Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Internet of the 1920s

I didn’t realize how many companies were involved in the production of automobiles until I visited the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, IN (population 12,074) on my way to do some talks in Michigan. Auburn was a hotbed of luxury automobile manufacturing from 1900 until its closing in 1937.

Auburn was one of only 43 towns in Indiana that produced over 150 models of cars. In fact 12 different auto brands were made in Auburn in the early part of the 20th Century. Indianapolis has had 38 brands, including the American, Duesenberg, Hoosier Scout, Marmon, Stutz and others. South Bend made nine brands (Avanti, Erskine, Packard and Studebaker), Elkhart sixteen, Anderson nine and Richmond ten.

In those days, every young man with any mechanical aptitude dreamed of building a fast, cool car just as today many a young person dreams of developing the next Google.

One of those young men was E. L. Cord, a Missouri farm boy who worked as a car salesman in Chicago. The Auburn Automobile Company, which started out of a horse carriage business in 1900 had been bought by a group from Chicago that included William Wrigley. When the firm floundered the group approached Cord, who cut a sweet deal for himself….if he returned the money they had invested, the company would be his. Within a year, at the age of 31, E. L. Cord owned the Auburn Automobile Company outright and quickly turned it into a major auto phenomena with styling and marketing. His cars were sought by movie and sports stars and Cord’s photo graced the cover of Time magazine twice within a two year period.

Cord expanded his corporate reach into over sixty businesses including the production of airplanes, airlines and department stores. Overexpansion and the Great Depression eventually hobbled Cord and he was forced to sell out in 1937 to a group which quickly closed the company.

Today, luxury automobiles are still associated with Auburn, IN. Kruse International, started by Russell Kruse in 1952 and still run by his son and daughter-in-law annually sells over 13,000 classic cars each year during the Labor Day Weekend Festival held each year in Auburn.

Few of the early automobile manufacturers survived, but the clustering impact and its affect upon the economy in Indiana and other places still has an impact today.

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