Automobile Manufacturing in Iowa

After it had been proven that a gasoline engine could replace a horse to power a buggy down a road, mechanics and designers in almost every state began building automobiles. Many of these people formed companies that lasted about a year or so, sometimes building only one car. Others were more successful. It's estimated that there were over 2,000 car manufacturing companies in the United States, and nearly 50 brands of cars were made in Iowa.

Starting Young

A young German immigrant named Frederick Duesenberg came to the United States in 1885 when he was seven years old. His widowed mother immigrated to Iowa bringing her family of seven children with her. Frederick grew up on the family farm. When he was seventeen, he worked in Rockford repairing farm machinery. Three years later he opened his own bicycle business. He liked bicycle racing and became a champion cyclist. He enjoyed racing so much that he would compete against horses as well as other cyclists. About this time he and his brother August "Augie" designed and built a gasoline motor. By 1902 Fred had his own business in Des Moines running an automobile supply company.

Edward Mason of Des Moines discovered the Duesenberg brothers' skills and employed them to design a car. Soon the Mason Motor Car Company was producing and selling automobiles. The automobile was advertised with great flair. To prove the car's uphill performance, the company planned a stunt that was sure to attract attention. George Mason and Fred Duesenberg drove a shiny new Mason car up the Capitol hill and up the State House steps! The car was thereafter advertised as the "hill-climber."

The Maytag

Frederick L. Maytag, who had been a washing machine manufacturer since 1900, was impressed with the Mason car. He bought the Mason Company, and the Duesenbergs moved to Waterloo. They continued to work on the Mason-Maytag automobile until 1915 when the company stopped producing autos.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Duesenberg brothers moved to New Jersey where they built motors for the war effort. After the war, they made expensive, custom-made racing and passenger cars. Based in Indianapolis, the Duesenberg cars and motors gained fame on the race track and the highway.

Colby Motor Company

Mason City entrepreneur, William Colby, founded the Colby Motor Company in 1910. The first Colby, a five-passenger touring car, took to Mason City's streets on November 12, 1910. It performed to all expectations and was fast enough to earn a speeding ticket for its test driver.

Colby equipped his cars with premium materials and an engine designed to withstand Iowa's winters. Colby automobiles were put through endurance tests over the state's rutted, muddy dirt roads. The cars passed the tests with flying colors, including a 658-mile run from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Helena, Montana.

Colby also participated in the newly developing dirt-track car races being held throughout the Midwest. Billy Pearce, a Colby driver on the racing circuit, broke many track records and won trophies for the company. He died in 1911 while racing the Colby Red Devil in Sioux City. The car was repaired but never raced again.

The Colby Motor Company was short-lived. A competitive auto market, company mergers and later reorganizations put the company out of business in 1914. Nine hundred Colby cars were manufactured, but only a few have survived. One has been carefully restored and is displayed at the Kinney Pioneer Museum in Mason City, Iowa.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Iowa's Autos,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 2 (November 1982): 12-13


Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.