Colonial Cars

November 07, 2012

Every Thanksgiving we remember the Pilgrims, who were some of the first to jump on a ship and cross the ocean to set up shop on American shores. Car lovers might well remember another “coming to America” in the early 20th century when these top European car makers opened manufacturing here, in the Land of Plenty.

The British Are Coming!


Hoping to create a market for small cars here in the United States, the American Austin Car Company was founded in 1929 in Butler, Pennsylvania. The British plan was to assemble and sell a version of the Austin 7, called the American Austin, here in the States. The cars had 747 cc inline-four engines and resembled small Chevrolets with Stutz- and Marmon-style horizontal hood louvers. The bodies were designed by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and made by Detroit’s Hayes Body Company. The coupe was billed as a sedan and sold for $445, slightly less than a Ford V8 roadster. More than 8,000 cars were sold during the company's first (and best) year of sales, but the Great Depression suddenly made used cars more appealing. Sales for the Austin 7 fell steadily until production was suspended in 1932.

An American Rolls

Rolls Royce

When famed British luxury car maker Rolls-Royce was looking for the best American city in which to set up an assembly plant, one East Coast town seemed to offer everything. In 1921, Springfield, Massachusetts, was one of the oldest and most cutting-edge manufacturing cities on the North American continent. Springfield was also strategically located near New York and Boston, both popular shipping ports and two of America’s most cosmopolitan cities.

Initially, parts for every Rolls-Royce made in Springfield were assembled with parts imported from England. Cars were the same as those built at its British plant, down to the right-hand drive, until eventually the company began using American parts and designs, including a three-speed transmission.

Some 1,703 Silver Ghosts and 1,241 Phantoms were assembled by the 1,200 workers employed at the Springfield Rolls-Royce plant. The cars sold for roughly $12,000 in an era when a top-of-the-line Packard cost less than $4,000. The high cost spelled the end of the factory in 1931 when the Great Depression essentially eliminated the luxury limo market in America.

The Italian Job


Fiat’s buyout of Chrysler and the company’s arrival in the United States was some of the biggest automotive news in 2011. However, although most stories failed to mention it, the move was actually a homecoming of sorts.

Seeking to expand its market into America and eliminate the 45-percent duty imposed on all imported autos, Italy’s largest automotive company first opened a construction and assembly factory along the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1910.

At the time, Fiat’s reputation among American drivers was one of speed, reliability and elegance. Owning a Fiat was a sign of wealth and distinction. By using Italian engineers, parts and materials shipped directly from the home factory in Torino, Italy, Fiat managed to set up a construction and assembly plant in America that was able to produce cars nearly identical to, yet cheaper than, those manufactured overseas.

The cost of an American Fiat was initially $4,000 and rose up to $6,400 the year America entered World War I. Unfortunately for the company, American involvement in the war meant increased regulations (and costs) for foreign manufacturers doing business here. Producing automobiles also took a backseat to helping supply the Allied Forces with aircraft, engines, machine guns and trucks, which led to Fiat closing its Poughkeepsie factory in 1917.

The American Mercedes


A little-known fact about the German known as the “pioneer of the internal-combustion engine,” Gottlieb Daimler, is that he also had a pretty good set of pipes — singing pipes, that is. When Daimler visited New York in late 1876 as a member of a male choir, he chanced to meet legendary piano maker William Steinway. According to the Daimler-Chrysler archives, the two visionaries shared not only a love of music, but also the idea that the automobile was certain to become the greatest industrial invention the world had ever seen.

In 1888, Steinway founded Daimler Motor Company in Long Island, New York, to produce America’s first operational vehicle engine based on Daimler’s original design drawings. Steinway’s plan was to take this engine and produce a vehicle capable of carrying two to four people at speeds up to 14 miles per hour. But Steinway died in 1896 and Daimler in 1900, so neither of them lived long enough to see their plan become a reality.

It wasn’t until 1905 that the American Mercedes, manufactured by the newly formed Daimler Manufacturing Company, was presented at the National Automobile Show in New York. An exquisite, open-top touring car — basically a reproduced 45-horsepower Mercedes — had a four-cylinder engine with a displacement of 6.8 liters, a four-speed transmission and a top speed of around 50 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, the total number of Mercedes cars produced in America is unknown. In mid-February 1907, a fire destroyed the manufacturing facility along with eight completed cars, 40 that were in the process of construction and most of the company’s records. Production was never resumed.



  1. Robert L. Brown Battle Creek, Michigan

    The story of the American Austin struck a nerve. In the early 1930's two of the early models were owned by the son and another employee of the local Texaco filling station. They were easily identified with their small body andlarge (for them)disc wheels. I have visited the birthplace in Butler Pa. The report seems to be cut short considering the the production of the Bantam line of vehicles until 1940 and the later development and production of the original "Jeep" automotive icon yet today. Sometime in the 1930's a movie "A Knight in King Arthurs Court" was produced involving many early American Austins

  2. alan ecke long island ny

    The American Austin story is a great one, but don't forget the American Bantam Automobile Company in Butler Pa., Not only was the various models competitively priced, but were quality vehicles. The shining achievement of the Bantam Car Company was that it invented and developed the US Armys' 1/4 ton utility vehicle, the Jeep. So i think that the bantam story is true amaricana and would be of interest to your readers.We Own a 1938 restored Bantam roadster and love it.