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Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Early Automobile Era: 1895 - 1910

Library of Congress Image
Detroit Publishing Company Collection

The story of America and the automobile has been going on for over a century.  We love our cars.  We love the sense of freedom they bring.  But it is much, much more complicated than that. Cars are modes of transportation, status symbols, a way to express who we want to be, and one of the mainstays of our economy. They have changed how and where we live, how we work, who we know, and even how some of us will die.

Let's play a little association game.  Don't try to be to self-conscious about this. Just remember the first thing that pops into your head when I say a word.  Ready?

Automobile

Now don't edit it.  What image came to mind - because it will most likely be an image.  Here's another:

Model-T

Did you think Henry Ford?  Old-fashioned?  How about these words:

General Motors

The quick image, now.  Bailout? Your father's Oldsmobile/Chevrolet/Buick? Crappy quality?

We could play this game forever and in fact, Americans a century ago could have played the same game. The automobile began to encroach on our collective and historic lives as far back as 1895 but the wheel really got rolling (bad pun intended) in the first few years of the 20th century. How some of that happened is the focus of a now out-of-print book entitled,  America Adopts the Automobile, 1895 - 1910, written by James J. Flink and published by the MIT Press in 1970.

 I came across this book in a used bookstore and I just had to buy it.  Something about those founding days of the automobile industry fascinate me.  Actually, the founding days of any industry fascinate me - but I digress.   The years covered in Flink's book were a period when we were thunderstruck by this glorious machine and willingly made the Faustian bargain to trade our very souls to become (in the term of the day) automobilists. Flink, who was not a historian of technology but a historian of American culture, wrote a number of books about the automobile but this was his first and it is a good one.

This is not the usual book of over-hyped color photos of "American Classics".  It is a thoughtful look at many aspects of how automobiles so rapidly became embedded in every aspect of our lives.  In his 300+ page book, Flink used as his primary sources most of the motoring periodicals of the day such as Horseless Age,  Motor Age, and The Motor Way.  He also referenced a number of books written shortly after this embryonic period when first hand knowledge of the beginnings of the automobile industry was still abundant.  There's plenty of data here and also some nice black-and-white car ads and car images that come out of the magazines of the day.

Why was the automobile so quickly adopted? Most people saw very quickly that an automobile was cheaper and a heck of lot easier to keep (not to mention less cranky) than a horse pulling a buggy.  For some occupations (such as the family doctor), the automobile allowed a more rapid and reliable way to get around town.  Contrary to our usual image of early automobiles broken down on the side of the road, they were in fact quite reliable even in their earliest designs.  What wasn't reliable was the tires on the car which gave endless reasons to the automobilist to curse until the tire technology finally began to catch up to the rest of the vehicle.  Those early trips were measured more in number of tires changed than in miles per gallon.

Flink covers topics such as how and when automobiles first began to be licensed.  At first, automobile registration was perennial.  Do it once and you were done.  Pretty quickly this proved to be impractical - not to mention the loss of tax revenue from annual renewals.  In the earliest days, automobilists had to license their car in every state in which they planned to drive.  Similar issues surrounded licensing of drivers.  Not surprisingly, this came about after a few hot-headed drivers managed to mow down some pedestrians and wreak havoc on the local horse-and-buggy traffic.

Licensing and regulatory issues were just some of the reasons that local automobile clubs formed quickly in the first decade of the century. Clubs formed to allow enthusiasts to share their passion for the car but also to band together to build garages and maintenance facilities.  In that first decade, townspeople didn't have garages and their automobile was more often a Sunday drive hobby.  They needed a place to park.  It was later that people began to recognize that their cars would get them to work more comfortably than they could get there on the streetcar.  If the owner was wealthy enough to own a stable behind the house, Ol' Dobbin was turned out and the shiny new Hupmobile or Packard took his place.

Flink spends some pages discussing why the gasoline-powered automobile quickly came to dominate the steam and electric cars of those early days. He also describes the chaos of the early manufacturing market with literally hundreds of companies jumping in to try to catch the wave.  How could so many people afford to start auto-making companies?  The early car manufacturers had an ideal set of business conditions.  People went crazy for cars and every car built was sold before it hit the end of the assembly line.  All purchases were strictly cash and people lined up to plunk down their money. The auto companies were essentially assemblers who bought almost everything from suppliers and demanded that the suppliers bear the cost of all the parts inventory.  Hence, very little capital was needed to get into the auto assembly business in this early stage.  That all changed, of course.  When Henry Ford introduced the Model-T in 1909, the jig was up for many of those still in the game.  More than that, most of the early car makers had focused on building higher priced (and more profitable) cars for the middle and upper-class markets. By 1909, these markets were already saturated and the game was then to build a reliable, low-cost car for the mass market.

The book doesn't go beyond the introduction of the Model-T.  The outcome of that era, though,  is still evident everywhere we look: suburbs, a vast network of highways, acres of parking lots, air pollution, and roadside carnage. But there is no going back.  Last week the venerable Ford Motor Company, which introduced the Model-T in 1909,  announced its first all-electric car.  GM already has the Chevy Volt and hybrids are becoming so common as to be non-events.  Our love of the automobile will go on but it will never be the same as those days in the first decade of the 20th century that Flink so ably describes. Maybe the same will be said for our own day with the excitement about the internet and the social networking of the world.  It looks great from here.  We shall see... or rather our great-grandchildren shall see.

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