There was a time when just about every major city in the United States boasted a car manufacturer, and independent automakers made up the bulk of the entire industry. That’s not the case any longer. Just a handful of automotive brands are truly independent. Here’s a look at a few from yesterday and today, and what makes a car brand independent.
What Is an Independent Auto Brand?
An independent automotive brand is one that it is completely independent of a corporate parent. That’s what makes true independents so rare in today’s marketplace. For example, many consider Subaru to be independent, but Subaru has a corporate parent — Subaru Corporation (formerly known as Fuji Heavy Industries.) Subaru Corporation is one of the world’s largest conglomerates, with a network of companies under its aegis. Toyota Motor owns 16.1% of Subaru Corporation today, and is its largest single investor.
Independent car brands exist without this type of corporate ownership. They’re a car brand and a company to themselves, and in a world of globalization, they’ve become an increasing rarity.
Independents vs. the Industry
In the early part of the 20th Century, multinational conglomerates like General Motors and Chrysler Corporation began buying up smaller brands and producing a range of cars under the banner of much larger companies. General Motors’ William Durant created GM as a holding company after he purchased Buick in 1904. Soon, he launched Chevrolet and moved it under the GM banner. Over the years, GM would accumulate brands like Cadillac, Oakland (later renamed Pontiac) and Oldsmobile, and launch new brands like Saturn.
Many other US automotive brands existed under similar structures. Lincoln, Mercury and for a time, Edsel, existed as brands under the Ford Motor Company umbrella. The Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto and Imperial brands were all part of the Chrysler Corporation.
Independent car brands existed as mavericks outside this kind of corporate framework:
Packard was a completed independent automotive brand from its founding in 1899 until it was purchased by Studebaker in 1953. It would only last as a brand for five years after the purchase. 1958 model year Packards were all badge-engineered versions of Studebaker models.
Packard was automotive royalty in its heyday. It was noteworthy for producing the first automobile with a 12-cylinder engine, and the first automobile offered with air conditioning. Packard holds the distinction of having the greatest number of models accepted as “Full Classics” by the Classic Car Club of America.
Hudson launched in 1909, offering the Hudson “Twenty,” one of the first low-priced cars in America. In 1910, it sold over 4,500 cars, rocketing it to 17th place in world automotive production. In 1916, it moved away from using engines provided by Continental Motors Corporation, and developed its own “Super Six,” an inline six cylinder with an industry-first balanced crankshaft.
Hudson was a wildly successful car company in the early half of the 20th century. In 1929, it sold over 300,000 cars, putting it in third place behind Ford and Chevrolet.
World War II proved to be the breaking point for many independents and this was true most clearly for Hudson. Its Invader engines powered the Higgins Landing Craft that stormed Normandy Beach on D-Day, but the economics of producing automobiles independently proved to be too much to manage. By 1954, Ford and Chevrolet were engaged in a sales war, driving prices down, and yearly refreshes up to the point that independents like Hudson simply couldn’t compete. That year, Hudson was acquired by Nash-Kelvinator, which would eventually become AMC.
Preston Tucker’s vision for a completely different car company materialized in the production of the Tucker 48, a rear-engine, six-passenger car that emphasized safety as much as design and performance.
America was thirsty for new automotive designs after the suspension of automotive production between 1941 and 1946. The Tucker 48 certainly looked new, with its bold design including a Cyclops Eye third headlight that turned with steering inputs (a feature incorporated on many cars today). Mechanically, it was completely unique for any American car at the time, featuring a flat-six cylinder engine. Originally, the 48 was supposed to have a bespoke engine, but the few production cars ended up with Franklin engines that were originally intended for Bell 47 helicopters, but converted from air-cooling to water.
In the end, Tucker produced just over 50 cars, including the original prototype, before an SEC investigation into Preston Tucker’s business practices doomed the company.
Mazda is one of the last few remaining independent automakers. In the 1990s, Ford had a significant stake in the company, but the Dearborn manufacturer divested itself of those shares by the latter part of the 1990s.
Mazda launched in 1920 as Toyo Cork Kyogo, Ltd., as a manufacturer of machine tools. In 1931, it introduced the Mazda-Go autorickshaw, a three wheeled, open-bed “pickup” powered by the front half of a single-cylinder motorcycle. Mazda really hit its auto production stride in the 1960s, with the introduction of the R360 in 1960, and the Carol in 1962. In the later ’60s, Mazda defined itself by incorporating Wankel rotary engines in many of its vehicles, from sports cars like the fabulous Cosmo (above), to ordinary sedans, and eventually to a small pickup in the 1970s.
Today, Mazda produces 1.5 million vehicles per year, making it the 15th largest automaker worldwide.
Tesla is the newest “successful” — depending on how you define “success” — auto brand in the industry.
While Elon Musk is recognized as the public face of the company, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded the automotive brand in 2003. Musk was its chief investor at the time of the car company’s founding, when it built sports cars based on the Lotus Elise, converted to electric power. Despite the lack of in-house automotive engineering, the Tesla Roadster accomplished several feats: It was the first electric car to have a 200-mile range on a charge, and it was also the first to utilize lithium-ion batteries as a power source.
In 2015 and 2016, its Model S was the best-selling plug-in electric vehicle in the industry, hitting a global milestone of 200,000 cars sold in 2017. The Model X was introduced in 2015, and the Model 3 started hitting the streets in July of 2017, allowing it to surpass 300,000 units sold as a company in February of 2018.