiful horse-drawn carriages in lots of small Indiana towns. When horseless carriages came along, these carriage-makers simply switched to making cars.

Soon, classic cars such as Auburns, Cords, and Duesenbergs were rolling out of small factories and garages. In the little town of Auburn today, there's a museum devoted to those three brands.

Before Henry Ford introduced assembly-line manufacturing up in Michigan in 1908, there were dozens of tiny auto companies in Indiana, turning out custom-made but expensive mechanical masterpieces.

The Indiana company Studebaker even made an auto called the Rockne, named for Notre Dame's famous football coach. You can see one at the Studebaker Museum in South Bend today. The conestoga wagon, sometimes called a prairie schooner in this 1872 The Inn on the Road lithograph was made by the Studebaker Co. before that Indiana firm made automobiles.

The conestoga wagon, sometimes called a prairie schooner in this 1872 The Inn on the Road lithograph was made by the Studebaker Co. before that Indiana firm made automobiles.

Henry Ford could easily have started his assembly-line operation in the Hoosier State, too, but he was a Michigan man, and Detroit was right on Lake Erie, whose shipping lanes provided easy access to iron ore and other industrial ingredients.

Little Indiana auto companies couldn't compete, and so we came to associate Indiana with cows, not cars.

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