Long before GM, Ford and Chrysler became the Big Three, there were hundreds of automobile manufacturers that went out of business without ever asking for a government bailout.
More than a century ago nearly every major city in America had a company building automobiles. In 1895 the Chicago Motor Corporation built what it called a motocycle. The term didn't last and neither did the manufacturer. According to automotive historian Kit Foster, “car companies sometime failed simply because they were under-capitalized.”
Companies like Brush Auto ran into another problem. At a cost of $550 they couldn't compete with the Ford Model T, which, during its nearly two-decade assembly-line production run sold for as little as $300.
Other manufacturers were simply victims of the Depression. Many specialized in upscale and luxury automobiles. The 1929 stock market crash brought down St. Louis-based Moon Auto and Buffalo’s Pierce Arrow. Also unable to ride out hard times: DuPont, the car of choice for film star Douglas Fairbanks, boxer Jack Dempsey and other celebrities. The “playboy car” of the era, an eight-cylinder DuPont cost over $4,000. Reputation alone was not enough to keep the car in production and in 1932 the last DuPont rolled out of the Wilmington, Delaware factory.
Even cars offering some of the latest innovations couldn’t stay in business. Have you driven a Cord lately? No, not Ford—Cord. The company was one of the first to offer vehicles with front-wheel drive, but it closed its doors in 1937.
Automakers that survived the crash did so “by producing commercial vehicles and smaller economy vehicles” according to Jeff Bliemeister, curator of Hershey Pennsylvania’s Antique Automobile Club of America Museum. Bliemeister says the key to survival was producing cars within a budget that the average person could afford.
Following the Second World War, when auto factories were converted for military production, a few new car companies managed to open. But despite the booming economy and shortage of new vehicles, most didn't last long. While you probably never heard of a Kaiser automobile, the name Tucker lives on, thanks mostly to a Hollywood movie about the company's famous demise.
Despite joining forces, better-known auto makers Studebaker and Packard also couldn't survive. After ceasing U.S. operations in 1963, the combined company struggled to stay in the automotive business at a plant in Hamilton, Ontario before shutting its doors for good in 1966.
Wisconsin-based American Motors was formed thanks to the merger of Hudson and Nash Kelvinator in the 1950s. The company, with quirky designs and models named Rebel, Gremlin, and Pacer, focused on making small, fuel-efficient cars. But by the 1980s AMC lost its way and became part of Chrysler.
As the surviving U.S. auto manufacturers struggle to stay in business, product lines are still being trimmed. Already gone are GM’s Oldsmobile and Chrysler’s Plymouth divisions. Even with a Washington bailout some analysts say the future for the U.S. auto industry will be tough.
“The American car-buying public is fickle, they can change their tastes much more rapidly than an automaker can retool with a new type of product,” Foster warns. The only expansion that seems certain is more museum space dedicated to cars no longer in production.