Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Years' Resolution: Get on the Road and Away from Watching TV!

Hi folks -- currently I am doing quite a bit of reading as I am structuring ideas for my next book. What follows is important for all of us, as it points to the matter of why TV is such a bad thing in our lives and why we must get off the couch, on to the road, and experience living. We all are running out of time.

As a point of reference Andre Codrescu's Raod Scholar was made into a film in the mid-1990s. The book followed, and is better than the film. Codescu as an immigrant who came to America in 1966 from Romania, the author thinks he knows more about America than he really does. To be fair, Codrescu has a number of remarkable insights, but one must be wary of taking the lot of them for the truth. Of course, who has the entire truth about the U.S., its manners, customs, and people?

An Important Quote from Codrescu's Road Scholar,

p. 30-1:

The road is a metaphor factory. It spews poetry, songs, maxims, homilies, quips, stupidities, and profundities. Everyone knows that life is a journey and time is a a road. Everyone knows that. Babies, who travel a piece to get here , know that. They journey into the world via the meta-road. They wear sunglasses and drive tiny cars made of light beams. Life is a road and cliche factory. It's the source of practically everything we humans try to tell ourselves about ourselves. You look like a mile of bad road. You've taken the road less traveled.
I haven't driven far yet.
The road is everything except for one thing -- real. You can say everything you want about the road, and you do. You might even live your life using road metaphors every day to get you to work and back, but the sad fact is there is no road. The last time there was a road was in the sixties. We had a road back then because Neal Cassady like to drive, Jack Kerouac liked to write, and everyone wanted to leave home. So all at once for a bout ten years young people discovered the infrastructure at the very same moment that they saw their won arteries and veins with the blood rushing through them all lit up. The infrastructure all neon -lit and gas- station- neoned throbbed briefly with all these young Americans with lit veins and arteries rushing along its highways and byways. These lit infusions were driven along by sounds they themselves made singing of the roads they rode on.
And when they stopped moving, sometime in the late seventies, there was this big store of raod lore floating in the pyscho-sphere. It's where the Reagan-Bush decades went shopping for images to get people off the road and into schools, homes, corner offices, prisons, and mental institutions. Which is where we all live now.
Roads aren't real anymore. All roads are now metaphors about the road. Most people would rather stay home. In their homes they feed on lots of cliches about the road so that they won't feel as if they've stopped moving. Only the dead stop moving and most people don't want to be dead. Every couch potato dreams himself or herself on the road, and they are, thanks to TV, which gives them the illusion that they are somewhere else. Everyone lives on TV now, which is everywhere and no where....When TV travelers do travel they go to places they've seen on TV, straight into the tourist postcards and never see what they haven't already seen at home. If they stumble on something that 's never been on TV they shoot it with the video camera and then it's on TV. They go from postcard to postcard by plane so they never touch the road.

Why did GM have to run Saab into the ground?

Saab 23E Engine
1960 Saab 750 Gt Gran Turismo
1965 Saab 96

Hi folks -- truth be told, I loved those early Saabs. They were distinctive, utilitarian, a counterculture statement that simply said not all folks are obsessed with iron from Detroit. Saabs were aerodynamic, as you might expect, but with their 3-cylinder, 2cycle engines and front wheel drive they were indestructible and wonderful. Saab pioneered the use of the turbocharger in cars that the middle class drove.
So GM came along, used their platform, kept the key in the console, and thought that we Americans would somehow buy them.
50 years from now, when the history of the decline of American industrial might is definitively written, there will be a lengthy chapter on GM's misdeeds!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Lays in Store for the Detroit Three in 2010? the $40,000 Volt? The Miniscule Chrysler/Fiat 500?

Hi folks -- see you at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show next month! The future of the auto industry in America certainly will continue to be a hot topic. Can you see the public buying a $40,000 Chevrolet, even if it is a plug-in hybrid? Can you see four well-fed Americans taking an interstate road trip in a Fiat 500? Looks like Ford will lead the way in 2010, unless surprises happen. And as we know, history teaches us that we should expect plenty of surprises!

Happy New Year to all who read this post! May you a have a blessed, prosperous, and above all peaceful new year! And may you always remain healthy and happy.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Now is the Time to buy that Pontiac or Saturn!!!! GM gives an extra $7,000 per car incentive to dealers

Hi folks -- there are still plenty of Saturns and Pontiacs left on dealer lots, and today GM provided more incentives to dealers to get these cars moved off inventories. Prior to today, there was a $6500 incentive or 0% financing available to buyers of these two brands. Now there is even more reason to buy if you can find the car you are looking for.
Now that the snow has fallen, ice covers the lots, and we suffer with shorter days and little if any sun -- it is time to deal!!!
For example, there are four G6s and 4 G8s available at the local dealer where I live. These cars, including a convertible, usually have a sticker price of $31,000+, but I'll bet you can get any of them for an incredibly lower price. Just watch out for financing and other ways the dealers may sock it to you to recoup losses.

December 30 -- the Anniversary of the Flint Sit-Down Strike

December 30, 1936, marked the beginning of the Flint Sit Down Strike that ultimately led to the formation of the UAW and the unionization of the American automobile industry. There had been sit-down strikes in tat other plants in the days leading up to December 30, but it was in flint where the union was born, wages were increased dramatically, working conditions improved, and the dreaded "speed up" countered. Below is a more detailed and contextual account of this event. It is sad to note how the gains that American workers enjoyed have to some extent been lost, and how the future looks bleak for Americans in search of living wage jobs without a major commitment to higher education.

The Depression exacerbated labor woes. James Flink wrote, “Labor unrest in the automobile industry spread with massive unemployment and the deterioration of working conditions as the Depression deepened.” The crisis was compounded by technological stagnation, and since workers were more flexible than machines, human labor was pushed to increase productivity. Work on the assembly line was characterized by the “speed-up” and “stretch out” of the workforce. “Too many men competed for too few jobs and automobile manufacturers took advantage of the glut in the labor market.” Autoworkers of the 1930s had manifold complaints, but the foremost grievance was the speed-up. Workers argued bitterly that the speed of the line was unbearable; that annual earnings were inadequate; methods of payment were too complicated; the seasonal unemployment created by the industry’s insistence upon an annual model change; the practice of shutting down during the model changes (at Ford) and of hiring workers, regardless of skill, at the starting rate; management ignored and refused to recognize seniority; workers over 40 found it difficult to remain employed; female labor was being substituted to replace male labor; the continued “speed-up” of the assembly line; and the espionage networks and the Bennett regime of Ford. Mounting complaints would give impetus to a fledgling union movement.

Under the auspices of the New Deal, Congress passed the Wagner Act and created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The original agreement was admittedly weak; it only stipulated requirements for worker representation, and automobile companies continued to resist unionization. The promises of the Wagner Act eventually came to fruition. “In only ten years,” noted historian Richard Oestriecher, “the Wagner Act led directly to an increase in union representation from approximately one worker in ten in 1934 . . . to more than three out of 10 by 1945, and strong unions forced corporations to raise wages at roughly the same rate that the economy expanded.” Concurrent with the Wagner Act, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) chartered the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW).

Even under the aegis of the Great Depression and the New Deal political climate, the “Big Three” were able to thwart worker’s attempts to organize. Unionization of the automobile industry was not concluded when the ink of the Wagner Act dried. Ford used a police regime to prevent violence; General Motors, Chrysler, and other firms embarked on campaigns of espionage. It was said at the time that one out of ten workers was a company informant. To unionize the auto industry, American politics had to be moved to the left. In Management and Managed Steven Jeffreys argued that the external political environment was crucial in shaping the limits of unionization. He observed that the Roosevelt labor coalition had left the “business community exposed.” Jeffreys’ thesis is also important because it recognized that “different patterns of managerial authority developed in different plants.” Labor unrest is a microcosm of larger political effects on the American social fabric. The historical experience of unionization was complex, and thus different in every company, and then every plant within that company. A high number of automobile strikes followed FDR’s 1932 election.

Companies battled to maintain Detroit’s reputation as an open shop city. Historians have noted several reasons for the auto industry’s ability to resist industrialization. First, both the AFL and communist organizations bungled opportunities to organize autoworkers. A proper political mechanism was not realized until a group within the AFL created the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which intended to jettison the AFL’s craft principle to organize workers in the mass production industries. Second, the racial and ethnic composition of the workforce made organization difficult. Third, management pursued deliberate strategies to make unionization difficult. Ford’s initial benevolence was a subtle attempt to assuage unionization, and his regime of violence under thug Harry Bennett was an overt strategy to stop unions. General Motors had a spy racket. In addition, politics within the unions were brutal and divisive. Even with mounting complaints and the automobile industry’s speed-up, racial and ethnic differences proved difficult to overcome.

Collective bargaining was made a reality by historical actors who were catalyzed by the Great Depression and energized as a part of the New Deal political coalition. Franklin Roosevelt’s charisma forged a new political bloc that embraced class-based politics and sided tentatively with labor. Workers also began to overcome their differences, and as Ronald Edsforth and Robert Asher pointed out, “no matter what their race, ethnicity, or gender, automobile workers found themselves confronting similar problems . . . between 1935 and 1941 deeply felt resentments about what these workers called “the speedup” or “the stretch out” brought diverse groups of auto workers together in the successful organizing drives of the United Automobile Workers Union.” Leaders such as Homer Martin, Walter and Victor Ruether, Richard “Dick” Frankensteen, George Addes, and others organized a motley gang of laborers into the United Autoworkers (UAW). In a pivotal moment at the 1935 South Bend Convention, Dick Frankensteen’s Automotive Industrial Workers Association (AIWA) joined the UAW. Arnold Bernstein noted, “In the summer of 1936 the now more or less “United” Automobile Workers confronted the major task of organization, which, given the extreme oligopolistic structure of the more industry, necessitated a frontal attack upon one of the big three.

The opportunity for a “frontal assault” came in 1936 with the sit down strike at General Motors plants around the country. Arnold Bernstein noted that the youth of the autoworkers made the sit down strike “democracy run wild.” The autoworkers used the innovative sit-down strike tactic to prevent the removal of dies and to obstruct the importation of strike breakers. After a 44-day period of intense negotiations, the UAW gained the right to bargain with General Motors. The moment was unique in American history; both Michigan Governor Frank Murphy and President Franklin Roosevelt did not forcibly remove strikers. The UAW’s conquest of General Motors quickly exacted contracts from Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker, along with numerous parts producers. In the wake of the strike, the union had “256 locals, 400 collective bargaining agreements, and 220,000 dues-paying members.”

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ronin - A Car Chase Scene to Die for?

Ronin -- very good film, great car chase scene(s)? Unlike so many of the great car chase films that have muddled plots and weak acting, this film is very good, but perhaps its car chase scheme is overrated. Ronin is the story of post-Cold War warriors, now in transition. At the center of the story is a case, but what is inside it, and two groups one Russian, one Irish, attempting to acquire it. One chase scene involves the planned ambush to acquire the case for a mysterious and rather beautiful Irish terrorist working for a Rouge leader by the name of Shamus. The second scene involves chase through Paris as the group has split. It is the second scene that seems to be the one that most film critics examine closely.

A few comments about this scene. I don't wish to unfairly criticize John Frankenheimer's efforts, however, as the film does mark a high achievement in cinematography and action involving the automobile. First, I thought that with one exception, Robert DeNiro's part in the chase scene is rather weak and unconvincing. That exception is a drift in which we see the use of the handbrake and downshift. Secondly, I thought the use of headlight flashers was quite effective, including the quick shot of the worm,an driver flicking the stalk on the dimmer in her BMW. On the whole the street s are deserted, like a Sunday morning in Paris, with few pedestrians. Going wrong way in on a number of streets would have resulted in these two cars coming to a head on end during any real situation. And finally, the fact that the three "bad guys" survived a plunge down an embankment and were able to walk away form, the wreckage at the end of the scene is a testimony to the safety one has in driving a BMW 5 series.

A great chase scene? A qualified yes, but there is still room to captivate the audience in fresh and more realistic ways.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Brief Review of Scott Olsen's At Speed: Traveling the Long Road between Two Points.

Hi folks-- sometimes you can't tell a book by its cover. Scott Olson's at speed has a very nice photographic cover featuring the center line of a curving road with foliage left and right and mountains in the distance. And on the back cover there are four testimonials about this road narrative, by authors, English professors and book people. Despite all the good things on the surface, for me this work was a disappointment. It features five road travel stories, and shorter excerpts from road trips that were contained in the author's notebooks. Frankly, these narratives feature quick stops along the way, a few people scattered and mentioned only in passing, descriptions of the land (but not that powerfully done), the on and off inclusion of some details about the Jeep that he drives, and time and distance when appropriate. Yet, character and humanity is never more than dealt with superficially -- even in the case of the author. We never deeply explore the writer's psyche, although we learn a bit about his family along the way. The towns on these extended road trip are rarely explored, and the people -- waitresses, hotel clerks, gas station attendants, etc., are just a passing fancy, again nearly monolithic. Yes, at speed we really get to know little about the world we are traversing. Is that the real point of this exercise? Scott has some very interesting travel plans that he follows through on , including a trip from, Key West to Alaska that if done in a better fashion, would have been illuminating. Every trip is different, every path unique, every character special, but I did not see any of this to my satisfaction in At Speed. The driver, the machine, the land, and the townsfolk, all need more explication that we read here. Why write this, if so half done in the end? Or maybe this is what mdoern life is all about, and why so many people are dissatisfied with their lives? To develop this tehme more would have transformed this book into a powerful contemporary statement.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Bourne Identity -- One of My Favorite Chase Scenes -- with a Mini

In my book, The Automobile and American Life, I include a good number of films within the historical narrative. But like many history books, I tend to run out of gas as I reach the recent past, and that is true of the films I fail to discuss. Maybe there will be a second edition in which I can set the record straighter than before.
I have yet to see Invicitus, but in general I am a big Matt Damon Bourne series fan. The Bourne Identity was the first of three films featuring the character Jason Bourne, and his quest to find out who he was/is.
The chase scene is the best scene in the film, yet it is only 4 minutes or so long. While like Ronan taking place in Paris, it is different in many respects because it humanizes the car chase, and in another way develops the characters. Very little is said during the scene, but what is said has weight. Bourne begins by addressing his recently met female companion "You take care of the car?" He continues " "The tires felt a little splashy coming over here." How many drivers would notice this? How many women owners watch tires pressures? Marie answers "it pulls a little to the right." Little does she realize what is in store for her on this drive!
Bourne then says, "Last chance, Marie." Marie's face about her commitment thato a mna she knows so little about is definite, as she clicks the seat belt.. It is then that the muisc starts.
The car is a wron out little red mini, quite popualr in Europe, though not so in the U.S> until the BMW minis arrived on our shores. What follows is a great chase scene involving motorcycles and narrow Parisian streets, down a series of stairs ("So, we have a bump coming up'), and on sidewalks. Nobody seems to get seriously hurt, but it is memorable nonetheless, as though our viewing the characters faces we learn so much about the pair.
This was a scene that was planned months in advance of filming. The stunt people were superb, especially the motorcycle drivers, who were French. Filming took place in the back seat, and at times using a British right hand drive Mini so that Matt Damon could hold on to a fake wheel.
The quality of this work goes back to Fanny, the first assistant director of the film. She made the city of Paris seem populated.
In the end, the pair pull into a garage, and Matt Damon says " We can never come back to this car." For a city like Paris, would we really want anything but a car like this one?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Cars of Christmas!

The Revell Visible V-8. My favorite car present from Christmas past. I probably got one of these around 1960.

Hi folks -- I couldn't believe it this morning when my wife Kaye asked me if I wanted a new car for Christmas! I am still in shock, and don't know what to think! That was totally out of her character, to say the least!
When I think of Christmas past and cars, I go back to my childhood and remember the plastic models I got for Christmas. The best by far was "The Visible V-8." This was a huge plastic model of a GM small block V-8. With a battery to turn the flywheel, pistons, and valves actually moved! I keep on thinking that the spark plugs fired. There were cars too, like '55 Thunderbirds, '55 Chveys, and hot rods -- '32 Fords and 1940 Fords customized with flames on the hood.

Life was a lot simpler back then, even though I didn't think so from my own perspective of enduring the pressures of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.

Cars were/are great things, then and now. But the real cool thing is the celebration of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came down to suffer and die the the cross, so that our sins would be forgiven and we would have eternal life. That was cool.

A Christmas Car Story from Long Ago: The Pierce-Arrow Grill and a Tangle with a Judge!

Hi folks -- it was two nights before Christmas, 1968, and I was home in Kenmore, New York, recovering from a tough semester at Davidson College. On that snowy night I went with two of my old high school friends, George Frescholtz and Doug Meyer, to a bar (then the Pierce-Arrow Grill -- now Jimmy's on Elmwood) located across the street from the old Pierce-Arrow administration building on Elmwood Avenue, in Buffalo, NY. Remember now students who look up to me as a role model -- -- at that time the legal age for drinking was 18 not 21. It was decades before I had a serious interest in auto history and Pierce-Arrows, although after that evening the Pierce-Arrow Brand was burned into my memory.
After a night of pool, we left with George driving his father's 1959 Ford Fairlane. It was a very pretty white and turquoise car, and big enough so that all three of us could sit in the front seat, although I have no idea looking back why we wanted to be so close!
I have to add too that during the evening, a major snow storm as only north Buffalo right off the Niagara River could experience it, hit us, with near zero visibility.
The rest of the story remains in controversy. As George was backing out, he asked whoever was sitting in the front seat by the window if any car was coming from the south. Whoever it was -- I think it was Doug, but Doug insisted i was the culprit-- said "No." What happened next was jolt on the rear quarter panel. As it turned out, we just happened to back into the street while a judge was coming down the road! I still can see that old man out of his car in this blizzard surveying the damage to his big Chrysler. Whoever was guilty, George suffered with jacked up insurance rates. And I was an unwelcome visitor to his home, garnering angry looks from his father whenever I walked up the driveway.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Porsche is back from the shop!!! A new clutch and a drained bank account.

This is what my clutch disc looked like upon removal from the car. Note the lack of lining and also damage to what should have been springs by comparing with photograph below.
My sorry-ass flywheel. Out of spec and with severe gouges and a very sharp outer edge. You'll be able to see this in my office once I clean it up.
Note wear points on clutch point. 39 years of service led to some alignment issues.
A Clutch Kit -- I got mine from Gripforce in CA
How it looks before you take the clutch out, and after separating the engine and clutch from the transmission

Flywheel blues -- my flywheel was scored and out of spec. So I had to buy a new flywheel for $589.00. New bolts are always called for, as the ones in use tend to stretch over time.
The main seal only costs $29.50 and should be replaced when replacing the clutch. This was the least of my problems.

Hi folks -- the many adventures of Lazarus, my car that has been raised from the dead. At Thanksgiving the clutch finally had its last stand -- there was considerable noise (metal on metal) whenever the clutch was disengaged. Two weeks later, and $2000+ later, the car is back in the garage with a smooth disengaging operation. What a time! Problems abounded with proper adjustment, worn fork, a broken trunnion, etc., etc . For a time I was so disgusted, I put the car up for sale on the PCA website! But I have softened my stance now that it is back home. Like beautiful women, beautiful cars come at a price. But are there really any options? A Prius?

All is well, now, however. I'll insert photos of the old parts tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Automobile and Society: A Brief Historical Commentary

Farm life would never be the same after the Model T

The automobile ended the one-room schoolhouse in favor of centralized schools
The automobile and interstates has made the mega-church possible

Automobiles and Society

Introduction. No other technology shaped 20th century society as much as the automobile. On a personal level, the automobile transformed how people thought of themselves, basic values, and everyday life. Over the course of the twentieth century, the car increased our desire to buy new things, connecting those things to our status and personal attractiveness. On a social level, the car influenced, among other things, the kind of the communities we live in, and how we value personal relationships and family. And finally, on a cultural level, our music and films were greatly influenced by the automobile.

During the 20th century, the automobile gradually knitted urban and rural areas more tightly together. The automobile slowly became a part of rural America and with it came many improvements in the quality of life. In economic terms, the appearance of the automobile broadened the market of farm goods for farmers, and in general made life easier. By World War I, the automobile enabled physicians to make their rounds more efficiently and rural areas established hospitals to serve surrounding communities. And during 1920s, the one-room schoolhouse gradually gave way to centralized schools, and thus the automobile improved education. While some church leaders railed against the car because of Sunday drives that would decrease church attendance, in reality the auto enabled once-isolated members to attend worship services.

From top to bottom in American society, the automobile created wealth and jobs. People left farms to work in factories and live in cities. People on the margins of society, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, found work in these factories. Their toil led to a better quality of life for themselves and their children. The nature of work changed as repetitive assembly line tasks replaced more seasonal outdoor labor. The skilled work of artisans gave way to more unskilled labor. Gas stations, motels, repair shops, sprung up alongside a road system that did not exist before the 20th century and the coming of the automobile. A large number of new managers and engineers were needed to design and oversee car production and the overall business. Before the automobile took root in American society, the average American owned very few possessions and had very little money. Automobiles played a crucial role in transforming Americans from producers of a limited number of goods to mass production manufacturers and consumers living in a Machine Age. And to persuade potential buyers, advertising became more important. People became fascinated with action movies featuring cars and the automobile was closely related to rock-and-roll music, and high-fat fast food. Our loves, hopes, fears, ambitions, and disappointments were now all somehow tied to the automobile.

Automobile Infrastructure. Before the automobile, most roads in America and many in Europe were nothing more than dirt paths that were dusty in dry weather and rutted and muddy in winter. Beginning in the 1920s, government became heavily involved in building roads that connected major cities, the money coming from taxes on gasoline. For the most part, these were undivided highways that could be very dangerous at times, such as the so-called “Mother Road,” Route 66 that connected the Midwest to Southern California. After World War II, more and more efforts were put into constructing divided-lane, limited-access roads, including parkways and interstates in America, the Autostrade in Italy and the Autobahnen in Germany. These highways, while convenient for the general population, also serve as critical routes in terms of national defense and evacuation planning. Most modern nations are now crisscrossed with these highways, and currently India and China are building similarly designed roads to support their burgeoning numbers of automobile owners. At one time rivers and coastal waters were at the heart of the flow of people and goods, and now paved highways usually serve that purpose in most countries.

In the United States, interstate highways going through cities that were first built in the 1960s were and still are controversial. In Europe, most divided highways stop short of entering cities. But in the U.S., urban expressways have allowed many people to move to suburbia and far suburbs called exurbs, at the expense of the core of cities that are in decline. Urban expressways built for commuters also can disfigure the landscape, and have done so in numerous cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and Baltimore.

Alongside the highways, gas stations, truck stops, restaurants, repair shops, camps, and motels sprung up to service the growing number of drivers who took to the road. Petroleum, once used mainly as kerosene to light lamps, became a big, international business as inexpensive gasoline became critical to the future of automobile use. At first, gasoline was only available to car owners at general stores, but starting in 1906 the gas station became a roadside fixture. Gas station architecture evolved throughout the twentieth century, beginning with structures that looked like small homes and now featuring wide canopies, self service pumps, and convenience stores. As automobile touring became more popular and people began to take longer trips and visited national parks, camping alongside the road gave way to first tourist cabins, and then motels. “Greasy spoon” diners quickly popped up as highways were being built, but later chain restaurants like Howard Johnsons were popular 1950s, only to lose customers to fast food from McDonalds by the 1960s. Perhaps the best snapshot of life in any one place can be found alongside the road.

Economic Impact. The automobile is a complex system of related technologies and as such depends on many different industries for its various components. As such the automobile is linked to the petroleum, steel, plastics, glass, textile, rubber, electronics, and glass industries. If one adds employment associated with the selling and servicing cars, including repair shops, finance offices, advertising in newspapers, and on television and radio, one can understand why approximately one in seven jobs in America is tied to this single product. Many small companies that make parts for the cars that are assembled in the large factories employ hundreds of thousands of workers in their own right. And several of the largest companies in the world, including General Motors, Toyota, Honda, Kia, Nissan, Ford, Fiat, Daimler-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen, and Renault are directly tied to this industry. Wages in the automobile industry tend to be considerably higher than hourly pay in service industries. Not surprisingly, when the automobile industry began to experience a severe downturn in 2008, unemployment rose markedly in industrialized nations, and a global recession occured.

Safety problems.

Fatal accidents occur almost daily in every area of the U.S., and typically the scene is swept up and sanitized within hours, with the only reminder of the incident being the occasional cross and flowers on the side of the road. World-wide, each year more than a million fatalities take place.

Despite this carnage, until the 1950s Americans, and particularly the car companies, paid little attention to the problem of automobile safety. The typical American automobile had dashboards with numerous hard knobs, no seatbelts, poor brakes and tires, non-collapsible steering columns, doors that opened on impact, soft seats and suspension systems, and windshield glass that shattered easily. These features were the consequence of manufacturer neglect, consumer preferences, the psychology of driving, and the failure of the government to further public interest in this matter.

Despite obvious evidence to the contrary, industry representatives maintained that drivers and their behavior, not automobile design features, caused accidents and injuries. Nevertheless, several forces for change converged during the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Indeed, by the end of the 1960s, the previously-unassailable industry was brought to its knees by the rising tide of public opinion, regulatory legislation, and a newly-created federal bureaucracy.

One major reason for the new emphasis on auto safety was due to enhanced technical knowledge about the “second crash,” that is, the collision of the automobile’s passengers with the interior after the initial exterior impact. These insights led to the development of crumple zones in cars, which absorb the energy from a crash. Other safety features that were introduced beginning in the 1960s included seat belts, padded dashboards, collapsible steering wheel columns, ABS braking systems, and air bags.

Despite all of these improvements drinking and driving, reckless driving, and faulty design, such as the high center of gravity some Sport Utility Vehicles all contribute to still unacceptable fatality rates. A serious question remains, however. Why would society put up with a technology that takes so many lives?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Concise and Relatively Brief History of the Automobile

History of the automobile

The steam car. During the late 1700's, inventors dreamed of a “horseless carriage”—and steam seemed the obvious power source. In 1769 and 1770, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French military engineer, built the first self-propelled road vehicles, one that carried passengers, the other a three-wheeled steam tractor for hauling artillery. Richard Trevithick of the United Kingdom demonstrated in 1801 and 1803 four-wheeled steam-propelled road vehicles to carry passengers, but lacked the money to continue his work.

Numerous attempts in the United Kingdom during the 1820s and 1830s to promote the use and development of steam cars failed because of competition from railroad and stagecoach companies. Furthermore, early steam cars damaged roads, sometimes blew up, made a terrible racket, dirtied the air with smoke, and frightened horses. In 1865, the “Red Flag Law” ended further development of automobiles in the United Kingdom for about 30 years. Under the law, a steam car could go no faster than 4 miles (6 kilometers) per hour in the country and 2 miles (3 kilometers) per hour in town. To warn of its approach, a signalman had to walk ahead of the vehicle, swinging a red flag by day and a red lantern by night.

In the United States, inventor Oliver Evans demonstrated in 1805 a steam-operated dredge mounted on a boat. Evans put wheels on the boat and drove the gigantic machine, which weighed about 20 tons (18 metric tons), through the streets to the harbor and into the water. During the 1860's, another American inventor, Sylvester H. Roper, developed a much smaller steam vehicle that looked more like a present-day automobile. Many other Americans experimented with steam cars during the late 1800's. The number of U.S. companies that made steam cars grew rapidly. One of the most successful firms was founded by identical twin brothers, Francis E. and Freelan O. Stanley, who built the famous Stanley steamer.

Steam cars had big disadvantages. At first, it took too long for the fire to heat the boiler. Inventors solved that problem, but others remained. They were heavy and expensive. Over time, the steam-powered car gradually disappeared. In 1924, the Stanley brothers' company—one of the last steam car manufacturers—went bankrupt.

The electric car. About 1891, William Morrison, an American inventor, built a successful electric car. Electric cars quickly became popular because they were quiet, easy to operate, pollution-free, and reliable. In 1900, they accounted for 38 percent of all U.S. car sales. But few electrics could travel faster than 20 miles (32 kilometers) per hour, and the batteries had to be recharged at least every 50 miles (80 kilometers). And they could not be used in rural areas that did not have electricity. By 1905, only about 7 percent of all cars sold in the United States were electrics. See Electric car

The gasoline car. Along with the development of the bicycle, the internal combustion engine was most critical to developments in early automobile history. Credit for this power plant is normally given to Belgian inventor Etienne Lenoir. Living in France, Lenoir patented a two-stroke engine in 1860 that used illuminating gas (gas obtained from heating coal in large retorts) that was ignited by a spark generated by a battery and coil. Lenoir’s engine was noisy and inefficient, and it tended to overheat. Used in stationary applications to power pumps and machines, some 250 were sold by 1865. In 1876, Nicholas Otto (1832-1891) developed a four-cycle engine (intake, compression, power, and exhaust). Two engineers who had once worked for Otto, Gottleib Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach designed a 1.5 horsepower, 110 pound, 600 rpm “high speed engine” in 1885, and built several experimental vehicles between 1885 and 1889. Maybach, one of the most important engineer-inventors of this early period, designed the modern carburetor for mixing air and gasoline in 1893. In the meantime, Karl Benz (1844-1929) built an internal combustion engine powered tricycle in 1885 to 1886 and exhibited a design at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. By 1893 he had constructed an improved four-wheel car with a three-horsepower engine that sold well and was fairly reliable. More than 100 Benz vehicles were sold by 1898. An early leader, Benz was soon passed technologically, especially by French manufacturers.

The key French inventor-engineer of the late nineteenth century was Emile Constant Levassor, who took Gottleib Daimler’s engine and placed it in the front of the vehicle. Before Levassor’s untimely death, he proved the merits of his design in the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race. At first, and for only a relatively short time, Paris was the center of the nascent global automobile industry.

The birth of the automobile industry. Until 1900, Europe led the world in automobile development and production. For example, Peugeot, a French firm, started making automobiles in 1890. Another French company, Renault, began producing cars in 1898. Fiat of Italy dates from 1899. France and Germany became the first large production centers.

The Duryea brothers, Charles E. and J. Frank, built the first successful gasoline car in the United States. The Duryea car was completed in 1893 and made its first successful run in 1894. Often bicycle or carriage manufacturers, a number of automaking firms were started in the United States during the industry's early years. Some quickly failed, but others still produce vehicles. The center of the auto industry shifted from Europe to the United States after 1900. Production of American cars increased from fewer than 5,000 in 1900 to more than 1 1/2 million in 1916.

Many historians credit the 1901 Oldsmobile with being the first mass-produced car. More than any car before, this automobile was built of parts made by outside suppliers and shipped to the assembly plant. Mass production took a giant step forward in 1904, when Henry M. Leland took charge of the Cadillac Automobile Company and began building cars using interchangeable parts. Such parts could be used to assemble or repair any car of the same model. Previously, most parts were made to fit only one particular car.

But more than anyone else, the American industrialist Henry Ford perfected the mass production of automobiles. Ford understood that there existed a huge market for cheap, reliable automobiles, and in 1908 started production of the Model T. In 1913, Ford installed a moving assembly line in his car factory. The frame of the car was pulled through the plant by a chain. Workers on each side assembled the car by adding parts that had been brought to them on conveyor belts. This process resulted in a huge cut in production time and costs.

Technological advances came quickly after the birth of the auto industry and helped make cars safer, more comfortable, and easier to operate. One major development was the introduction of the electric self-starter. Charles F. Kettering, an American engineer, invented it in 1911, and General Motors installed the first ones in its 1912 Cadillacs. The self-starter ended the need to insert a crank into the front of the engine and then turn the crank by hand until the engine started. Hand-cranking was difficult, troublesome, and sometimes dangerous. The self-starter put increasing numbers of women behind the wheel.

World War I. World War I (1914-1918) demonstrated the value of motor vehicles for military purposes. In September 1914, German forces advanced on Paris. The French used Paris taxicabs to rush soldiers to the battlefront. In 1916, the Allies saved Verdun, France, from German capture with the help of fresh troops and supplies carried to the front by trucks. Car manufacturers produced large quantities of war goods for the Allies. They made military trucks and tanks, airplane engines, and other military supplies.

In the United States, people continued to purchase cars for personal use. Automobile production fell for the first time in 1918, reflecting chiefly a shortage of materials. After the war, the industry expanded again.

The Roaring Twenties. An economic slump struck the United States in 1920 and 1921. The sagging economy hurt the U.S. auto industry badly and resulted in major shifts in the leadership of the big companies. In 1923, Alfred P. Sloan became GM's president. He developed several ideas that the entire industry came to adopt. Sloan sought to stimulate sales by changing model styling each year. The tactic is often described as planned obsolescence—the manufacture of products designed to become outdated sooner than might be expected. GM and other companies built cars that offered comfort, styling, and speed at reasonable prices. This forced Henry Ford to stop making the Model T in 1927. He introduced the Model A in late 1927. In 1928, it became the top-selling car, but the Model A held that position for only a short time.

The rise of the Big Three. Sloan also set up a system of group management in which each GM car division would be independent and responsible for its own operations. Yet the head of GM would still have tight control. Sloan thus established an organizational structure for managing the huge companies that the major automakers became.

During the 1920's, the large manufacturers cut their profits on each car to step up their sales. Soon, only companies that could make and sell many cars quickly could stay in business. The number of U.S. automakers dropped sharply—from 108 in 1923 to 44 by 1927.

The hard times of the 1930's. The auto industry suffered severely during the Great Depression, which began in October 1929. In the United States, production of all vehicles fell 36 percent in 1930 and 29 percent more in 1931. In 1932, output plunged an additional 44 percent to about 1,300,000 vehicles, the lowest volume since the war year of 1918. Ford and Chrysler lost money, but GM made a profit throughout the 1930's. By the end of the decade, the Big Three controlled over 85 percent of the car market. Many firms had gone bankrupt. Others had shifted to truck production and managed to survive. During this same period, these companies also set up factories in Australia, the United Kingdom, and other countries.

Because of plant closings and lowered production, autoworkers were periodically jobless during the Depression. Autoworkers responded to speed up and job losses by supporting unionization, which ultimately succeeded in the auto industry by the late 1930s.

World War II and the postwar years. Automobile manufacture in Europe was halted in 1939 by the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945). In the United States, the automakers turned their production capacity to making war equipment and became the “Arsenal of Democracy.” This equipment included not only military trucks, jeeps, and personnel carriers, but also tanks, aircraft and aircraft engines, ammunition, artillery, and marine engines.

After the war, the auto industry resumed civilian production. The return of former servicemen and women, the enormous growth of the suburbs, and the unsatisfied demand for cars during the war all created a huge market for automakers. During the 1950's, performance and styling became keys to selling. American cars became longer, wider, and lower. Automatic transmissions became available in low-priced cars. Engine power and electric motors operated air conditioning, brakes, seats, steering, and the tops of convertibles.

By the late 1950's, imports—especially the West German Volkswagen Beetle—began to take a growing share of the U.S. market. Imports reached 10 percent in 1959 but then temporarily declined until the late 1960s. In 1964, Ford introduced the Mustang, a smaller, sportier car than most compacts. Car buyers loved the Mustang at first sight. That same year, Pontiac came out with the GTO, and for a short time it was the era of the “muscle car” in America. These cars were blindingly fast, yet also rather unsafe due to inadequate brakes.

The growth of government regulation. In 1965, an American lawyer named Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed. The book attacked Chevrolet's Corvair in particular and the auto industry in general for emphasizing profits and style over safety. Corvair sales plunged, and Chevrolet stopped producing the car in 1969.

Until then, the U.S. auto industry had operated largely free of government regulation. The situation changed in the 1960's, partly because criticism of the automobile had increased, especially after Nader's book appeared. The 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act ordered certain changes to promote automobile safety. To meet U.S. federal standards, automakers had to equip new cars with such safety features as safety belts, air bags, and shatterproof windows. Other required equipment included a collapsible steering column and bumpers that can absorb the impact of collisions.

The rise of international automaking. During the 1960's, the auto industries of France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and West Germany prospered. The Soviet Union and Italy agreed to produce Italian Fiat cars in the U.S.S.R. The Australian auto industry thrived, and Argentina and Brazil expanded production. Japan, however, made the most dramatic progress. Japanese production skyrocketed from about 50,000 cars in 1958 to more than 2 million by 1968.

A worldwide petroleum shortage during the 1970's resulted in high gasoline prices and long lines at filling stations. Many families with large automobiles switched to smaller, lightweight cars that were more fuel-efficient. In the United States, imported cars became popular because of their reputation for fuel efficiency. By 1980, imports had captured more than 25 percent of the U.S. market, and Japanese cars accounted for more than 80 percent of those sales.

Challenges to the Big Three. The oil shortage led the U.S. Congress to pass a law in 1975 requiring manufacturers to make cars more fuel efficient. The 1974 cars averaged 14 miles per gallon (6 kilometers per liter) of gasoline. Under the new law, the 1985 models had to average 271/2 miles per gallon (11.7 kilometers per liter). The Big Three met the requirements by building lighter cars with smaller engines and by making mechanical improvements. However, they could not match the Japanese automakers in terms of quality. Congress demanded even greater fuel efficiency in the 1990's.

The switch in consumer preference from large cars to small ones helped Japan surpass the United States as the world's largest automaker for the first time in 1980. The shiploads of imported cars pouring into the United States stunned the Big Three. The price of a new car rose sharply during the early 1980's. As a result, people kept their old cars longer before buying a new one.

Chrysler, in deep financial trouble, needed $1 1/2 billion in government-guaranteed private loans to survive. Lee Iacocca, head of Chrysler, turned the company around for a time. Chrysler received the loans in 1980 and repaid them within three years. In 1984, Chrysler introduced a line of minivans that achieved huge success in the marketplace. In 1987, the company bought American Motors, which the French automaker Renault had largely controlled since 1977.

In 1981, the U.S. and Japanese governments placed voluntary restrictions on the export of Japanese cars to the United States. The restrictions encouraged Japanese carmakers to produce vehicles in the United States themselves. By the late 1990's, several Japanese manufacturers had assembly plants in the United States.

Recent developments. Light trucks and sturdy SUV's became increasingly popular in the United States. In the 1990's, U.S. production of such vehicles surpassed that of passenger cars. This shift toward big, fuel-hungry vehicles eventually created problems for U.S. automakers after a global economic recession began in 2007. As the economic downturn took hold, demand for vehicles dropped dramatically. Most of the remaining buyers wanted small, fuel-efficient automobiles. The changing market left American automakers struggling to survive. Both Chrysler and GM needed billions of dollars in loans from the U.S. federal government. Despite these loans, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

About 620 million passenger cars travel the streets and roads of the world. Most automobiles are in the United States, Japan, Canada, and the countries of Western Europe. But in the past few years the emerging markets of China and India have become huge. In 2009, more cars were sold in China than in the United States for the first time.

Particularly after the gasoline price run-up in 2008 and the recession that followed, many consumers today purchase fuel-efficient vehicles. Such vehicles include hybrids, most of which combine an internal-combustion engine with a rechargeable electric battery to conserve gasoline. Cars powered solely by electric energy have limited battery life and so cannot travel long distances. But such cars may prove more feasible with widespread improvements to the power grids, offering drivers more places to "plug in" their cars. In addition, engineers and scientists are working to develop fuel cells, devices that convert chemical energy to electric energy, to power cars instead of gasoline. Finally, as temporary measure, some automobiles now run on biofuels that include ethanol made from corn and sugar cane.

Despite technological advances, the auto industry faces many challenges. Rising fuel costs have made large, inefficient vehicles less popular with consumers.