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Nine (more) reasons why Ohio may be the most important state in U.S. auto history

Hemmings 11/14/2022 Daniel Strohl

© Provided by Hemmings

Earlier this month, to celebrate National Ohio Day, Paul Sakalas at Summit's OnAllCylinders blog did something that this Buckeye State native should have done a long time ago: run down the top 10 reasons why Ohio—and not Michigan—might be the important state in the history of the American automobile.

It's a good list, one that we should expect from Summit Racing (named after the Ohio county in which it's based) and one that includes a few prominent assembly plants (Lordstown, Norwood, Marysville, and Brook Park via the 351 Cleveland), a number of well-known aftermarket companies besides Summit (just what do you think Flaming River was named after?), Art Arfons, and Crosley. While these all contributed in their own ways to automotive history, however, the majority of the list was just things that come to mind when gearheads think of Ohio or trivia. I'd argue that only two items from Summit's list—Charles Kettering, who was born in Ohio and who established the Dayton Electronics Company (a.k.a. Delco), and the Akron-based rubber industry—significantly impacted the automotive industry in this country.

And that's a shame, because I know for a fact that Ohio had far more to contribute to U.S. automotive history than those two. After all, as Richard Wager wrote in "Golden Wheels," a book that enumerates the many automobiles and automotive personalities from Northeast Ohio, including the Firelands, Cleveland really was the first Motor City, well before Detroit took that title. Even after the Model T (along with conservative Cleveland bankers who were risk-averse when it came to the auto industry, as Wager analyzed) helped shift the center of U.S. auto manufacturing northwest, Cleveland remained the second most prolific city in the industry and "still held the distinction of turning out a concentration of high quality, luxurious, expensive cars, which for a decade or so rivaled if not surpassed the output of the Motor City in monetary value."

All that said, here are my suggestions to improve that list. By no means is this a complete list, either, so let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


Alexander Winton © Provided by Hemmings Alexander Winton

Any discussion of U.S. automotive firsts should include Duryea (Springfield, Massachusetts), Haynes (Kokomo, Indiana), and Alexander Winton. Winton, who was based in Cleveland and who drove his first automobile in 1896, may not have been the first person in the United States to build a horseless carriage or even the first person in the United States to sell a horseless carriage, but as Wager noted he was the first to sell an automobile built for serial production on the afternoon of March 24, 1898, thus "mark(ing) the beginning of the American automobile industry."

Winton went on to contribute a number of other firsts to automotive history over his 28-year career as a carmaker, his cars became some of the first to cross the continent, and he reportedly helped coin the term "automobile," but, as Wager wrote, "possibly more than those of any other car maker, Winton's efforts made the public want to own a motor car."


Old Number One, the first Packard © Provided by Hemmings Old Number One, the first Packard

To the general public and to most automotive enthusiasts, Packard may be forever associated with the sprawling Albert Kahn-designed assembly plant on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, but the carmaker spent its formative years in Warren, Ohio, with James Ward Packard and his compatriots even naming the very first car they built in 1899 after the state.

According to Wager, Packard had intended to remain in Ohio, even after it started calling its cars Packards in 1900. The company had looked to build a larger manufacturing plant in Cleveland, but, "as the story goes, the president of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce discouraged Packard, saying the city already had the Winton factory, and anyway, the largest clothespin factory in the country had chosen Cleveland for its location."

Even after the carmaker headed to Detroit in 1903, however, a bit of Packard remained in Ohio. Packard Electric, which the Packard family started to produce cabling and wiring for its cars, continued to operate out of Warren and eventually became a subsidiary of GM in 1932.

Barney Oldfield

Barney Oldfield © Provided by Hemmings Barney Oldfield

Born Berna Eli Oldfield in Wauseon, Ohio, Barney Oldfield became automotive racing's first superstar. William F. Nolan's biography of Oldfield calls him "America's legendary speed king." More than just a native of the state, Oldfield—who started out in bicycle racing before switching to automobiles—billed himself as "the bicycle champion of Ohio" (despite not actually winning the championship). His automotive racing career, however, started with Henry Ford in 1902 and skyrocketed with his win over a fellow Buckeye, Alexander Winton.

Baker Electric

Baker Electric © Provided by Hemmings Baker Electric

Hundreds of carmakers built battery-electric vehicles during the first few decades of the automobile industry, enough so that it's fairly difficult to tell who really built the first electric car. Cleveland alone boasted 100 such companies, according to Wager. Among those was perhaps the most well-known and most prolific early EV builder, Baker Electric. Established in 1898, Baker made a name for itself in racing with its Torpedo. The company's cars also became favorites of Thomas Edison, who wrote that if Baker continued building high-quality cars, the "gasoline buggies" wouldn't stand a chance on the market.

While that proved not to be the case, Baker—and Rauch & Lang, with which Baker merged in 1916—lasted as a carmaker until the Twenties, before switching to auto body construction, supplying the major Detroit manufacturers, including Ford, with coachwork for their cars.


1932 Peerless V-16 prototype © Provided by Hemmings 1932 Peerless V-16 prototype

As mentioned above, Cleveland remained a stronghold for the upper end of the American automotive market for the first third of the twentieth century, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Peerless. Long considered one of the three luxury Ps—Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow—the Cleveland-based company pioneered shaft drive and participated in racing events, but it soon became known as one of, if not the, most expensive cars in the country, with price tags of $6,000 and $7,000 in the mid-1900s. Peerless is also notable as one of the last of the Cleveland-based automakers: While it made one last attempt at staying atop the list of expensive carmakers with its all-aluminum 1932 V-16 prototype (seen above) before becoming a brewing company, production ended the year prior—the same year as Jordan.

Kurtz Automatic

Kurtz Automatic © Provided by Hemmings Kurtz Automatic

Many sources credit Canadian inventor Afred Horner Munro for inventing the automatic transmission in 1923, but one Cleveland-based inventor—Cyrus Kurtz—not only beat Munro to the punch by several years, he also had fully operational cars equipped with automatic transmissions in production by 1920.

According to Wager, Kurtz came up with the idea "for a clash-less gear system... while driving a borrowed car with a broken rear axle" and subsequently developed a column-shifting mechanism that, he claimed, could be adapted to any car in production with a sliding-gear transmission. Production didn't last long, largely due to insufficient financing, but Kurtz's success wasn't limited to the automatic. Rather, as a prolific inventor, he was able to earn royalties "on virtually every car manufactured in America," Wager wrote.


Jeg's Automotive in Columbus, Ohio © Provided by Hemmings Jeg's Automotive in Columbus, Ohio

Summit's list of automotive aftermarket companies from Ohio curiously didn't include Jeg's, which got its start in Columbus, which is currently headquartered in Delaware, and which has appeared on the side of many a highly visible drag car. Wonder why?


Sol Shenk with the last DeLorean built © Provided by Hemmings Sol Shenk with the last DeLorean built

Speaking of Columbus, it was never going to rival Cleveland or Detroit for its car making prowess—about 10 carmakers were ever based there. Rather, Columbus was always a consumer goods kind of town, which is how De Lorean Motor Company ended up headquartered there in the years immediately after DMC-12 production ended.

Had it not been for Sol Shenk, the businessman behind Odd Lots and Big Lots stores, the company behind the gullwing-door cars made everlastingly popular by the Back to the Future film series might have ceased to exist. Shenk bought the remains of De Lorean in 1982, then transferred the entire inventory of the company—parts, unfinished cars, and all—to downtown Columbus. None were assembled there, but it was Shenk's inventory and distribution rights that passed to the current Texas-based De Lorean Motor Company.

Willys Jeep

Willys MBs coming off the production line in Toledo © Provided by Hemmings Willys MBs coming off the production line in Toledo

Toledo might not be the birthplace of the Jeep—that honor goes to Butler, Pennsylvania, home of American Bantam—but the northwestern Ohio city has become synonymous with the little quarter-ton four-wheel-drive vehicle lauded by Eisenhower as one of the three tools that won World War II for the Allies. Jeep and Toledo are so intertwined that any efforts on the part of Jeep's many owners to remove the brand from the city have been met with fierce opposition. As a result, you'll still see Wranglers and Gladiators rolling off the assembly line there, the brand's famous Easter eggs include tributes to the city, Toledo now holds an annual Jeep Festival, and the city is mulling a Jeep museum.

Any others?

We're full of bits of Ohio automotive trivia and pride. The last Divcos were built in Delaware, for instance. Mechanicsburg-based John William Lambert built a gasoline automobile in 1891, a year before the Duryeas. The Owen Magnetic was a product of the aforementioned Baker Rauch & Lang and was one of the earliest hybrid gasoline/electric systems. But as far as Ohio-based automotive history, we think the above round out Summit's list nicely. If you have more to add, let us know in the comment below.

(Disclaimer: While Summit Racing is a Hemmings advertiser and sponsor of our Sibley Shop Garage, this article was not undertaken with any sponsorship or involvement by Summit.)


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