Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Hupp Motor Car Co.

They were serious cars with a silly name.

The Hupp Motor Co. was the brainchild of Robert “Bobby” Craig Hupp, who was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., on June 2, 1876, and moved to Detroit to attend Central High School. While there, he worked for the Olds Motor Works at a three-story factory that was built in 1900 on 5 acres of land near Belle Isle, at East Jefferson Avenue and Concord Street. This was the first factory in the world built specifically for producing automobiles. When the factory was destroyed by fire just a year later, Ransom E. Olds moved his company to Lansing, and the 21-year-old Hupp followed.

After a nine-month stint working for a soda fountain manufacturer in Chicago, Hupp returned to Detroit, taking a job at Ford Motor Co. working on the Model K. He then left Ford in 1907 to work for rival Regal Motor Co. for a short while until deciding to try his hand at running a car company of his own. Hupp found backers in J. Walter Drake, Joseph R. Drake and John E. Baker, who ponied up $3,500 to get Hupp up and running about with its Runabouts.

The Hupp Motor Car Co., was organized Nov. 8, 1908. His idea was to create a small and lightweight car that was adapted to American road conditions and based on European cyclecars. After burning through his startup capital, Hupp got further investment from Charles D. Hastings.

The story goes that, having become a believer in the young Hupp, Hastings set out to help him get a prototype ready for the upcoming Detroit Automobile Show, set for Feb. 15, 1909.

"The two went to work in an old shed," the Detroit Free Press wrote Dec. 8, 1931. "It was mandatory that they exhibit the product at that show. A zero wind sent snow sifting into the shed as the two worked to finish their car the night before the show, numbing their hands and sputtering against the little oil stove over which they stopped now and then to warm themselves. They worked all night. At 7 a.m., the job was finished."

When the two-seater Hupmobile Runabout - dubbed the Model 20 - debuted at the show on Feb. 15, 1909, the men were able to generate enough interest - and more importantly $50 deposits - to raise $25,000 and launch the Hupp Motor Car Co. into production a month later. Henry Ford is said to have told a friend, “I recall looking at Bobby Hupp’s roadster … and wondering whether we could ever build as good a small car for as little money.”

In 1909, on Bellevue, company delivered 1,618 four-cyclinder cars out of its rented factory at 345 Bellevue Ave. In order to meet demand, Hupp Motor Car Co. moved in 1909 to a larger factory located at East Jefferson and Concord, the same area where Bobby Hupp had worked for Olds. In 1910, production was 5,430, and by 1913, it was 12,543.

Bobby Hupp is generally credited with developing and introducing the hydraulic brake as standard equipment on cars, and he was also an early advocate of the "eight-in-line" engines. Moreover, in an era that saw some 200 car companies founded only to quickly flounder, Hupp was a survivor in a crowded and competitive field, producing cars for more than 30 years.

Rugged and tested the world over

Hupmobiles developed a reputation not just for being cheap, but also rugged and reliable. The Hupp 20 Runabout was chosen as Detroit’s first police cars. As a publicity stunt, Hupp hired three men to drive a Hupmobile around the globe, departing Nov. 10, 1910, and returning to Detroit on Jan. 24, 1912. People all over were fascinated by what the automobile could now accomplish, given that 14 of the 26 countries the Hupmobile visited had never even seen a car before. The car that made the journey is part of the collections of the Crawford Car-Aviation Museum in Cleveland. The 49,000-mile saga (plus 28,000 more miles aboard a ship) was detailed in a 2003 book, "Three Men in a Hupp: Around the World by Automobile, 1910-1912" by James A. Ward.

The odyssey helped to make Hupp one of the most exported vehicles in the world. Yet, despite helping to make Hupmobiles an almost household name around the globe, the success of this Herculean marketing effort was stunted because of two key reasons.

First, Hupp stopped making the lightweight model that was so successful on its worldwide trek. Second, before the three men's journey was even completed, Hupp sold his stock and quit his own company in September 1911, refusing to switch his business model from economical to luxury. He tried starting other car companies, but none achieved the success of his first. The same year he quit, he and one of his two brothers, Louis, started the Hupp-Yeats Electric Car Co., which produced vehicles at 110 Lycaste St. When most electric cars of this era had a range of only 50 miles, the Hupp-Yeats four-seaters could reach 75 to 90. The automaker would generate electric vehicles from 1911 to 1919, though in 1912, Hupp Motor Car Co. sued Hupp-Yeats, charging that the newfound company's name was too similar and too confusing to consumers. Hupp argued that his new firm was named after his brother, not him, but that didn't fly, and the court ruled in Hupp Motor Car's favor. This led to Hupp-Yeats being renamed the RCH Co., the initials of Robert C. Hupp.

But the stir-crazy Hupp couldn't be tied down, and he quit his new company to join the Monarch Motor Car Co. Monarch had been started in 1913 by Hupp's brother-in-law, Joseph Bloom. A year out of the gate, however, Monarch was bankrupt. Hupp would try once more, launching the Emerson Car Co. in 1917.

RCH/Hupp-Yeats was discontinued in 1920, as electric cars began to fizzle out in popularity.

Meanwhile, Hupp Motor Car moved into this plant on East Milwaukee at Mt. Elliott, the company’s third home, in March 1912. The original plant was designed by the firm Dunlap & Palmer. About 1,700 men worked in the plant by 1919, and as production continued to increase, six interconnected four-story reinforced concrete additions were tacked onto the facility between 1919 and 1922. The factory now encompassed a total of 1.6 million square feet. Architect E.R. Dunlap and the firm Smith Hinchman & Grylls designed the additions.

The automaker's sales hit 15,000 units in 1921, 38,000 in 1923, and soared to 65,000 units in 1928. It used some of those proceeds to buy out the Chandler Motor Co. in order to use its factory to churn out even more vehicles. Those left behind at Hupp Motor tried to capture the company's founder's PR lightning in a bottle once more, launching a cross-country trip in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1916, that saw a Hupmobile Model N visit what was then all 48 state capitals across 18,430 miles over four months.

End of the road

Bobby Hupp died Dec. 7, 1931, at age 55, after collapsing from a double cerebral hemmorrhage at the Detroit Athletic Club following a squash match. At the time of his death, he lived at 631 Southfield Road, in suburban Birmingham, Mich. His funeral was held Dec. 9, 1931, at St. Aloysius Catholic Church on Washington Boulevard. He is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit.

The company continued along the plan that caused its founder to leave in the first place: more luxury and more models. Proving that the automaker's founder may have been right, the firm filed for bankruptcy Nov. 1, 1940, no doubt hurt by its shift to luxury models going into the Great Depression. Hupp sales peaked at more than 50,000 cars in 1929, but dropped dramatically, to around 17,500 in 1931. The company exited Chapter 11 in 1941 and was reborn as Hupp Inc.. However, instead of cars, the company produced air-conditioning and heating units, though it did make parts for other automakers and for the federal government during World War II. The company changed its name to Hupp Corp. in 1946, and moved to Cleveland.

The Midland Steel Products Co. bought the old Hupp facililty in 1950. One of the large brick buildings along Mt. Elliott was demolished in 1956 for parking. The Michigan Metal Processing Co. took over in the early 1960s. Finally, the Great Lakes Sugar & Warehousing Co. stored bulk sugar in the former plant from 1968 to 1980.

At that point, the old Hupp plant on East Milwaukee was demolished in 1980-81 to make way for General Motors’ Poletown Plant.

Last updated 01/01/2023