Cars key in Hoosier history

At one time or another, Indiana has been home to hundreds of different car manufacturers and companies that made car parts. Cars are not just an important part of Indiana’s past but also its future.

We are on the precipice of dramatic changes in automotive technology. We will have more choices in terms of how our cars are fueled. Manufacturers are including more safety and comfort features. In a few years, we might be buying cars that drive themselves.

Indiana currently produces more cars and car parts than any other state except Michigan. Honda recently announced that it was adding production of its CR-V sport utility vehicle to its Greensburg assembly plant.

Most of Indiana’s independent car manufacturers lasted for only a few years during the early days of the automobile. One of the oddest artifacts from Indiana’s automotive history is the massive and ungainly Octoauto. The Octoauto, which sounds more like the name of a Superman villain than a car, featured eight wheels. I am not exactly sure how four more wheels helps you drive. Columbus resident Milton O. Reeves’ company, the Reeves Pulley Co., built the Octoauto.

The most successful independent car brand from Indiana might have been Studebaker. Although the beach or a ski resort might sound like an exciting holiday vacation for some people, during the holidays I traveled to South Bend to tour the Studebaker National Museum. Indiana is home to some great tourist destinations for the gear head including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum.

Highlights of the Studebaker museum’s collection include fine examples of Hawks, Larks and Champions. The museum also features President Lincoln’s and President Grant’s carriages. I was particularly fascinated by an exhibit on the South Bend Blue Sox, a women’s professional baseball team that played during the 1940s and 1950s.

But the highlights of the museum are the cars. Instead of mundane names like Civic or Suburban, Studebaker chose the more exciting, yet highly questionable name of Dictator for some of its cars. After the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, the model name Dictator lost some of its panache. Studebaker wisely dropped the name in 1937.

Despite Studebaker’s demise in the 1960s, the company is a unique American success story. It was in business for over one hundred years. Studebaker’s transformation from a company that produced horse-drawn wagons and carriages to automobiles is remarkable.

During World War II, Studebaker was a crucial producer for the arsenal of democracy. Studebaker built jeeps, trucks, wagons and aircraft engines for the Allied war effort.

According to automobile historian Thomas Bonsall, Studebakers were so common and indispensable to the battles on the Eastern Front that Soviet soldiers used the name Studebaker as a slang word for truck. Earlier this year, Russia even featured a Studebaker truck in its “Engines of Victory” exhibit.

Studebaker’s history and ultimate demise are also a cautionary tale. They made solid products that were stylish, reliable and performed as well as their competitors. Last year, I saw one on the streets in California, almost 60 years after Hoosiers built the machine. Despite the quality of their products, Studebaker still failed. Studebaker lacked the resources of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

In years when Studebaker sold well, General Motors and Ford would slash prices, undercutting the fourth-place automaker. But many of Studebaker’s wounds were self-inflicted. The car company diversified across too many industries, spreading itself thin. It also paid out high dividends at a time when the company needed to save money.

Even though Studebaker is now a part of history, it appears that Hoosiers will be building cars for generations to come.

Aaron Miller is one of The Republic’s community columnists and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. He has a doctorate in history and is an associate professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.