From floor mats to gaskets, the Chicago area’s auto industry keeps us all moving
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An estimated 600 companies made parts and accessories in the Chicago area during the auto industry’s big boom a century ago. Most are gone, but several area manufacturers are still making goods that make your car — or truck or bus — go, or make it go better. Here are six local standouts that continue to innovate:
This massive global company traces its history back to the mid-19th century when Cyrus McCormick began producing reaper machines. In 1902, his company merged with William Deering’s, and the two largest American farm implement manufacturers became the International Harvester Company. Then in 1986, the company limited itself to designing and manufacturing commercial trucks, buses and diesel engines and became Navistar International Corporation, now headquartered in Lisle. Navistar also sells specialized vehicles to the U.S. Armed Forces.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of WeatherTech, even if you’ve never purchased their floor mats, mud flaps and other utilitarian automobile accessories. Founded in 1989 by CEO David MacNeil, WeatherTech has earned a higher profile thanks to their Super Bowl ads, including their sixth consecutive annual spot that aired during Super Bowl LIII. Their commercials spotlight the company’s “Made in the USA” credentials. Last year’s ad, for instance, highlighted the construction of WeatherTech’s new 400,000 square-foot factory in Bolingbrook, where more than 500 Chicago-area workers make custom mats using American raw materials and American-made machine tools.
Sometimes branding really does matter. Such was the case for the liquid car wax Benjamin Hirsch invented in his family bathtub in Chicago in the 1930s. When he first manufactured the wax in 1941, he named it “Plastone.” But after he changed the product name to Turtle Wax — associating the protection the spray provided with a turtle’s hard shell — it became an iconic American brand. More than 75 years later, the Addison-based company is still producing Turtle Wax and sprays for window cleaning, scratch removal, headlight restoration, and more. The number of Turtle Wax car washes has shrunk, from 25 to three, but you can still find locations in Bloomingdale, Skokie and Crystal Lake.
Rust-Oleum was originally created for a vessel, not a vehicle. Sea Captain Robert Fergusson observed that raw fish or whale oil spilled on rusty metal decks stopped corrosion from spreading, and realized he’d stumbled upon a valuable anti-rust solution for metal surfaces near and far. In 1921, he created the Rust-Oleum company in Evanston and began manufacturing protective paints and coatings. His family sold the business in 1994, and today it’s owned by RPM International Inc. and headquartered in Vernon Hills. Rust-Oleum still makes its patented specialty coatings, sealants and building materials inspired by Fergusson’s original product.
The gasket is an unsung hero of the automobile — it’s a mechanical seal that prevents leakage and ensures maximum compression. Fel-Pro has been quietly making gaskets in the Chicago area for more than 100 years. (It celebrated its centennial in July 2018.) Since 1998, it has been a brand under global car parts manufacturer Federal-Mogul Motorparts. At their million-square-foot Skokie plant, more than 1,400 employees produce more than 325,000 gaskets every day.
At just 26, Glenn Grozich turned his love for hot rods into a parts business in 1985. The company’s lineup of street wheels, most notably from its B-Forged line, found success among hot rod and muscle car enthusiasts, and what started as a small 4,000-square-foot production facility has grown to a 100,000-square-foot factory in LaGrange. Billet Specialties makes more than 90 wheel styles and hundreds of accessories for car interiors and exteriors.