These Are America’s Top 10 Also-Ran Carmakers

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Image: Jason Torchinsky

Holy crap, America is 245! Sure, this country is hardly perfect, but it barely looks over 230, if you ask me. As long as you don’t look to carefully at roads and bridges and stuff like that, of course. I like to feature some standout American cars on the Fourth of July, and I usually try to avoid the usual American car attention hogs. This year, I want to really focus on America’s lesser-appreciated automotive heroes, so that’s why I’m doing this roundup.

Yes, it’s America’s 10 greatest also-ran carmakers! My criteria for an also-ran is that these are companies that, while they enjoyed some success in their own little niches, were never remotely as big as the Big Three, Ford, GM, and Chrysler, or even America’s lovable loser fourth place carmaker, AMC.

Let’s go a little further, even. I want to try and feature makes that really don’t get even the attention that other legendary and well-known defunct American carmakers get, like Packard, Studebaker, Auburn-Cord-Dusenberg, Pierce-Arrow, all of those fancy-people car show regulars. They’re great, but they get plenty of adulation.

Oh, and Tucker, too. I love Tuckers, but that company never really got off the ground, and, hell, Tucker got its own movie, even.

The criteria I’m looking for here are carmakers that actually produced some cars, and could arguably even have held their own against the Big Fellas in specific market corners. Also, carmakers that produced their own designs, and didn’t just sell modified mainstream cars.

Engines and parts can come from bigger companies, sure, but the cars should be original.

I suspect this list will prove controversial for many, but, hey, that’s why you come online to read stuff, isn’t it? To get worked up? Reminded you’re alive? Of course you do.

Okay, so, here we go: the top ten American unbig, also-ran, cameo carmakers!

10. Vehicle Production Group

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Image: VPG MV-1

I know you’ve seen these things around and thought “hey, what’d some crazy bastard do to that Honda Element” before realizing that, wait, that’s not an Element at all. No, it’s a Vehicle Production Group Mobility Vehicle (MV)-1!

Miami, Florida-based Vehicle Production Group is a name so weirdly generic it sounds like what the translation of some state-run Soviet car-design bureau would have called themselves, and Mobility Vehicle is a weirdly bland, redundant name, too.

Awful names aside, the MV-1, built from 2011 to 2016, always impressed me because it exists at all. You’d think the Big Three would have muscled out everyone from the big SUV-ish/minivan space, but the MV-1’s utilitarian, useful design, a design made to be especially good at dealing with wheelchairs and disabled passengers, just proved too good to ignore.

The chassis was designed by Roush, and the clunky beast used Ford V8s at first, then later Ford V6s.

They’re not necessarily vehicles anyone would actually desire, but just the fact that they’re one of the few non-mainstream modern-ish vehicles you still see around sometimes is pretty impressive.

9. King Midget

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Image: King Midget Club

One of America’s only true microcars, King Midget had an absurdly long life, building odd little tiny cars from 1946 to 1970. Cheap as dirt and sold initially via ads in magazines, the King Midget served the very, very low-end of the market that most carmakers ignored.

By the 1960s, the King Midget was quite close to a “real” car in many ways, with hydraulic brakes, a 12V electrical system, all steel unibody construction, and a rear-mounted 12 horsepower one-cylinder, air-cooled engine.

Really, the King Midget was as much a real car as any number of microcars being used as regular transportation all over ‘50s and ‘60s Europe. In hindsight, I bet it could have done quite well if these were exported in any quantity, head-to-head with Gogomobils and Isettas and Messerschmitts.

There’s still people who love these things and have active meets, usually in the Midwest.

8. Panoz

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Image: Panoz

The inclusion of Panoz caused a lot of my co-Jalops to demand that Saleen or Vector be included as well, but I don’t think any of America’s other super-low-volume dedicated sports car makers really have pulled it off as well as Panoz, who are still in business, making and selling cars.

The cars are built in Georgia, and they make track-only sports cars as well as homologated street cars, like the Esperante or Avezzano, or America’s closest thing to a Lotus 7, the Panoz Roadster.

Sometimes I’ll see one at a local Cars and Coffee, and it’s always a treat.

7. Franklin

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Image: Franklin

Okay, I was trying not to include any companies from the automobile bubble of the early 20th century, but Franklin I think was important and maybe under-appreciated enough that they deserve to be on the list. Also, they specialize in air-cooled engines, which I just irrationally like.

It’s worth remembering that in the time before anti-freeze-based coolants started to be used in 1923, air-cooled cars had real advantages in winter, since they couldn’t freeze over, making Franklins a popular choice for doctors and other people who absolutely needed a working car any time.

Franklin was around from 1902 to 1934, and were respected automakers in their time, making entry-level cars as well as very luxurious cars as well. They even built an air-cooled 12-cylinder engine that made 150 hp back in 1932!

6. Avanti

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Image: Avanti

Maybe this one is cheating, since the Avanti started off as a Studebaker, but when Studebaker stopped building Avantis in 1964, the car was just too good to stop being built, so it was spun off into its own company and sold as the Avanti II.

Incredibly, the Avanti II was built with its original, Studebaker chassis and Raymond Loewy-team designed body until 1985, when it was switched to a Chevy Monte Carlo chassis, with a new Avanti-ish body stuck on top.

It wasn’t really quite the same, but the company kept on, and later went to a Chevy Caprice chassis, then a redesign on a Mustang chassis from 2004 until the end came, finally, in 2006.

Sure, they got sort of silly when they left the original design, but there’s still something deeply cool about Avantis in general, and I love how determinedly and long they kept at it.

5. Apollo

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Image: Mecum

I know Apollo was a really, really low-volume carmaker—they only made about 88 Apollo 5000 GTs—but holy crap, look at the damn thing. It’s just such a pretty car.

The styling was Italian, as its mid-century Ferrari-type look suggests, but these were built in Oakland, California, and had big, basic 5-liter Buick V8s, hardly anything exotic, but with pretty good power.

These were European-style GT cars with reliable American power, a fantastic combination that would show up again and again, in cars like the Iso Grifo or Jensen Interceptor or DeTomaso Pantera or even the AC/Shelby Cobra.

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Image: Disney

Plus, the Apollo GT did manage to get a bit of mainstream fame in America, when it starred as the villain’s car in The Love Bug, playing the Thorndyke Special as a foil to Herbie, the famous racing Volkswagen Beetle.

4. Excalibur

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Image: Excalibur

Sure, these are sort of ridiculous, ostentatious seeming things to many of us today, often carrying a certain sort of outdated open-shirt, gold-chain, cocaine-dusted sort of vibe to them, but the truth is these 1928 Mercedes SSK-inspired cars were designed by the great Brooks Stevens, of Studebaker fame, and were pretty good performers in their own right.

Corvette V8s and minimal bodywork for light weight meant these showy beasts could be fun, and over 3,500 of the things were made in Milwaukee all the way up until 1990.

3. Crosley

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Image: Crosley

One of the very few companies to make genuinely small cars in America, Crosley was building and selling some of America’s least expensive and most efficient cars from 1939 to 1952, and were the last American carmaker to be building civilian cars before they switched to wartime production in 1942.

Crosley was quite innovative and capable, building their own engines and even experimenting with weird sheet-metal engine blocks, though they also had real innovations, like the first disc brakes on an American car, America’s first real postwar sports car, and the first use of “Sport Utility.”

Crosleys made all sorts of cool little station wagons and trucks and convertibles, all smaller than anyone else’s and always affordable. Crosley even made a Jeep-like vehicle/farm implement called the Farm-O-Road.

The company did it all, and did it cheap and small. There really hasn’t been anything quite like them in America since.

2. Grumman

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Image: Grumman/USPS

Okay, this one is perhaps the one car on this list I can just about guarantee every American has seen: the Grumman Long Life Vehicle (LLV), better known as the mail truck.

It’s kind of amazing a major automaker didn’t get this contract, but they didn’t, with weirdo canoe-and-aircraft maker Grumman coming in with a Chevy S-10-based aluminum box that beat out everyone.

They’re just now about to be replaced, but I’d call the 33-year long career of the LLV a triumph for the non-traditional carmaker.

1. Checker

Illustration for article titled These Are America's Top 10 Also-Ran Carmakers

Image: Guber-Peters/Raphael Orlove

If any American car not made by one of the traditional big automakers can be qualified as an actual icon of Americana, there’s really only one answer: the Checker Marathon.

The Checker Marathon, as most commonly seen in taxicab form, effectively became a symbol of taxis, New York City, and even to this day there still isn’t a really satisfying iconic cab substitute for this remarkable dinosaur.

Checker had been a taxi company since the 1920s, and was a pioneer in a number of ways, including being the first to hire Black drivers and pick up all fares, regardless of race.

Checker built their own taxis, of course, and the Marathon, which was by far their most famous model, arrived in 1960, though it was very similar to late ‘50s preceding Checkers like the Superba.

Mechanically, Marathons were about as conventional as you could imagine, with Chevy V8s moving a mass of old-school, body-on-frame construction. They were simple and robust and plenty roomy—all good qualities in a cab.

The styling was already dated when it came out, and it stubbornly stayed the same for decades, with the final ones coming off the Kalamazoo line in 1982. The only changes really made were to keep up with government regulations, like when Checker was the first of any American company to use amber turn indicators in 1962.

Illustration for article titled These Are America's Top 10 Also-Ran Carmakers

Image: Checker/Ford

The unchanging design is a big part of why Checker became such an icon, and it’s because of this icon status that I’m giving Checker the top spot for the American also-rans.

After all, America is not just for the big kids—it’s for everyone, even the bit players, so all of you out there, no matter what you think your status is, you’re all fellow Americans to me, so happy Independence Day!

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