OF THE AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE
Optimistic Pessimism and Myopic
Visionaries - (Automobile
By Jim Hinckley
Louis Ross racing in
Stanley 'Woogle-Bug' steam automobile - Daytona Beach, Florida 1903.
The history of the American automobile during the first decades of the
20th century is, to say the very least, interesting. There were business
leaders who created vast empires that viewed the future of the
automobile with a sense of optimistic pessimism. There were visionaries
whose attempts to transform the world with imaginative innovation were
hampered by extreme myopia.
There were also dreamers and charlatans, eccentrics and intellectual
giants. For good measure the auto industry during this period was also
amply sprinkled with men whose genius bordered on insanity.
Together, they transformed the world with unprecedented speed. Together,
they unleashed previously unimagined individual freedom while enslaving
In the beginning the automobile was a blank canvas for mechanical
artisans. In those halcyon days the automobile held the promise of
utopia, a world filled with labor saving devices and laughter filled
adventures on roads yet built.
From the perspective of the dawning of the second decade of the 21st
century it is difficult to imagine an America without automobiles and
highways, car payments and pollution, service stations and family
vacations. It may be even harder to imagine an era when the automobile
was such a wonder that it received top billing over the fat lady and
albino at the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and astute businessmen such as
Montgomery Ward saw the automobile as a fad that children should see
before it passed.
To provide a bit of perspective on how the development of the automobile
and related infrastructure transformed America, and the world, consider
what took place in the three decades between 1900 and 1930. In the
closing years of the 19th century, during the nation’s first automobile
race, drivers were collapsing from exhaustion after wrestling their
automobiles over twenty miles of the fifty mile course. By 1904, people
were driving from coast to coast.
In 1909, American industry produced more than 828,000 horse drawn
vehicles using technologies little changed in a century. Meanwhile,
other factories or shops produced just over 125,000 automobiles.
Twenty years later, two decades, in 1929 a mere 4,000 horse drawn
vehicles were manufactured but the number of automobiles produced had
surpassed 1,000,000. Now, imagine what this meant to businesses such as
livery stables and blacksmiths, harness makers and wheelwrights.
Studebaker, the world leader in the manufacture of horse drawn vehicles
in 1890, was one of the nation’s top ten automobile manufacturers in
1929. William Durant, the founder of General Motors, employed Charles
Nash as a cushion stuffer at the Flint Wagon Works in the 1890s, and as
the president of Buick shortly before World War I.
By 1925, there were few aspects of the American society left unscathed
by the automobile. More families owned automobiles than had indoor
plumbing. Introduced by GM, the installment plan had been adopted by
other industries launching an unprecedented consumerism based society,
and previously unknown levels of personal debt.
Farmers prospered from the expanded markets made possible with the
automobile and trucks. They were also set free from a world of isolation as
trips to town were no longer measured in days.
Organized labor propelled industries to provide factory workers with
previously unimagined wages, and an opportunity to emulate the wealthy with
two days per week for the pursuit of leisure. The Sunday drive and the
family vacation spawned an explosion in the development of tourism related
industries. Even the American lexicon was transformed with words such as
America’s youth found other ways to embrace the freedom unleashed by the
automobile much to the detriment of currently acceptable societal norms.
They also became adept shade tree mechanics and self taught mechanical
engineers, an often overlooked component in the Arsenal of Democracy during
World War II.
1919, the world’s first tricolor traffic signals were installed on the
streets of Detroit. In Woodbridge, New Jersey, in 1929, the first cloverleaf
Automobile touring, August 13, 1908. Photo courtesy
In 1912, Cadillac proved it was the standard of the world with the
introduction of new models that featured as standard equipment an electric
starter, and electric lights. It was the death knell for electric vehicles
that dominated the urban landscape, and for the steam powered cars that had
stunned the world with previously unimaginable speed records.
In 1919, Essex became the first low price, mass produced models available
with fixed tops and roll up windows, an enclosed sedan. Yet it would be 1947
that heaters became a factory installed option for Chevrolet trucks.
the 1918 McFarland, customers could order the optional heated steering
wheel. Meanwhile Henry Ford and other manufacturers took out full page
advertisements that proclaimed brakes on the front wheels were dangerous.
In luxury cars of the late 1920s, the pampered and wealthy enjoyed the
luxury of an optional radio to provide a theme song for the adventure on the
open road. Incredibly, it would be the late 1950s before some manufacturers
offered turn signals as standard equipment.
The first automobile recall occurred in 1921 when Chevrolet introduced a
trouble prone air-cooled model that almost served as the companies’ swan
song. The genius behind the debacle was Charles Kettering, the man who
developed the electric starter for Cadillac, Freon for refrigeration, Duco
automotive paints, and leaded gasoline that enabled the manufacture of high
By 1925, the consumer was besieged with a staggering array of models choices
produced by an equally staggering array of manufacturers. The options
available or that were standard equipment was even more bewildering.
It was an age of astounding technological development. The limited
production, steam powered Doble offered unparalleled luxury and mind numbing
speeds (0 to 70 in nine seconds for a 4,500 pound roadster).
However, the buyer of a new Ford received a wooden measuring stick that he
inserted in the gasoline tank under the front seat cushion to determine fuel
levels. Other manufacturers offered a modern type fuel gauge couple to an
electric sending unit but these were mounted on the gas tank at the rear of
early experimental Ford V8 engine with some unusual features that never saw
courtesy The Henry
the close of World I, customers could choose between four-cylinder models or
V-8 engines (even in a Chevrolet), hybrids or steamers, electrics or
two-cylinder cycle cars. A dozen years later they could, if they had the
money, even select models with 12 or 16 cylinder models, or turbo charged
eight cylinder behemoths. Yet some manufacturers steadfastly held to the
belief that brakes on the front wheels represented a danger and others clung
to the belief that mechanical brakes were safer than hydraulic systems.
In two short decades America became an automobile obsessed nation. Within
three decades the automobile had become the very cornerstone of the nation.
Now, a century latter, the automobile is the scapegoat, a necessary evil.
Now, the automobile is viewed as a tether that keeps mankind from that long
promised utopia where the lion lays with the lamb, and the skies are not
cloudy all day.
My how times change.
Jim Hinckley, Legends Of America - September 2013
About the Author:
Jim Hinckley is an award winning author and photographer, and an
official contributor to Legends Of America through a partnership developed
in October 2012. Hinckley is a former Associate Editor of Cars and Parts
Magazine, and author of multiple books, including several on Route 66.
His latest "The Route 66 Encyclopedia" is available with autograph via
Route 66 Chronicles, Jim's blog.
on Legends Of America
Introducing America's Most Modern Automobile -
In the Beginning (Automotive Pioneers)
Two Heads are Better Than One (The Stanley Brothers)
Bathtubs, Birdcages & Chevrolet (Automotive
Jackson - The Other Detroit
King of the Road (The Continental Era)
In Praise of Eccentricity (The Thin Line between
Progressive and Insanity in American Auto History)
One Foot in the Stirrup and One on the Throttle
(The Race to Gain Public Interest in Motor Vehicles)
Dawning of a New Age (Setting the Stage for the
Battle of the Titans)
Sizzle - Part One (Automotive Advertising)
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