Robert Hupp, born in 1877, was educated in Detroit’s public schools. His father was a freight agent for the Michigan Central Railroad, and Robert Hupp went to work for that line. However, he decided that, rather than working for somebody, it was better to start your own business. Apparently, he decided to learn the vehicle industry from the bottom up. He went to work for R. E. Olds at the East Jefferson plant, and advanced from blue-collar to administrative jobs. He moved with Olds to Lansing following the fire that destroyed that firms Detroit factory. He later returned to Detroit to work for Henry Ford and quickly advanced to high level into administrative jobs.
When he was just in his early twenties, Hupp assembled a team of entrepreneurs, engineers and investors, then rented the modest Bellevue street building that you see pictured here. They produced a prototype model of the Hupmobile. Unlike many other new firms, they found a market for the vehicle they designed, and in 1909, successfully produced 1,500 cars. Hupmobile turned out to be one of the most successful and long-lived of the smaller auto companies, eventually making 500,000 cars before their demise in 1940.
Automobile manufacturers, at this time, typically assembled cars from parts purchased from suppliers. That is the way Henry Ford did it. Hupp preceded Ford and the Dodge Brothers in owning an integrated production firm; that is, establishing one corporation that both assembles vehicles and makes its own component parts. By 1910, the Hupp Corporation controlled Hupp Motor Car and, perhaps a dozen machine shops, forges and part makers located on Detroit’s east side. He also accumulated the funds needed to erect a modern and efficient assembly campus, including three large buildings on East Jefferson at Connor where Jeep Cherokees are now produced. At this time, it was not certain whether electricity or gasoline would be the more effective way to power cars. Hupp, apparently wanting to keep his options open, founded the Hupp-Yates Electric Car Company, but his co-owners of Hupp Motors thought that his empire building would ruin their firm. They either forced Hupp out or he voluntary sold his shares in Hupp Motors in 1911. Just three years after founding the successful company and still in his mid-twenties, Hupp was gone. He tried to produce Hupp-Yates cars in Detroit from a small plant on Lycaste, but his former partners got a court order preventing him from using the Hupp name. He renamed his new make of cars RCH—his initials—but the firm failed in 1914.
The Hupp Motor Car Company, however, prospered, selling six to seven thousand cars every year. A recapitalization in 1915 allowed the production of new models, and sales continued to increase after World War I. By the 1920s, Hupmobiles were recognized as reliable middle-priced cars with up-to-date engineering features not readily available on Ford or GM models. The Hupmobile models of the 1920s were much more advanced than the Model T’s that Henry Ford continued to sell. Peak production was in 1928 when 56,000 were produced. By this time, Hupmobile, in addition to its East Jefferson plant, had a plant on Milwaukee at Mt. Elliot in Detroit, a factory in Windsor, and after the purchase of failing Chandler-Cleveland Motors, Hupps were assembled in Cleveland when the market demanded.
The Depression began on October 24, 1929 and put many auto firms out of business. Hupp was one of the victims, but few industrial firms have struggled longer or more spectacularly than Hupp before the bankruptcy court judge struck the final gavel. National economic statistics were rudimentary during the Depression, so numerous financial officials and politicians identified one or more optimistic indicators and proclaimed that prosperity and full-employment would return soon. The auto firms invested substantially in new models that would capture the market once the presumed boom got under way. Hupp, more so than other firms, designed a spectacular array of new models during the Depression but, alas, they did not save the company. A new, lighter-weight and lower-priced model went on the market in 1930, but sales that year were less than half of what they were in 1928. Raymond Loewy, one of the most accomplished and popular industrial designers of the last century, was hired to produced a streamlined Hupmobile for the 1932 model run. Loewy is best known in automobile circles for his radically different 1947 Studebaker line. Loewy’s design was impressive, but sales plummeted once again as the Depression grew deeper. Hupp Motor did not give up. Instead they brought out a line of streamlined aerodynamic models for 1934—cars that did not resemble the boxy vehicles most everyone was driving in that decade. Sales fell once again, factories shut in 1935, and Hupp seemed on the brink of bankcrupcy. However, Hupp lived on. New management and new financing was located and the firm managed to bring out a line up of innovative cars for 1936. Sales fell once again to the stunningly small total of just 1,600 cars in 1936.
The Wagner Act of 1935 required that firms recognize unions. With a respite from the woes of the Depression in 1937, the major auto producers speeded up their production lines, hoping to make up for eight years of lost sales, but the United Auto Workers instituted sit-down strikes against GM and Chrysler until they complied with the federal law. The UAW also wished to organize Hupp workers, but the firm, citing their precarious financial situation, decided to take a long strike rather than settle. Thus, Hupp was shut down during the one-year of the long Depression when auto production increased. They managed to resume production in 1938, but the Depression also resumed, so only about 1,000 Hupmobiles were made that year. Once again Hupp appeared moribund, but again a new management took over. They collaborated with designers from the failing Cord Motor Company are came up with a streamlined—and very modern looking—Hupp Skylark. Even in the Depression, this original and different car reached a market and Hupp officials claimed to have 6,000 firm orders. Hupp wanted to produce the Skylark in Detroit but needed financial assistance. Hupp—along with many other Detroit firms and homeowners—was far in arrears on city taxes, so they requested another deferral so that they could produce their spectacular new car. Detroit City Council refused to give them an extension fearing that they would have to do the same things for the thousands of other debtors. This was just about the final nail in the Hupp coffin. Hupp management convinced Graham Paige—another failing auto maker with large plants in Dearborn and Detroit—to produce the head-turning Hupp Skylark, but no more than 300 or so were produced in 1940. After bankruptcy and reorganization, the Hupp Corporation survived to make munitions during World War II and then parts for the auto industry after the war.
Several of the smaller auto firms, whose production all but ceased during the Depression, made plans to return to the auto industry in the booming years of the late 1940s. Willys actually did so. Hupp, however, made no efforts to get back into vehicle production. So far as I know, there are no State of Michigan or National Historic markers commemorating the long and interesting history of Hupp Motors.
It is also interesting to note how the nation’s system of capitalism has changed in sixty years. A tax break from the city in 1939 might have kept Hupp alive. They certainly would have prospered during World War II, but the idea of government’s giving tax breaks to firms was not popular then. Now, reducing taxes for employment is a major component of the economic development policy of Detroit, Michigan and almost every other city and state.
Architect: Unknown to me
Date of construction: Early 1900s ?
Architectural style: industrial building
Use in 2005: General Acid Proofing Company
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; August 6, 2005
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