Born into the slave state of Virginia in 1833, the family lore has it C.R. Patterson swam to freedom across the Ohio River when he was just 7 years old. While his great-grandson Richard Patterson says there’s no way to know if the story is true, C.R. still left quite a legend behind.
Settling down in Greenfield, Ohio, Patterson partnered with a local businessman to open a coachbuilding company in 1873, eventually taking it over with son Frederick. In 1914, C.R. Patterson & Sons built its first automobile. And though the Patterson-Greenfield Automobile company lasted barely four years, it assumed a unique place in industry annals: the only black-owned manufacturer among roughly the 8,000 car companies formed in the U.S. since the 1890s.
Long relegated to the dusty back shelf of automotive history, C.R. and Frederick Patterson came into the spotlight this week as they were inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. The splashy and well-attended induction ceremony, held in downtown Detroit, was an unusually diverse affair. Along with the Pattersons, the AHF honored a pioneering black racer and one of the industry’s first female designers. Among others inducted were a former Hyundai Chairman, the longtime head of one of the world’s largest auto parts chains, and comedian and auto collector Jay Leno.
“There’s still a lot of debate” about the early years of C.R. Patterson’s life, acknowledged great-grandson Richard Patterson. Among other things, it’s unclear whether he was born a slave nearly three decades before the Civil War. But he became an important figure in his adopted home town of Greenfield, Ohio.
At a time when racism was truly systemic, Jim Crow laws covered much of the country, and the Ku Klux Klan openly recruited members and marched through the streets across many parts of America, C.R. and his son created a successful carriage business. Shortly after his father’s death, Frederick started building cars.
It was — and remains — the only black-owned car company. Among other things, C.R. Patterson & Sons was notably for the fact that it “was one of the few businesses in that era that used an integrated workforce,” said Ayanna Howard, dean of the engineering department at Ohio State University during Thursday’s induction ceremony.
The timing wasn’t good, however, the Pattersons entering the car business the same year Henry Ford started up his first assembly line and slashed Model T prices. The last Patterson-Greenfield model rolled out in 1918. The company continued producing buses through much of the Great Depression, finally closing in 1939.
Discrimination on the dirt track
The AHF honors a far-flung field of automotive pioneers and influencers, from corporate to CEOs to race car drivers. But Charlie Wiggins is another name that could have been lost to history. Born in 1897, he was considered one of the best racers of his era. But the rules of his day meant he couldn’t challenge the best white drivers like Frank Lockhart and Tommy Milton. He tried to enter the 1920 Indianapolis 500 but was turned down because of the color of his skin.
Wiggins did find some measure of fame through the Colored Speedway Association, dominating the field and races like the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes with cars he built himself. Unlike white racers, blacks often had to settle for deeply rutted and potholed dirt tracks. That contributed to a 13-car pileup that severely crippled Wiggins. Despite his injuries, he continued to work as a mechanic — though, even then, he was banned from stepping out from the shadows after his team won the Indianapolis 500. Wiggins also served as a mentor for future generations of black racers.
“He was a strong, passionate man who, until now, had been erased from automotive history,” said Ed Welburn, the auto industry’s first black head of design — for General Motors. Welburn is now working on a film about Wiggins’ life.
A designing woman
Helene Rother was a designer’s designer. Born in Germany, she first went to Paris to work on hat pins and later worked on furniture, jewelry, stained glass windows and, eventually, comic books, working for Marvel Comics. But Rother was also the first woman to join the interior styling staff at General Motors.
While living and working in Paris, Rother ran one step ahead of the Nazis when she fled Europe in 1941, eventually winding up in Detroit. There, she was recruited by GM’s original styling chief, Harley Earl, who brought her in and put her at the helm of interior design. That was a neglected area, and Rother introduced new colors and fabrics, while also focusing on seat construction and even door hardware.
In 1947, Rother left to form her own studio. She worked on all manner of design projects, from Nash-Kelvinator Appliances to automobiles, partnering with Italian legend Battista “Pinin” Farina.
Rother became just the sixth woman to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2020.
Building an empire
While the Automotive Hall of Fame was long centered around the U.S. auto industry, foreign leaders and influencers have gained a greater presence in recent years. The latest in Mong-Koo Chung, the longtime Hyundai chairman credited with transforming a small, regional player into what is now the world’s fifth-largest automotive empire.
He also helped shed Hyundai’s early reputation for cheap, shoddy products, frequently declaring that “Quality is the absolute benchmark of our product and brand competitiveness.”
His son, Eusin, accepted the award on Thursday. He succeeded Mong-Koo as chairman in October 2020 and has focused on not only building the Hyundai, Kia and Genesis brands but expanding into other areas of mobility services, including a flying car venture.
One of those who frequently poked fun of Hyundai in its early years was Jay Leno, the comedian and long-time host of the Tonight Show. These days, however, the 71-year-old is best known for his streaming car shows and a collection of 238 cars, most stored in a hub of warehouses at the Burbank Airport.
“His passion for racing and everything automotive is clear,” said entrepreneur Roger Penske. Himself an AHF inductee, Penske suggested that Leno likely would have wound up “working in a garage somewhere,” if he hadn’t found his niche in comedy.
The final new member of the AHF class of 2021 is Tom Gallagher, the 74-year-old former CEO and president of Genuine Auto Parts. As a young college graduate, Gallagher recalled Thursday night, GPC offered him the lowest-paying offer among several company recruiters. He followed his gut and took the job and, during a 50-year stint with Genuine Parts transformed it from a small player to one of the world’s largest automotive parts vendors. He remained executive chairman until last year.