1908 New York-to-Paris automobile race: [Two men holding U.S. flag behind automobile]
Saturday, December 3, 2016
A concise History of the Automobile in America, 1893-2016
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.