Saturday, December 3, 2016

A concise History of the Automobile in America, 1893-2016

1908 New York-to-Paris automobile race: [Two men holding U.S. flag behind automobile]



An apt but worn-out cliché concerning the early history of the automobile is that “the automobile was European by birth, American by adoption.” Indeed, the visionary idea of the automobile – in the words of James Flink, “the combination of a light, sprung, wheeled vehicle; a compact, efficient power unit; and hard surfaced roads” gradually became a reality during the last half of the nineteenth century, primarily in Europe and to a lesser degree in America. After the idea and pioneering artifact came the commonly-used term automobile. Key to its adoption in America was its acceptance by New York City’s high society. A French term first used in America in 1895 and fully adopted in the U.S. by 1899, other words were proposed and debated during this time – horseless carriage, motocycle, motor vehicle, automation, mocle, autom, polycycle. Members of high society in New York City owned the first cars, and this Gilded Age aristocracy influenced the newly published editorial writers of the magazines The Automobile and The Automobile Magazine to endorse automobile as a universally accepted term. In sum, while the beginnings of the automobile are often attributed to a group of visionary tinkerers, engineers, inventors, and mechanical geniuses, the upper classes were the consumers of this product, and they cast a lasting imprint on its place in culture in ways perhaps more complex than just the choice of a term.
            From its origins, the automobile in the U.S. was intimately connected to notions   of status, class and freedom. The history of the motor vehicle can be divided into three periods, beginning with the Pioneer Brass Era that ended around 1908. During this time the automobile was largely a plaything of the rich. Concurrently, the internal combustion engine rose to preeminence at the expense of steam and electric technologies.  
A Second phase began with the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908 and the genesis of mass production. The Model T dominated the years between 1910 and the early 1920s along with the increasing efficiencies associated with mass production. However, with an easy entry into the business during this time, there were literally hundreds of manufacturers assembling motor vehicles. Most Americans, particularly those living on farms where the rugged Model T broke the bonds of rural isolation, now embraced the automobile at the expense of the horse.
This period of acceptance gave way to the car’s widespread diffusion during the prosperity decade of the 1920s, when steel-bodied closed vehicles became preferred by city dwellers. General Motors gradually introduced more flexible production methods and with easy credit one in six Americans owned a car by 1929. The process of diffusion resulted in a major reordering of social, cultural, and economic institutions in America. The vast majority of auto brands of the early 1920s fell by the wayside by the late 1930s, as Ford, General Motors, and the Chrysler Corporation came to control over 90% of the American market by WWII.
The Golden Age of the automobile in America spanned the years from World War I to the late 1960s. However, by the 1930s the automobile industry was no longer technologically dynamic; minor engineering refinements of power train and chassis components supplemented annual design changes that ultimately led to longer, lower, and often larger and less efficient machines.
 Foreign imports were insignificant until the late tailfins and chrome era of 1950s. Beginning with late 1960s however imports played a critical role in the domestic economy. Concurrently, the automobile was seen no longer a source of economic growth and progressive social change in America. Rather, many Americans now viewed the car as a source of social and environmental problems. The widespread “love affair” was challenged by concerns over safety, air pollution, and energy shortages.
The federal government, taking on a new role as a legislator, defined this last period in the history of the automobile in America.  Washington administrators regulated an industry once largely autonomous. The 1966 Vehicle National Traffic and Motor Safety Act proved seminal. Beginning in 1968, this Act mandated that seatbelts, padded visors and dashboards, safety doors and hinges, impact absorbing steering columns, dual braking systems, and standard bumper height be installed in all new autos sold in the U.S. As in the case of safety, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution and Control Act was passed and enacted in the mid-1960s.  This act set limits in terms of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, and was amended in 1971 to include evaporated gasoline. Additionally, the Federal Clean Air Act (1970) and emissions stipulations further reduced allowable pollutants with the newly created Environmental Protection Agency as the enforcer.
Along with the government now influencing design, the 1973 and 1979 energy crises played critical roles in the decline of the American automobile industry and the concurrent rise of intense foreign competition. Beginning in the early 1980s ,with Honda coming to Ohio, Japanese manufacturers responded to voluntary import restrictions by “transplanting” assembly facilities to the United States. The Germans followed with assembly plants located in South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. But until 2008-09  the Ford Motor Company and General Motors remained profitable by making light pickup trucks and initiating operations in China.

The Great Recession of 2008-09, however, shook the American industry to its foundations. General Motors and Chrysler sought and received government assistance to prevent bankruptcy and restructuring. Currently the industry is in rebound and on the brink of revolutionary change. Technologically, electric vehicles and autonomous cars are at the industry’s cutting edge.  The impetus for those changes came not from Detroit but from California, where entrepreneur Elon Musk has led the rise of a dynamic Tesla Motors.  Whether this alternative is fully realized or not is anyone’s guess, but given concerns over energy and climate change, the future appears to be hopeful.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Automobile and American Life HST 344 Final Exam Study Sheet




Hi folks -- how well could you do in answering these identification and significance questions?


HST 344
Final Exam Study Sheet
Fall, 2016


I Identification and Significance.  I will pick 14 of the following and you must answer 10 (10 points each).  Your answers MUST be concise, and no longer than 4 well-structured sentences each, or one blue book page. Longer answers will simply be disregarded!!! To maximize your grade your answers should include selective detail as well as explanatory short and long-term significance, when appropriate.

1.     Reconsidering the Corvair
2.     The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case
3.     Vin Diesel and “The Fast and Furious” Franchise
4.     The GM EV-1
5.     Elon Musk and the Tesla
6.     NUMMI and the Development of Lean in the U.S.
7.     The Filming of “Bullit”
8.     The Oil Crisis as a Signal Event in Post-WWII America
9.     MITI and the Japanese Automobile Industry
10. The Chevrolet Vega and the Lordstown, Ohio, Assembly Plant
11. Béla Barényi and Automobile Safety
12. 1950s Automobile Dealer Abuses and the 1958 Automotive Disclosure Act
13. Cadillac during the 1950s and 1960s
14. The Muscle Car of the 1960s
15.  CAFÉ Standards Beginning in 1975
16.  The 2008-9 Economic Crisis and the Automobile Industry

17. The Truth about Self-Driving Cars

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thoughts on Doing Recent Automotive History

A large percentage of what might be called “buff” automotive history focuses on one particular model or brand. This work goes into extreme detail and satisfies hobby car owners who relish pointing out subtle features and alterations. However, examining an automobile’s history without placing it in a critical historical human context is fraught with distortion.  Such an isolated study can become nothing more than an exercise of limited explanatory power and less than satisfying to a broader audience. How do older enthusiasts interest a younger generation who might follow them into the car collecting hobby? Not by writing pedantic books and articles on carburetors and spark plugs.
Integrative forays can prove as wide-angle windows into the human and societal past. For example, probing into how car culture reflects, anticipates, or follows the political, social, and economic environment can lead to powerful explanations about everyday life.  Bringing a large number of varied sources to a story adds dimensionally to any history.  Chronology, location, and deep knowledge about a broadly construed topic matters. It is one thing to write scissors and paste history, yet another just to repackage what others have written without batting a critical eye.

The dynamic structure of the automobile industry, its geographical locus of activities, management-union relationships, assembly line processes, government oversight, market dynamics, consumer preferences, and the products themselves have all changed dramatically during the past thirty-five years. Car culture(s) remains of general interest; but profound generational, regional, social, and economic differences related to the so-called “love affair” with the automobile exist. For example, in the Dayton, Ohio, area where I live, on any summer Friday night gray-haired men and a few of their wives gather around hot rods and cars from the 1950s and 1960s at a defunct car dealership lot.  The next morning a very different group – mostly young people with their wives and girl friends and middle-aged upper middle-class enthusiasts -- meet for cars and coffee at an upscale suburban shopping village to look at tuners, newer sports cars, and a few odds and ends. Further, a large number of urban millenials avoid cars or at least love of the car, altogether.  Having moved back to the heart of Dayton, they find entertainment in the historical Oregon District or downtown, and status in the cell phones they own. Every region and community has its own sui generis car culture, lived out quite distinctively.

Oil Shock Shockwaves: A Brief History of Chrysler and American Motors Corporation during the Late 1970s and Early 1980s

Oil Shock Shockwaves:  Chrysler and American Motors Corporation

1977 Volare



The complex economic consequences from Oil Shocks I and II  hit the Chrysler Corporation and American Motors Corporation particularly hard.[1] Under accountants Lynn Townshend and John Ricardo, Chrysler was at best characterized by uninspired leadership until November of 1978 when Lee Iacocca, recently fired at Ford, came on board. In 1975 Chrysler shut down a number of plants in the U.S., and its European operations, small but not insignificant, were in shambles. Needing to move a massive inventory, Chrysler was the first car company to offer rebates in a commercial aired during the 1975 Super Bowl. Yet at the time Chrysler’s story was not totally bleak: its 1976 Plymouth Volare was awarded Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. It sold well, but later became the most recalled vehicle of its era. And no wonder, since the Volare’s defects included models without a necessary muffler heat shield; failed seat belt retractors; corroded brake lines, and upper control arms separating from the sub-frame assembly.  But what the Volare was most known for, and what brought Chrysler to near bankruptcy, was its non-galvanized front fenders, which quickly rusted away. It was a visual testimony to Chrysler Corporation’s lack of quality products.  And the from also sold the wrong products, as Iacocca later confessed: “The classic mistake was to build all our production on speculation, carry those tremendous inventories and let them get old on us. We weren’t meeting the market – we always had the wrong stuff built.”[2] By 1978 Chrysler was giving away its foreign subsidiaries – British Roots was sold for $1 to Peugeot, and Spanish Barrieros truck operations went to Renault. 
It remained for Lee Iacocca to step in and save Chrysler with government assistance.[3] Preaching equality of sacrifice and accountability, Iacocca asked for concessions from the UAW. On the corporate side, Iaccoca fired 51 of 52 Chrysler vice-presidents, thus eliminating a host of corporate fiefdoms. With a leadership team he brought from Ford that included Hal Sperlich, Iacocca gradually pulled the firm out of its death spiral with popular 1980s products that included the K-Car and the minivan. Iacocca sold these vehicles personally in television ads, and what could have been an economic disaster was at least averted until a second major American manufacturing decline after 2007. In part, Iacocca blamed Detroit’s problems in the early 1980s on Japanese imports and preferential tariffs in Japan, and to that criticism the Japanese cleverly responded by erecting transplants in the U.S.

a dorky K-Car

American Motors Corporation was hardly any better off than Chrysler by the mid-1970s.  In 1975, AMC followed up on its relatively successful Gremlin with the fishbowl looking Pacer, a car that was slow, heavy, and got poor gas mileage. Its Jeep brand kept the company going, but AMC’s Kenosha plant was old and outdated. In 1978, 1976 AMC cars were the subjects of a massive pollution control recall that was costly and further tarnished the brand.
A large percentage of AMC was sold to Renault in 1982 (22.5%) and 1983 (49%).  American consumers were now offered the AMC Alliance, a reworked Renault 9. Stories of the Alliances’ poor quality abound, as tears were shed then and laughter now. The end came in 1987, with Jeep being sold to Chrysler; the last AMC Eagle left the Kenosha plant that same year. What remained was the Detroit Big Three, and it was not so big given the onslaught of Japanese and German brands. While European markets were largely inaccessible to the Japanese, American politicians, including President Jimmy Carter, had looked the other way to the Japanese and their unfair trade practices. The French had not been so kind to the Japanese, who moved quickly to exploit American markets. In the end it was the French who picked up some of the pieces of the American industry after the economic storm of the 1970s and early 1980s had done its damage.



[1] Steven Parissien, The Life of the Automobile (New York: St. Martins, 2013), pp. 285-7; Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press,  2010), pp. 254 ff..
[2] “Why Bail Chrysler,” U.S. News & World Report, 87 (December 17, 1979), 64.

[3] Lee A. Iacocca, with William Novak, Iacocca, an Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984).