Five forgotten Detroit-built cars

You know all about the Detroit Three. Now check out a few of the Motor City’s more obscure automotive makes. 


As MCG often notes, the Motor City was the Silicon Valley of its time. When the auto industry exploded in the first decades of the 20th century, countless auto companies were launched here. To our knowledge there has never been a final tally, but the brands could number in the hundreds.

Since personnel, investors, and facilities were endlessly reshuffled and recycled in the process, many of these firms are intertwined in complex and interesting ways. There’s a bottomless mine of automotive history in the Motor City. The five automakers featured here don’t even scratch the surface.


Thomas-Detroit is a little-known make today, but it played a critical role in the creation of several major Detroit automakers. Launched in 1907 by E.R. Thomas, who was also responsible for the Thomas brand of Buffalo, Thomas-Detroit became Chalmers-Detroit when Hugh Chalmers took ownership. Chalmers eventually became the nucleus of the Chrysler Corporation. A group within Chalmers-Detroit formed a division to to build mid-priced cars, which then splintered off as the Hudson Motor Car Co. Shown here is a smart 1908 Thomas-Detroit runabout.


The Anhut Motor Car Co. operated from 1909-1910 as the creation of John N. Anhut, a Michigan state senator. When the politician’s name became more of a liability than an asset, the make continued on briefly as Barnes. Anhut would later receive a prison sentence for attempting to bribe the physicians of Harry Thaw, who had killed his wife’s lover, Stanford White, in a sensational society murder of the era.


The Krit Motor Co. (1909-1916, also spelled K-R-I-T) took its name from investor and designer Kenneth Crittenden. Home was the former Owen auto factory on East Grand Boulevard, on the west side of the Michigan Central tracks across from the Packard plant. The brand is remembered today for its logo, a swastika, which would be permanently stigmatized years later by the Nazis.


After leaving the Sheridan organization, in 1922 WWI flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker founded his own Rickenbacker brand with backing from pioneering Detroit auto moguls William Metzger, Barney Everitt, and Walter Flanders. These three were key players in countless Motor City auto startups. That’s Captain Eddie in the straw hat above with a 1924 coupe.

Among the Rickenbacker’s distinctive features were sporty European styling, four-wheel brakes, and flywheels on both ends of the engine. The automaker folded in 1927, but the former factory is still standing on Cabot Street near Michigan Avenue. Rickenbacker’s next ventures included the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Eastern Airlines. By the way, that’s also a Rickebacker with the bathing beauty in the lead photo of this story.


The Columbia name is usually associated with the Hartford, Connecticut automaker maker that operated from 1897 to 1913, but there was a second, unrelated manufacturer based in Detroit from 1916 to 1924. A mid-priced assembled car powered by a Continental six, the Columbia had at least one novel feature, a thermostatic shutter system in the radiator shell as shown above.

For a time, the Columbia assembly complex included the former Aerocar/Hudson plant (featured here at Mac’s Motor City Garage) and the Ford Mack Avenue plant across the street. In 1923, the company combined with Liberty, another marginal Detroit car maker, then went out of business the following year.


15 thoughts on “Five forgotten Detroit-built cars

  1. The Continental Motor Company produced the Continental Beacon, Flyer and Ace at at plant on E. Jefferson near Belle Isle in 1933 and 1934 before closing the plant and going back to their core business of building engines for cars, airplanes and industrial use.

      • I’m not sure what you mean by “regular”. They had several engine plants. When they took over the DeVaux factory, which was actually linked to the Hayes factory, they built cars there, too. Continental was always based out of Muskegon, I believe.

        • I mean The Continental facility at Jefferson and Algonquin, one block east of Conner, where a stack and some other remnants are still standing.

          • Yes, that’s the plant, but Continental really just did assembly of components they bought from others to house their engines.

        • They actually started in Chicago, moved to Muskegon after picking up a Studebaker contract. The plant in Detroit made auto engines, the Muskegon plant made truck engines.

      • My grandfather was a VP at Studebaker and my mother had a Rockne roadster while in college at U of M. I have today one of two remaining in the US Rockne roadsters. My other grandfather was a Dort Motor car dealer in Detroit at Michigan and 8th. Would love to find a picture of his old building.

  2. Another make which deserves a mention is the Detroit Electric, which was manufactured between 1907 and 1939. It was the most famous and longest-lived electric car in US history.

  3. There is an operational EMF that occasionally shows up at motor-muster type events in town, came from the Harrah’s collection. Has an accessory spring recoil starter (!) that is supposed to protect the driver from the kickback of the crank, which drove Mr. Kettering to invent the reliable, common electric starter.

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