Automotive history: Cleveland was almost the Motor City

cle_cs_autosidebar_0513Cleveland is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, has a world-renowned theater district in Playhouse Square and is clamoring for one of its beloved pro sports teams to finally win a championship.

But do you know how close Cleveland came to being known throughout the land as the Motor City?

“Cleveland turned out the most automobiles in America between 1896 and 1907,” says Derek Moore, curator of transportation history for the Crawford Auto and Aviation Museum at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

“Between 1892, when (Achille) Philion built the first steam carriage in this area, and 1932, when Peerless Motor Car Co. closed its doors, there were more than 115 automobile manufacturers in Northeast Ohio. It was a significant factor in the development of the early automobile.”

Founded in 1900, Peerless began producing cars when Cleveland was the center of automotive production in the U.S. Peerless even employed race car driver Barney Oldfield to pilot its Green Dragon.

So why is Detroit known today as the Motor City? Henry Ford obviously had a lot to do with it when he started Ford Motor Co., built the Model T and came up with a way to mass produce cars on an assembly line.

“Detroit started to have more automobile companies and a big chunk of them were aimed at the lower-middle-class range,” Moore says. “Cleveland had the higher-end cars. More people could afford the cars coming out of Detroit, fewer people could afford the cars coming out of Cleveland, so Detroit’s business started to boom.”

Those realities aside, Cleveland has still done quite a bit to shape the automotive industry worldwide.

Doing their part

Mike Thompson has been selling cars in Northeast Ohio since 1975. It was a time when auto manufacturers employed a lot of people in the region — people who needed cars of their own to drive.

“People from the plants, they bought lots and lots of cars,” says Thompson, who is now the CEO at Montrose Auto Group. “Cleveland was heavy steel back then, and that’s why the ports were so important. We were in the top three of steel-producing cities in the country back then.”

The world has changed, but much of the work to support the cars and trucks we all drive continues.

“We’ve got Lordstown,” says Lou Vitantonio, president of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers’ Association, referring to the General Motors assembly plant. “You’ve got the EcoBoost engine being built in Cleveland, which is Ford’s most popular and most fuel-efficient vehicle. You’ve got Toledo that is heavy into Jeep because of the Jeep production plant. And you’ve got Honda in Central Ohio.”

Lubrizol Corp. is another big player with its work in oils and lubricants along with Eaton Corp. and TRW. But Moore says the ties don’t end there.

“Sherwin-Williams has been a big supplier to the industry with paint,” Moore says. “Down in Akron, you’ve got Goodyear. Lincoln Welding supplying welders to the repair shops. Ohio Technical College is training the future body mechanics and training people in alternative fuels. And the Cleveland Institute of Art — which is in an old Ford assembly plant — they have an automotive design program that is one of the best in the country.”

And so the evolution of the auto industry continues, says Frank Porter, president of Central Cadillac in downtown Cleveland.

“I think we rank second in the nation with the group of suppliers that produce parts that go into cars,” Porter says. “It was just sheer mass that made Detroit what it is today. At the same time, it’s maybe not as diverse as Cleveland is, and I think Detroit suffers because of that.” ●

To learn more about Cleveland’s automotive history, visit the Western Reserve Historical Society