Automobile History

Automobile History

Though Americans swiftly overtook the Germans and French in the first half of the 20th century to dominate the automotive industry, the vehicle was initially developed and refined in Germany and France in the late 1800s. Henry Ford invented mass-production processes that became conventional, and Ford, General Motors and Chrysler emerged as the “Big Three” auto corporations by the 1920s. During World War II, manufacturers diverted their resources to the military; as a result, automotive production in Europe and Japan surged to keep up with demand. Once critical to the construction of American metropolitan centers, the industry has become a shared global enterprise with the ascent of Japan as the largest automaker by 1980.

The automobile was primarily developed in Germany and France around the end of the nineteenth century by people like Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, Nicolaus Otto, and Emile Levassor, yet it would have its greatest social and economic impact in the United States.

When Did Vehicles First Invent?

The 1901 Mercedes, created by Wilhelm Maybach for the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, is recognized as the first functionally complete modern motorcar. Its 35 horsepower engine was lightweight, weighing only 14 pounds per horsepower, and it had a top speed of 53 mph. With the most integrated auto factory in Europe by 1909, Daimler employed about 1 700 people to churn out fewer than a thousand vehicles annually.

The stark difference between this first Mercedes model and Ransom E. Olds’ 1901-1906 one-cylinder, three-horsepower, tiller-steered, curved-dash Oldsmobile, which was basically a mechanized horse buggy, best exemplifies the superiority of European design. Yet, the Olds was affordable for middle-class Americans, selling for about $650, and its 5,508 unit manufacturing in 1904 broke all records for automobile production.

Conciliating the sophisticated design of the 1901 Mercedes with the affordable pricing and low operating costs of the Olds would be the primary technological challenge facing the automobile industry throughout the first ten years of the twentieth century. This would mostly be an American accomplishment.

Henry Ford and William Durant

The first successful American gasoline automobile was created in 1893 by Springfield, Massachusetts, bicycle technicians J. Frank and Charles Duryea. The following year, they made the first sale of an American-built gasoline car.

In 1899, 30 American manufacturers manufactured 2,500 motor cars; over the following ten years, 485 new businesses entered the market. William Durant created General Motors in 1908, the same year Henry Ford unveiled the Model T.

The new businesses competed in an unusually competitive market for pricey consumer products. In comparison to the countries of Europe, the United States had a significantly higher demand for automobile transportation due to its large geographical size and a hinterland of dispersed and remote towns. A large increase in per capita income and a more equitable income distribution compared to European nations also contributed to the high demand.

Model T

It was therefore inevitable that vehicles would be produced in greater quantities and at lower costs than in Europe given the history of American manufacturing. Sales across a large geographic area were facilitated by the absence of tariff barriers between the states. Early on, the mechanization of industrial processes in the United States was fostered by low-cost raw materials and a persistent shortage of skilled workers.

This called for the standardization of goods, which led to the mass manufacture of goods like bicycles, sewing machines, and weapons, among many other things. Out of the 606,124 motor cars produced worldwide in 1913, the United States produced roughly 485,000.

Ford Motor Company significantly outperformed its rivals in balancing cutting-edge design with affordable pricing. “The very first instance of a low-cost motorcar driven by a gas engine having cylinders enough to give the shaft a turning impulse in each shaft turn that is well built and offered in large numbers,” said Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal of the four-cylinder, fifteen-horsepower, $600 Ford Model N (1906-1907). Ford developed better production machinery in response to the onslaught of orders, and by 1906, he could supply 100 vehicles per day.

Increasing Pains in the Automobile Industry

Several American automakers swiftly embraced Ford’s mass production methods. (It wasn’t until the 1930s that European automakers started utilizing them.) The period of simple entrance and unbridled competition among several small companies in the American industry came to an end as a result of the greater capital expenditures and higher volume of sales that this required.

Only 44 automotive manufacturers were still in business in 1929, down from 253 in 1908. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, which Walter P. Chrysler founded from Maxwell in 1925, produced nearly 80% of the industry’s output.

The Great Depression wiped out the majority of the independent manufacturers, with Nash, Hudson, Studebaker, and Packard managing to survive only for their downfall to occur in the years following World War II.

The Model T was designed to be “a farmer’s car” that met the needs of a country of farmers in terms of transportation. Its popularity was destined to decline as the nation became more urbanized and as rural areas emerged from the muck with the enactment of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921.

In addition, the Model T was essentially unchanged long after technology had advanced. Owners of Model Ts started upgrading to bigger, quicker, smoother-riding, and more fashionable vehicles. As the market got saturated in the 1920s, the backlog of used vehicles building up in dealer lots tended to meet the demand for basic transportation that the Model T had supplied.

Car Sales Stall

By 1927, the demand for new cars for replacement purposes outpaced that of first-time buyers and those who bought numerous vehicles. With the salaries of the day, automakers could no longer bet on an expanding market. In order to compete with the Model T, manufacturers of mid-range vehicles started offering installment sales in 1916. By 1925, roughly three-quarters of all new cars were purchased “on time” using credit.

Although a few pricey things, like sewing machines and pianos, had been successfully marketed before 1920, it was the installment sales of automobiles that made this practice popular among the middle class and a cornerstone of the American economy.

GM Introduces ‘Planned Obsolescence’

Market saturation and technological stagnation occurred at the same time; innovation in terms of both product and manufacturing technology was shifting from radical to incremental. The essential changes that separate post-World War II cars from the Model T were in place by the late 1920s—the self-starter, the closed all-steel body, the high-compression engine, hydraulic brakes, synchromesh transmission and low-pressure balloon tires.

World War II and the Auto Industry

During the First World War, the automotive industry was essential in the production of military vehicles and other supplies. During World War II, in addition to turning out several million military vehicles, American automotive manufacturers created approximately seventy-five critical military products, most of them unconnected to the motor vehicle. One-fifth of the country’s military production, or $29 billion, was made up of these items.

Motor vehicle traffic drastically decreased during the war years as a result of severe fuel and tire rationing, the cessation of vehicle production for the civilian market in 1942, and other restrictions. Even after they were due to be scrapped, cars that had been kept during the Depression were patched up even further, creating a huge demand for new cars after the end of the war.

Rise of Japanese Automakers

After World War II, engineering was prioritized over economics and safety in favor of the dubious aesthetics of nonfunctional style. By the middle of the 1960s, American-made vehicles were being delivered to retail customers with an average of twenty-four problems per unit, many of which were safety-related. This was due to a decline in quality. Furthermore, Detroit’s higher unit earnings from its gas-guzzling “road cruisers” came at the expense of rising air pollution and a depletion of the world’s oil reserves.

Sales of automobiles produced in the United States peaked at a record 12.87 million units in 1978, but plummeted to 6.95 million units in 1982 as imports saw a rise in market share from 17.7 percent to 27.9 percent. Japan overtook America as the top auto producer in 1980, and it still holds that position now.

U.S. Carmakers Retool

In response, the American automobile industry in the 1980s underwent a tremendous organizational reform and technological revival. At GM, Ford, and Chrysler, managerial changes and reductions in factory capacity and people led to leaner, tougher companies with lower break-even points, allowing them to sustain profits with reduced volumes in increasingly saturated, competitive markets.

Production quality and initiatives to engage and motivate employees received top emphasis. In 1980, the sector launched a five-year, $80 billion initiative for retooling and modernizing plants. In Detroit studios, functional aerodynamic design took the role of styling as the annual cosmetic change was dropped.

The American auto industry’s legacy

In twentieth-century America, the vehicle has been a major agent for change. During the 1920s the sector became the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented society. It had the highest product value by the middle of the 1920s, and one in every six American jobs was created there in 1982.

In the 1920s the vehicle became the lifeblood of the petroleum industry, one of the primary clients of the steel industry, and the top consumer of many other industrial items. Its requirements altered the technologies of these auxiliary industries, particularly steel and petroleum.

In 1980, 87.2 percent of American households owned one or more motor cars, 51.5 percent owned more than one, and over 95 percent of domestic car sales were for replacement. Americans are now utterly dependent on their cars.

Despite the fact that almost everyone owns a car, the automobile is no longer a force for growth. Future direction is being shaped by new forces, most notably the computer, robot, laser, and electronic media. The Car Age, a period of American history that can properly referred to as such, is blending into a new Age of Electronics.