Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Never a large industry in the Great Plains, automaking nonetheless flourished until the 1930s. The region's small factories often sold directly to motorists, thereby eliminating transportation costs and agents' markups, and provided services unknown in the East: free driving lessons, lifetime warranties, and sometimes a chance for customers to help build the car they would own.

Nebraska and Kansas each had half a dozen companies that saw serious, sustained production prior to World War II. In Kansas, Topeka's Smith Automobile Company (1902– 12) sold 1,200 hand-built autos nationally. The Great Smith's advanced semiautomatic transmission, built-in icebox, and colorful stunts– climbing Pikes Peak in a blizzard, driving six days nonstop on rain-soaked Texas roads– won it many fans.

The lightly populated Dakotas, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming saw little automaking activity. The popular Montana Special, which sold well in Big Sky Country from 1911 to 1916, was actually a Minnesota product. Denver supplied Colorado's bestknown autos: the Colburn, famed for racing, and the Fritchle Electric, which Oliver P. Fritchle advertised widely in 1908 during a grueling trek over bad roads from Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City.

A shift in demand from open to closed cars and the advent of the moving assembly line forced automakers to invest more heavily in machinery, particularly after World War I. Consolidation marked the 1920s. Except for a few makers of luxury autos (for whom quality, not price, was all-important), smaller factories failed. A few of the region's automakers survived by producing fire engines, truck bodies, street cleaners, and other specialty machines.

Now a few large companies dominate the automobile industry, and manufacturing is concentrated in Ontario, in the case of Canada, and in Michigan and Ohio, in the United States. Great Plains states accounted for just less than 10 percent of U.S. output in 1996. General Motors plants in Oklahoma City, Arlington, Texas (just east of Fort Worth), and Fairfax, Kansas (northeastern Kansas City) and the Ford Motor Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Missouri, are the hubs of the region's production.

See also TRANSPORTATION: Automobiles.

Curt McConnell Lincoln, Nebraska

Kimes, Beverly Rae, and Henry Austin Clark Jr. Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805–1942. Iola WI: Krause Publications, 1989.

McConnell, Curt. Great Cars of the Great Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Ward's Automotive Yearbook. Southfield MI: Ward's Communications, 1997.

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