Graham Brothers Trucks: Evansville’s Extinct & Influential Auto
By Mary Giorgio
In the early 1900s, Indiana was a leader in automobile production. At one time, the city of Evansville alone boasted 11 automobile manufacturers. One of those was the locally famous Graham Brothers Trucks.
The company was started by the three Graham Brothers in 1919. Their first business venture began in the early 1910s, when the brothers purchased the failing Southern Indiana Glass Works in Loogootee, Indiana. Working together, they restored the business to profitability.
The brothers instituted a major innovation when they changed from hand-blown products to machine-blown glass. The brothers also developed and patented a design for a stronger bottleneck. They quickly hit on a winning combination: the best bottle on the market at the cheapest price. After selling the company in 1916, the brothers began looking for their next business opportunity.
The brothers, especially Joseph, had always been fascinated with automobiles. Evansville seemed like an ideal city to start a factory. There were already many highly-skilled workers who had experience assembling tractors for Hercules Tractor Company. They planned to build the car bodies on site, using purchased motors and transmissions to complete assembly.
Since they didn’t plan to manufacture their own engines or transmissions, the brothers began looking for quality parts that they could purchase. At the time, Dodge sold a line of highly-reliable motors, so they made a deal with their local Dodge dealer to supply them with the parts.
The enterprise was an overnight success. Not only were the trucks reliable, but the brothers manufactured them in a full line of configurations. The trucks and buses they produced met most every customer need that they encountered. In fact, Graham Brothers is thought to have been the most comprehensive line of trucks being offered in the United States at that time.
Eventually, the Grahams made a deal directly with Dodge, after which they became the second biggest producer of trucks behind General Motors. In 1924, Dodge bought control of Graham in exchange for stock. The brothers continued local operations. Eventually, however, production moved to Detroit and the brothers sold their interest to Dodge in 1927.
The brothers next bought a struggling automobile company in the hopes of turning a profit. They acquired the Paige-Detroit Motor Company, changing its name to Graham–Paige. In the first year, they sold a whopping 78,000 cars. In 1928, they opened a body plant in Evansville. The grand opening on November 19, 1928, included the biggest parade in Evansville’s history. The factory employed 1,600 workers and produced 360 car bodies a day. They were then shipped to Detroit for assembly.
The brothers planned to move the whole operation to Evansville, but were stymied by the beginning of the Great Depression in October 1929. Despite the setback, they introduced a revolutionary design to market in 1931 known as the Blue Streak. The car featured a new bright sheen of paint that later became the industry standard. It also featured the first four-speed transmission.
Unfortunately, this was not enough to keep them afloat. In 1932, the Evansville plant was closed due to declining sales. Further complicating matters, Ray Graham died that year. He had been the financial director of the company’s operations.
Joseph and Robert tried to continue operations but never recovered from the losses of the Depression years. Following the beginning of World War II, restrictions on automobile production shuttered their doors.
The brothers never returned to the automotive industry. Instead, they turned their attention to real estate, eventually acquiring several miles of land in Bal Harbor, Florida. Today, that land is of Miami’s most exclusive hotel and residential areas.