Experience Indiana’s Automotive History

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum houses one of the world’s premier collections of automotive and motor racing vehicles and artifacts. PHOTO: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum


Michigan might get the credit for building the most automobiles in the United States, but Indiana comes in third, just behind Ohio. At one point some 40 Hoosier cities were home to plants that manufactured 36 brands, such as Cole, Duesenberg, Marmon and Stutz. The state’s rich automotive history lives on in museums and monuments throughout Indiana, as well as in factories that continue to produce some of today’s most popular brands.

In fact, it was in Indiana that Elwood Haynes invented the first commercially successful gasoline- powered automobile in the United States. After conceiving of the ideas of what he called a “horseless carriage” while he lived in Portland, he moved to Kokomo, completed the blueprints and hired machinist brothers Elmer and Edgar Apperson to build it. On July 4, 1894, he took his first ride in an automobile that had come to be called “The Pioneer.” Today his story comes to life at Kokomo’s Elwood Haynes Museum, which is located in the home where he lived and where some of his automobiles are on display.

Kokomo’s Elwood Haynes Museum celebrates the inventor of first commercially successful gas-powered automobile. PHOTO: Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau

It’s extremely fitting that the National Auto and Truck Museum is located in the original production facility of the Auburn Automobile Co. in DeKalb County. One of the buildings in the complex is a National Historic Landmark, and the museum as a whole covers some 130 years of automobile history. Look for galleries that display trucks, family cars, pedal cars, toy cars and more. Among the museum’s proudest accomplishments, however, is the NATMUS Youth Education Program, an immersive experience for teenagers who are paired with a mentor who will lead them in car-restoration projects.

“These young people learn such basics as learning to use proper hand and shaping tools, welding skills, maintenance, driving a manual transmission and the privilege of being the first to drive the vehicles they have a hand in restoring,” said Dave Yarde, NATMUS executive director. “We are training our next generation to take care of the cars we love so much.”

Cass County played a pivotal role in the automobile industry. Logansport produced two models, the Bendix and the ReVere, and while the Bendix only made a few vehicles, the Revere operated here from 1917-1926 making more than 2600 automobiles. In fact, at the Cass County Historical Society, you’ll find one of the original ReVere touring cars.

Another significant spot to explore automotive history is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, located right inside the legendary 2.5-mile track. A stroll through the museum leads to vintage cars, exhibits about winning drivers and the Borg-Warner Trophy. Then take the “Kiss the Bricks” tour that includes a ride around the track and a stop at a piece of the original “brickyard” track.

The City of Carmel’s homage to Indiana’s automotive history will include four new sculptures, including the Stutz “Ra” Art Deco hood ornament, which will stand 16 feet tall in the roundabout at 96th and Gray Road. PHOTO: City of Carmel

Nearby Carmel has commissioned four new automobile-themed roundabout sculptures along 96th Street. Designed by Arlon Bayliss, the pieces are artistic interpretations of classic cars designed and built in Indiana during the first half of the 20th century, when Indiana was home to some 100 auto manufacturers. Each different from the others, they celebrate the Marmon, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg, Stutz and Studebaker.

And speaking of Studebaker, founded in 1901 and the largest producer in
the state, a tour of the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend might be in order. In addition to a collection of vehicles donated by the Studebaker Corp. to the city, visitors can see the largest exhibit of presidential carriages in the world and defense vehicles created by the company up until the Vietnam War.

Visitors to the Toyota plant in Princeton can take a tour where they’ll learn about the history of Toyota and southwest Indiana’s industrial heritage. PHOTO: Toyota Motor North America

“The museum preserves the history of Studebakers, along with the many industries that fostered the growth of South Bend,” said Pat Billey, former president of the board of trustees. “Additionally, the museum is supportive of education, preservation and innovation with displays that include the first 200 MPH Avanti and the carriage that delivered Abraham Lincoln to the Ford Theater the night he was assassinated.”

Cars and trucks aren’t the only vehicles manufactured in Indiana, either. The RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum displays every kind of recreational vehicle made by Airstream, Winnebago and others that date back to Mae West’s Chevrolet Housecar, a Gilkie Tent Trailer and a Tennessee Traveler Motorhome, all from the 1930s. Notice how technological advances have changed the industry as you walk along the “Road Back Into Time,” and see today’s newest offerings in the “Go RVing” exhibit. A new space, scheduled to be open in August, will feature manufactured homes.

The Studebaker National Museum in South Bend showcases the local and global influence of the Studebaker Corporation. PHOTO: Studebaker National Museum

While there is rich automotive history in the state, the present and future of auto manufacturing is here, too. At the Toyota plant in Princeton take an hourlong tram ride behind the scenes to see how their cars are made. When you’re finished, visit the Experience Center, where you’ll see how the iconic Toyota Production System was created along with historical displays and interactive exhibits. Those who have been say the suspended Toyota Tundra mustn’t be missed.

Subaru of Indiana in Lafayette offers a similar tour where you’ll start
by watching as steel is pressed into the shape of the vehicle then go on to see robots weld the panels together, real people assemble the 2,000 necessary parts and finally the finished product as it rolls off the line.