Indiana growing as automotive powerhouse

Indiana was an early automotive pioneer

2013-08-03T21:00:00Z 2013-08-05T15:20:06Z Indiana was an early automotive pioneerJoseph S. Pete, (219) 933-3316

After a decade of major investments, Indiana's auto industry now ranks among the top two or three nationally in many categories, including automotive gross domestic product, total number of vehicles produced and jobs.

The state's history with automaking runs deep, back to when tinkerers in garages and bicycle shops were trying to cobble together horseless carriages.

Indiana had a chance to become the hub of the domestic automaking industry in the early days, said James Madison, an Indiana University historian. Madison devoted an entire chapter to the automotive industry in his forthcoming book "Hoosiers: A History of Indiana," which will be released by Indiana University Press and the Indiana Historical Society next year.

Kokomo inventor Elwood Haynes designed one of the first American automobiles.

"He did his historic test drive on Pumpkinvine Pike outside of Kokomo, and then, through a partnership with some local guys, built a car they were able to drive to New York City," he said. "That was a time, near the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, that people were tinkering in Indiana cities, small towns and rural villages. They weren't all master mechanics, but they were making things."

Many early automakers, such as Auburn, Duesenberg and Stutz, hailed from Indiana. More than 40 Indiana cities and towns produced at least 250 makes of cars, though mostly on a small scale.

Around that time, Henry Ford figured out how to mass-produce cars cheaply, an engineering feat his rivals in Indiana struggled with, Madison said. They eventually set up their own assembly lines, but couldn't reach the same level of efficiency.

Most Indiana automakers adapted by selling pricier luxury vehicles, such as the Auburn Speedster or the Stutz Bearcat. But the high-end market collapsed during the Great Depression, and Studebaker in South Bend was the only major Indiana automaker left standing. Studebaker persisted until the 1960s, when it also folded.

"The unhappy story is pretty well encapsulated in Henry Ford," Madison said. "He might have settled in Indianapolis or Hammond, but he chose Detroit."

Indiana ended up being a major supplier of parts to Detroit automakers, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. For example, Anderson in central Indiana was once a General Motors town, where more than 20,000 workers made car parts.

But the auto industry left Anderson, which has since diversified its economy with a Nestle plant, a casino and other developments.

"The great transmission plants of Anderson are now vacant lots," Madison said. "Hardly any of the buildings are left."

Indiana's automotive industry has transitioned to a phase where most of the automakers and parts suppliers now build new factories in cornfields, instead of in cities, Madison said.

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