Growing up in midcentury America, it seemed clear to me and my buddies that anything American was superior to everything foreign. American cars were the best, perfectly suited to our spacious, optimistic land. We pitied those poor, benighted foreigners who couldn’t afford them or didn’t want to buy them. Too bad for them, stuck with their tinny little Fiats, Austins or Peugeots. And Japanese cars? Even worse!
As we turned 16 and got our long-coveted driver’s licenses, we all wanted cool cars — Corvettes, T-Birds, Impalas or a big convertible. I yearned for an MGA, to the astonishment of my pals.
“Why would you want one of those crappy little cars?” asked my best friend Bill. “British cars are slow, unreliable and cramped — how are you going to make out with Ann?”
I eventually managed to get a second-hand MGA, but Bill was right. I didn’t realize that the big, fast, flashy and reliable gas-guzzlers that rolled off Detroit’s assembly lines in the ’50s and ’60s were the signature products of the American century. We were the champions, my friends — the manufacturing colossus that bestrode the world. The evidence is plain to see; just go to a summer car show and check out those ’50s convertibles!
Sixty years later, our cars aren’t particularly cool and we no longer rule the manufacturing world. We don’t merely make things, but participate in worldwide supply chains. It may be that the only complex manufactured products that are completely American-made are those created for the military, such as nuclear warheads and the submarines that carry them.
Yet today’s shifting manufacturing landscape is not without precedent. American and Colorado Springs businesses have faced similar challenges in the past. Entrepreneurs know they launch their ventures without guarantees, and that they can be derailed by any combination of agile competitors, lousy business plans, unforeseen changes in the marketplace or economic disasters. A couple of examples:
Until the late 1870s, the American market for ornamental fireplace tiles was dominated by England. Imported tiles were artistic and easily affordable for builders and homeowners alike. The narrative changed in 1880 when an unknown Massachusetts tilemaker, John Low, “bearded the British lion in his den and carried away his laurels.” By winning the gold medal at a prestigious English exhibition that year, Low’s firm positioned itself to take and expand market share across New England and even as far as Colorado Springs. His company created most of the glossy tile fireplace surrounds in homes built in the North End and the Westside prior to 1900.
But tastes changed and the company went out of business in 1902. Elaborate Victorian homes had been replaced with clean-lined Craftsman bungalows, and homeowners preferred simple matte-glazed tiles. In Colorado Springs, Ann and Artus Van Briggle founded their eponymous pottery and tile company in 1899 and quickly captured the local market for tiles and decorative pottery, eventually selling wares throughout the country. The pottery closed in 2012 after surviving fires, floods, bankruptcy, periodic closures and continuous competition.
Alexander Aircraft, the brainchild of brothers J. Don and Don Alexander, remains the city’s most ambitious and unlikely startup. Co-owners of the Alexander Film Company, the brothers decided to become aircraft manufacturers to supply their salesmen with quick transportation to far-flung customers. Sounds crazy? Well yeah, but during 1928-29 the little Colorado Springs company was the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer. Launched in the 1920s, the Depression sank the company in 1932, after more than 900 planes had rolled off the aircraft assembly line in buildings on North Nevada Avenue. Few remain, among them a 1930 Eaglerock biplane on display at Denver International Airport.
Alexander Film endured, though, becoming the country’s largest producer of theater film advertising. In the early 1950s, they had a production staff of 600, churning out 2,500 film shorts annually. Alas, TV and the demise of local theaters killed the business and the company shut its doors.
Colorado Springs has always had a dynamic business community, driven by folks unafraid of risk or failure. That’s why we have craft breweries and distilleries, locally owned restaurants and newspapers, and renovated downtown hotels. That’s why we landed Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy and the rest. That’s why we’re home to the United States Olympic Committee, El Pomar, Colorado College and UCCS. All the origin stories can be summarized in two words.
Not power politics, but entrepreneurial partnerships.