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The History of the American Automobile Industry (1)

From| March 19,2007

The American automobile industry is one of the most lucrative and successful in the world.  Although its history only spans some 200 years, it is rich with innovation and incredible ideas.  Without the automobile many business would be unable to compete outside of their local market, and travel would be very burdensome.

The automobile industry began in Philadelphia in 1792 when Oliver Evans received a patent for his invention, the Oruktor Amphibolos.  The Oruktor Amphibolos was a steam-land carriage that was used for the dredging of streams and ponds.  Although this was one of the first automatically powered machines, the idea for the automobile had existed since the 13th century when Roger Bacon, an English philosopher, said that, “cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity.”(Automotive 101, 2000)  This idea was a great one but little did Bacon know that the automobile would become a major industry. 

Little development happened between the 1792 patent of the Oruktor Amphibolos and the late 1800’s.  In 1879 a wave of advancement in the automobile industry started that continues even today.  In 1879 George B. Seldon, an Attorney in Rochester, New York, received a patent for the “Road Machine.”  The road machine had a gasoline-powered engine, and although Seldon came up with the idea for the engine, he never actually produced it.  Seldon made money by collecting royalties from the companies that did produce the engine (Automotive 101, 2000). This advancement was followed by the patent of Henry Fords “Quadricycle.”

Henry Ford was born in 1863.  In 1892 he created the Quadricycle, while working as an engineer for the Edison Company.  With his invention he started his own company in 1903, the Ford Motor Company.  Ford revolutionized the industry by coming up with the idea of the assembly line.  In the assembly line each worker was responsible for putting one part, or doing a piece of work on each automobile.  This allowed workers to perfect one area of building, and greatly reduced the production time of automobiles.  He also came up with the idea of standardizing a single model of car.  First he marketed Model-N which sold for $650.00 and was discontinued in 1907.  The Model-T was invented in 1908, and changed the automobile industry forever.  This very basic model was black and had very few added features.  This standardization allowed Henry Ford to make the Model-T quickly, and keep the cost of production very low.  The Model-T became the car of the common man, and started the American bond with the automobile.  Between 1908 and 1928, the year the Model-T was discontinued, fifteen million Model-Ts were sold.  The Model-A was eventually designed to rival other car companies more luxurious models.  Henry Ford created an environment where people liked to work, not to mention that the $5.00 for and eight-hour day was well above average for the time period.  He also had a program of profit sharing, which gave employees a percentage of the total profit the company made in a given year.  Henry Ford left a mark on the automobile history that will never be forgotten (Collier and Horowitz, 1987).

In the time right before the Ford Motor Company started producing a great deal of automobiles, Ransom E. Olds developed a one cylinder, three-horse power, curved dash Oldsmobile. The Oldsmobile sold for $650.00, which made it very affordable for the average person in America at this time.  Olds was able to produce 5,508 units of his automobile in 1904, which at the time was a tremendous quantity (Fink, 1988).

Steam cars were also extremely popular during this time period; in fact it was estimated that in 1912 there were nearly 35,000 in operation.  The Stanley Steamer was at the forefront of the steam car industry.  The Stanley Steamer was capable of reaching speeds up to 127.6 miles per hour.  Electric powered cars were also available during this time period, but were unpopular because of they were unreliable and a bulky sized of the battery.  Another problem with the battery-powered cars of this time were that they were only capable of going short distances before having to be recharged (Automotive 101, 2000).

The hand crank was replaced in most models of cars by 1911; due to the addition of the electric start motor.  Features such as electric headlights and baggage compartments were also introduced to the industry at about the same time.

The idea to make a different model every year was one that changed the automobile industry forever.  Alfred Pritchard Sloan, Jr., chairman of General Motors, decided to make more than one model of car.  He thought that if a company could make several different cars that sold for different prices, GM would be able to make more money.  By creating more upscale cars, General Motors appealed to the upper class, but they could stick with Ford’s idea of also having a car for the common person, that could be produced at a low price.  This idea was put into practice in the early 1930’s and paid off for GM, for later down the line they would control the industry. 

The automobile industry was booming in the United States, and in 1908 there were 253 automobile manufacturers.  However during 1929 the number of companies in the industry had been reduced to forty-four.  The Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and the Chrysler Corporation accounted for about eighty percent of total sales in the automobile industry.  A great deal of the remaining independents would be wiped out by the Great Depression, leaving companies like Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker to fold after the second World War (Fink, 1988).

In the period between 1930 and 1937 a more luxurious line of cars were being made by almost all car companies.   Twelve and sixteen cylinder cars were being produced. “Independent front suspension, which made the big cars more comfortable, appeared in 1933. Also introduced during the 1930s were stronger, more reliable braking systems, and higher-compression engines, which developed more horsepower.”(Encarta, 2000)

One aspect that is constantly over looked is that the automobile industry really helped make other industries.  The automobile industry was the backbone of the petroleum industry in the 1920’s.  Without gasoline and oil which the petroleum industry produced automobile would not be able to run.  This industry would provide the driving force behind automobiles for years to come.  The automobile industry was also the chief consumer of the steel industry during that same time period.  During times of petroleum conservation people tried to find other ways to cut the use of petroleum so it would not affect their car usage. Will Rogers was quoted for saying, “Americans would be the first to go to the poor house in automobile.”  This quote showed the loyalty of Americans to their cars.

To be continues

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