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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY. The automotive industry includes the manufacture of automobiles, parts, and accessories. 20th-century Cleveland is part of a nearly worldwide automotive culture dependent on this industry. The city has played a major role in the rapid and revolutionary rise of the automotive industry since the 1890s, largely in the Midwest. In fact, only Detroit has a better claim to being the heart of the automobile revolution. The automobile was developed in Germany and France in the 1880s and 1890s, with Americans making only minor contributions to the technology. However, when Americans read newspaper accounts of the Paris-Bordeaux automobile race of 1895, in which 9 of 22 vehicles finished a 727-mi. course, they recognized that the automobile had come of age, and American inventors and manufacturers scrambled to enter the market.

In Cleveland, as elsewhere in the U.S., the horsecarriage and bicycle manufacturers were best equipped to become automobile makers, and ALEXANDER WINTON† was one of the first. Winton, a Scottish immigrant with metalworking skills, arrived in Cleveland in 1884 and a few years later founded the Winton Bicycle Co. The standard bicycle of the time incorporated many elements that were adaptable to automobile technology, such as chain-and-sprocket drive, wire-spoke wheels with rubber tires, tubular steel frames, and even accessories such as rear-view mirrors. Winton took these parts, learned the intricacies of internal-combustion engines, and built an automobile, which he exhibited to Cleveland newspapermen in Oct. 1896. The next year he incorporated the WINTON MOTOR CAR CO. and completed an improved automobile with a 2-cyl., 2-hp engine. He showed it off by driving it to Elyria and back at an average speed of 12 mph. The next year Winton began producing a standard model in anticipation of a regular demand. Previously, American automakers (Duryea, for example) had manufactured automobiles to order. Thus, when Winton sold the first of his automobiles on 24 Mar. 1898, it marked the beginning of the American automobile industry as a whole, and the end of the period of experimentation and novelty.

Winton demonstrated a genius for publicity when in 1897 he raced one of his cars and reached 33.5 mph., an incredible speed at the time. In 1899 he drove from Cleveland to New York, accompanied by PLAIN DEALER reporter Charles Shanks, whose exciting tales of that trip were read across the nation (see CLEVELAND-NEW YORK DRIVE). When Winton reached New York he was greeted by admiring crowds, and it was estimated that eventually a million people in that city saw his car. In 1903 a new 2-cyl., 20-hp Winton car was driven from San Francisco to New York in 64 days to establish distance and endurance records. The next year Winton brought representatives of the press in a special Pullman railroad car to see the Winton factory in Cleveland. He also continued to be, a technological pioneer in the new industry. Winton was an early manufacturer of commercial vehicles, manufacturing 8 panel trucks in 1898 and adding a "business-wagon department" to his factory in 1900. He claimed to be the first American manufacturer to use the steering wheel as standard equipment (1900) rather than a tiller; to introduce the multiple-disc clutch; to make an 8-cyl. motor (1903); and to make available a self-starter as an option (using compressed air, in 1908). In the 1910s, Winton turned his ingenuity to diesel engines for ships and other purposes, and although the Winton was still known as a fine car, it lost its reputation for innovation. Numerous other Cleveland companies moved into the gasoline automobile business around the time Winton did. Companies such as Peerless and Stearns produced large, heavy, high-priced cars intended to appeal to wealthier buyers. There were few manufacturers in the U.S. who shared Henry Ford's vision that Americans of modest means could be induced to purchase a simple, unstyled but durable automobile. It is therefore unsurprising that Cleveland's leading manufacturers of electric and steam automobiles aimed at an upper-class market.

WALTER BAKER† became involved in the vehicle business when he founded the American Ball Bearing Co. in Cleveland in 1895, selling some of his product to bicycle and carriage manufacturers. Three years later he organized the Baker Motor Vehicle Co., and in 1900 he exhibited his first electric car. It had 10 batteries, but only a 3/4-hp motor. The batteries had to be recharged after 20 minutes of driving. Later Baker was able to install more powerful motors and longer-lasting batteries, but the Baker remained a relatively slow car with a limited cruising range. Since it was quiet and did not require shifting gears, it was regarded as an urban ladies' car. In 1915 Baker merged his company with Rauch & Lang, a distinguished Cleveland carriage manufacturer that had entered the electric vehicle business (see BAKER MATERIALS HANDLlNG CO.). But the gasoline automobile was the dominant force in the industry, and a few years later the new company stopped producing automobiles and focused on making electric vehicles for industrial purposes.

The leading steam automobile manufactured in Cleveland was the White. Since 1866, the White Sewing Machine Co. had been a primary manufacturer in the city, making not only sewing machines but also roller skates, kerosene lamps, machine tools, phonographs, and bicycles. Founder THOMAS H. WHITE† had been trained in the firearms and sewing-machine industries of New England and had brought to Cleveland the knowledge of how to produce large quantities of standardized products with machine tools such as lathes and drill presses. His approach made it comparatively easy to adapt the machinery for making sewing machines to make many other metal items. While manufacturing automobile parts was an obvious step for a company such, as White's in the 1890s, it was a considerably more expensive venture to manufacture automobiles. It took one of White's sons, ROLLIN H. WHITE†, to initiate the automobile business. Rollin became involved with automobiles in the late 1890s by studying them at Cornell Univ., then joined Walter Baker in the early development of Baker's electric car and visited Europe to study the automobile industry there. He returned a convert to steam vehicles, and in 1900 he patented a flash-steam boiler that allowed the operator to raise enough steam to start a car quickly. Steam boilers for railroad locomotives had required as much as several hours to get up steam for movement.

Rollin White publicly displayed 4 steam cars in 1900, and the next year White Sewing Machine produced 193 cars for sale. White soon established a reputation for quality and dependability, and by 1906 reached an annual production of 1,500 cars, which the company claimed was twice that of any other automobile manufacturer in the world. The same year the automobile division split off from the parent company and established a new factory at E. 79th and St. Clair (see WHITE MOTOR CORP.). On that site the company later made the shift from steam to gasoline engines (1909-11), and from largely automobiles to the manufacture of trucks. White is regarded (with Stanley) as one of the 2 most important steam automakers in the U.S. and into the 1970s was one of the nation's major heavy-truck manufacturers. Winton, Baker, and White were leaders in Cleveland's early rise to prominence in the American automotive industry. By 1909 the U.S. manufacturing census showed that automobile manufacture ranked as the 3rd-largest industry in the city, with 32 factories employing over 7,000 workers and producing nearly $21 million worth of automobiles, an astonishing rise from 1899, when the census did not even list the industry as a category. Other Cleveland-made automobiles were introduced to the market after 1909, such as the Chandler (1913), the Jordan (1916), and the Cleveland (1919). In all, over 80 different makes of automobiles were made in Cleveland up to 1931, when the last Peerless rolled out of the shop. But the several thousand of each Cleveland make that were manufactured paled in comparison to Henry Ford's Model T, first made in Detroit in 1908 but turned out in the hundreds of thousands per year after 1913. This rapid ascendancy of Detroit over Cleveland was symbolized by Ford's opening of a branch assembly here in 1914, making Model Ts from assembled parts brought by rail. Fords were manufactured here until 1932.

Why did Cleveland, an early leader in the American automotive industry, lose out to Detroit? There is no single answer, but as historian John Rae has argued, the manufacturers and financiers of Detroit were more willing to take the risks involved in building the massive plants required to shift to assembly-line mass production than were comparable businessmen in any other, manufacturing center of the nation. Still, Cleveland was an ideal location for the automotive industry: it had ready access to steel, glass, and rubber; it had many companies with experience in using the machine tools necessary to make the equipment for assembly lines; it had large pools of both skilled and unskilled workers; and it was a major transportation center. For all of those reasons, as well as its early experience in automobile manufacturing, Cleveland became the 2nd-largest center of the automotive industry in the U.S. with the rise of parts manufacturing in the 1910s and 1920s. While companies producing cars were withering, others that made particular items were being founded in Cleveland. CLAUD FOSTER†, for example, invented the Gabriel horn and hydraulic shock absorber and manufactured them in Cleveland. Charles E. Thompson began making valves for Winton's engines in 1904, establishing an automotive company that became Thompson Products in 1926, later part of TRW. The Torbensen Gear & Axle Co. moved to Cleveland in 1915 and evolved into the EATON CORP., a major producer of gearing for commercial vehicles. Willard storage batteries were made in Cleveland from 1896 but were not specially made for the automotive market until 1908. A group of Case School of Applied Science graduates founded the LUBRIZOL CORP. in 1928 to manufacture a motor oil additive, and later marketed a variety of lubricants.

On a broader scale, 70% of the steel made in Cleveland was destined for automotive manufacturing by the 1920s. Much of it was absorbed by frame and body manufacturers, who in the 1910s began to switch from the wooden carriage type of frame of early automobiles to the all-steel body standard by the later 1930s. The leading Cleveland factory was the Fisher Body plant on Coit Rd., opened in 1922 to make car bodies for General Motors (see FISHER BODY DIVISION OF GENERAL MOTORS CORP.). Another industry much affected by the rise of the automobile was rubber manufacturing. Although tire-making was concentrated in the Akron area, by 1920 there were nearly 40 rubber factories in the Cleveland area, and a number of Cleveland companies supplied equipment or chemicals to the rubber industry. Cleveland also emerged as a center for the manufacture of vehicles other than passenger cars. White trucks became a leader in their field, and Euclid Rd. Machinery Co., incorporated in 1931, made off-road trucks and construction vehicles. Cleveland's future in the automotive field was promoted through many of the city's nearly 50 industrial laboratories in 1930, which were involved partly or wholly in developing or assessing automotive parts and materials. Foundries and machine shops often had several people studying the production of engine blocks and cylinders, while Thompson Products had engineers and scientists examining "heat-resisting steels for automotive valves." The Gabriel Co. and WILLARD STORAGE BATTERY CO. probably were typical of parts suppliers testing shock absorbers and engaging in battery research, respectively. White Motor, on the other hand, explored all problem areas and innovations in truck technology.

On the eve of World War II, the automotive industry in Cleveland was a major American center of parts and accessory manufacturing. During the war, Cleveland's automotive industry shifted to military production, although Euclid Rd. Machinery expanded its production of trucks for both civilian and military purposes. Thompson Products became Cleveland's largest industrial employer, making both vehicle and aircraft parts. Many automotive workers found their skills much in demand by wartime plants, such as the Fisher Aircraft Assembly Plant, built near Cleveland's airport to assemble B-29s and P-75s. Immediately following the war, American automakers returned to automotive manufacturing to satisfy pent-up consumer demand, and the Cleveland automotive industry shared in the prosperity. The manufacturing census of 1947 listed 36 motor vehicle and parts companies in the Cleveland district, employing 22,452, more than 10% of the total industrial workforce.

Over the next 10 years, the 3 dominant American automakers made major investments in the Cleveland area. In 1949 the Chevrolet Division of GM opened the largest of its new U.S. plants in Parma, devoted largely to automatic transmissions. The FORD MOTOR CO. built 2 engine plants (opened in 1951 and 1955) and a foundry at BROOK PARK. By 1953 Brook Park was making most of Ford's 6-cyl. engines and all of the popular V-8 Mercury engines. In 1978, when Brook Park produced its 30-millionth engine, about 16,000 worked there. Ford also built a stamping plant in WALTON HILLS in 1954. Chrysler intended to enter the Cleveland area with the construction of a steel-stamping plant at Brooklyn, but eventually located it at Twinsburg.

With the construction of new plants and a boom in car buying in the 1950s and early 1960s, Cleveland's automobile industry reached its historic peak. The manufacturing census of 1963 recorded 59 motor vehicle assembly and equipment establishments in the district, with products worth over $559 million more than the raw materials taken in. Employment stood at 37,383, about 13% of Cleveland's total maufacturing force. Over the next 20 years Cleveland's automotive industry matured and stabilized; certain plants, such as Ford's at Brook Park, had intervals of expansion, but the general trend was downward. As the American automotive industry suffered from overexpansion, establishments in Cleveland shifted production patterns, reduced payrolls, and closed plants. GM ended production at the Coit Rd. Fisher Body plant in 1983, and EXCELSIOR, the successor to the Euclid Rd. Machinery Co., closed its doors in 1985. Ford's Brook Park complex, however, remained competitive with other Ford plants in the country., After some deliberation, GM decided in 1985 to invest $580 million in expanding and modernizing its Parma facility, which continues to operate in 1993.

The manufacturing census of 1982, encompassing Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga, and Medina counties, found that the Cleveland area had 71 establishments making automotive parts, accessories, and stampings, but that they employed only 15,800. The GREATER CLEVELAND GROWTH ASSN. found in 1992 that in an 8-county area (Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga, Medina, Lorain, Portage, Summit), Ford, GM, and Chrysler employed 22,859 in all capacities, but it seemed unlikely that the industry would be a major source of economic growth in the Cleveland area in the near future.

Darwin Stapleton

Rockefeller Archive Center

See also specific automotive companies.

Last Modified: 11 Jul 1997 09:50:57 AM

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