R. L. Polk & Co. Solves the Car Wars—Who is No. 1?

In the early 1920s, both Ford Motor Company and General Motors were steadily growing as cars begin to fill American cities. The two companies set the stage for a burgeoning auto culture with millions of cars sold in the 1920s.

However, GM’s Alfred Sloan did not trust the annual sales numbers that other auto manufacturers were claiming. So in December of 1921, he asked R. L. Polk & Co. to provide more accurate information based on new-car registrations—a metric that would reveal the truth behind the numbers. Sloan also sought data to be able to more accurately forecast business and production to make his company more efficient.

While Polk had previously been recording automobile information, GM’s interest prompted the company to expand its operations, acquiring the Motor List Co. of Iowa in 1922. Polk soon was compiling lists of auto owners in every state—over 3,000 counties—tabulating registrations, makes, models, and license records. By 1927, Polk had registration lists for all 48 states in the U.S. as well as the District of Columbia.

Compiling these lists led to the development of Polk’s Automotive Statistical Services Division, which would become instrumental in tracking sales, loyalty, owners, and recalls in the auto industry. The work done by Polk in the 1920s influenced how auto companies would operate for the next 100 years. While others largely ignored data, Polk was laying the groundwork for the direct marketing industry by gathering and compiling information on customers. Today, that work is done across industries by direct marketing professionals identifying solutions for business just as Polk did in the 1920s.