Ever since its debut in 1886, the automobile has been a symbol of American freedom. With the automobile, Americans were empowered to travel wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. This Fourth of July, let’s take a look back on one of America’s most important innovations, the automobile.
Hitting the Road
The first automobile was actually not invented in America. The honor of first perfecting the horseless carriage goes to Germany. In 1901, designer Wilhelm Maybach designed what is considered the first modern automobile for Diamler Motoren Gesellschaft. His vehicle was powered by a 35 horsepower engine and was capable of reaching speeds of 53 miles per hour.
The age of the American automobile truly began with Henry Ford’s utilization of the assembly line to mass-produce vehicles, allowing Ford Motor Company to provide these vehicles at an affordable price. The Model T first hit the market in October 1908. It cost $825 and came equipped with a four-cylinder, 24 horse-power engine. The Model T was designed using interchangeable parts which made repairing the vehicle very simple. As production volume picked up, the price of the Model T began to decrease. In 1912 the Model T cost $575 which was less than the average American yearly wage. The Model T stayed in production until 1927 when it was pulled from the market. The final price for a Model T was $290. When production of the Model T stopped, 15 million units had been sold. Access to mobility had been made possible for most Americans through Henry Ford’s Model T.
Utilizing Ford’s assembly line technologies, other domestic manufacturers began to come into the market. General Motors, founded by William “Billy” Durant, began in 1908. When it was first founded, General Motors had only the Buick Motor Company in its holdings. In subsequent years, GM’s holdings would expand to include companies such as Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and Pontiac. Chrysler Corporation joined the fold in 1925. Together with Ford, GM and Chrysler accounted for 80% of the automobile industry’s output in 1929.
Swings in Supply & Demand
By 1942, automotive sales had plummeted due to the Great Depression and World War II, which caused a large drop in civilian automobile production. After the war was over, Americans were ready for their next automotive purchase.
The post-war years saw great demand for automobiles. Companies offered many models and even more options to equip those models. Each year saw vehicles becoming longer, heavier, more powerful, equipped with more technology and increasingly more expensive to purchase.
The Age of the Muscle Car
The 1960s saw the emergence of the muscle car. These cars came as a response to pent up American consumerism that had been repressed in the decades prior. Detroit manufacturers saw the muscle car as a way to stave off the invasion of foreign makes such as Volkswagen, Fiat, Renault and Datsun. In addition to the muscle cars of the 1960s, domestic manufacturers began to produce lightweight cars like the Corvair, Falcon and Valiant. These models were Detroit’s answer to small, fuel efficient foreign makes.
New government regulations and foreign disputes caused the vehicles of the 1970s and 1980s to undergo a drastic change. American consumers began to crave more fuel efficient and reliable vehicles due to the increase in the cost of fuel resulting from the Oil Crisis. Detroit manufactures failed to recognize this shift in consumer desires and continued to produce large, inefficient vehicles. As a result, domestic auto sales plummeted. Sales peaked in 1978 at 12.87 million units, and then dropped to 6.95 million units in 1982. Import makes increased their share in the market to 27.9%. Japan took the lead as the world’s leading automotive producer.
The Electronic Age
The automobile has been constantly developing and improving since its inception. Advances in electronic and computer technologies found their way into vehicles of the 1990s and 2000s. A push to develop electric cars in the early 1990s resulted in some of the first practical electric vehicles. GM, Chrysler and Ford all debuted new electric models. In 1997 Cadillac became the first American car manufacturer to offer electronic stability control in its vehicles. Vehicles continued to become more and more technologically advanced throughout the 2000s with the inclusion technologies such as satellite navigation and park assist features.
The evolution of technology continues to make its way into more and more aspects of the car. Now manufacturers are pioneering technology that will allow cars to drive themselves.
The automobile provided Americans with the freedom to go and see places that had otherwise been unattainable to them. America’s love affair with the car continues on till this day. From humble beginnings, the automobile has grown to become a fixture in the American lifestyle, and we at CARCHEX wouldn’t have it any other way.