The automobile from its beginnings to the modern day
– By Pioneer Auto MuseumAmerican's are hopelessly head over heels for their automobiles. Sure, you get the holdout here and there who chooses not to own a vehicle, but the United States is a car country. We've funded and built a major interstate system, the Big Three automakers are powerhouses in the American economy and, you can even order a meal comfortably seated in your vehicle. What could be better than that?
But the national love affair with the automobile took some nurturing and turns of good fortune to come together. And it all started about 700 years ago.
The history of cars started in the 1300s when an Italian inventor Guido da Vigevano created a windmill driven vehicle that moved power to wheels. Wind power never took hold as a vehicle propulsion system but da Vigevano's efforts are an indicator of a long time understanding of the benefits to be gained by having a vehicle powered by something other than a horse.
Wind power didn't take hold but over several hundred years, inventors found other power sources. Around 1769, a steam powered vehicle was built, by 1807 a hydrogen engine was developed and only 80 years later the first gas powered internal combustion engine automobile was produced by the German designer Karl Benz.
Fast forward three decades and the evolution of the car was shaping the future of the country.
The United States certainly can't be credited with inventing the automobile but it sure gets credit for figuring out how to get one into the hands of nearly every potential driver.
Henry Ford's assembly line in 1913 mass production of the Model T he introduced just years earlier put decent, inexpensive cares in reach of the working man. This was a major leap for the automobile because, even though cars had been around for some time, they were expensive and out of the reach of the average worker.
Ford produced the Model T for 20 years and by the end of that run, 15 million Ford Model Ts had been sold.
In 1895 there were only four cars officially registered in the United States. By 1916, 3,376,889 were registered.
It was about this time, the mid-1920s, that the automotive market in the United States was becoming saturated. The population of the country was only 110 million and change and automobiles were pouring off the production line.
So in a move almost as game changing as the assembly line, planned obsolescence became part of the national auto buying psyche. Alfred Sloan, head of General Motors from 1923 to 1956 gets credit for this nugget of marketing. Sloan realized to maintain sales numbers, yearly design changes were needed to convince car owners to buy a new vehicle each year. Planned obsolescence is not a new marketing today by any means. How many laptops have you purchased? Or cellphones? And why do you suppose fashions change frequently?
But in the 1920s, in the auto industry, it was fresh take on a new market and was partially responsible for shifting the automobile from a necessity item to a fashion item that should be renewed each year.
The industry ran into bumps during its tremendous growth period. World War II resulted in several years where the major automakers made war-time vehicles, not passenger cars and during wartime years passenger car production was almost non-existent.
But of course the pendulum swung back in favor of the industry after war when sales boomed, profits surged and the American auto industry produced its 100 millionth car.
In the 1950s, Japanese-made vehicles were imported into the U.S. and another era of the history of cars had begun.