Car Technology History. By the 1920s, Henry Ford had invented mass-production processes that had become commonplace, and Ford, GM, and Chrysler had emerged as the “Big Three” automakers. During World War II, manufacturers diverted their resources to the military, and after the war, automotive production in Europe and Japan rose to meet rising demand. With the ascent of Japan as the main automaker by 1980, the industry has become a shared global enterprise, formerly important to the expansion of American urban centers.
When Did Cars First Appear?
The Mercedes-Benz of 1901, created by Wilhelm Maybach for Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, is credited as being the first modern automobile in every way.
It had a 35-horsepower engine that weighed only 14 pounds per horsepower and could reach a top speed of 53 miles per hour. Daimler employed around seventeen hundred workers in 1909, with the largest integrated automobile factory in Europe, to produce fewer than a thousand automobiles each year.
The stark difference between this first Mercedes model and Ransom E. Demonstrates the superiority of European design. However, the Olds sold for only $650, making it affordable to middle-class Americans, and the 5,508 units produced in 1904 broke all prior automobile production records.
The key issue in automobile technology throughout the first decade of the twentieth century would be balancing the advanced design of the 1901 Mercedes with the Olds’ reasonable pricing and low operating costs. This would be a resoundingly American accomplishment.
Bicycle mechanics Henry Ford and William Durant J. Frank and Charles Duryea of Springfield, Massachusetts, designed the first successful American gasoline automobile in 1893, won the first American car race in 1895 and sold the first American-made gasoline car the following year.
In 1899, thirty American manufacturers produced 2,500 automobiles, and 485 businesses entered the industry the next decade. In 1908, Henry Ford unveiled the Model T, and General Motors was created by William Durant.
The new businesses competed in an unprecedented seller’s market for a high-priced consumer good. The United States, with its huge geographical area and hinterland of scattered and isolated settlements, had a significantly higher need for automobile mobility than the European nations. A substantially higher per capita income and more equitable income distribution than European countries assured strong demand.
Given the history of American manufacturing, it was unavoidable that vehicles would be produced in greater numbers and at lower prices than in Europe. Because there were no tariff barriers between the states, sales spread across a large area. The early mechanization of industrial processes in the United States was aided by low-cost raw materials and a chronic shortage of competent workers.
This, in turn, necessitated product standardization, resulting in the mass manufacture of commodities such as weapons, sewing machines, bicycles, and a variety of other items. In 1913, the United States produced 485,000 out of a total of 606,124 automobiles worldwide.
Ford Motor Company outperformed its competition in combining cutting-edge design with reasonable pricing. The very first instance of a low-cost motorcar driven by a gas engine with cylinders enough to give, which is well built and offered in large numbers” by Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal. Due to the influx of orders, Ford upgraded his production machinery and was able to supply a hundred automobiles each day by 1906.
Henry Ford was inspired by the Model N’s success to create an even better “car for the large multitude.” The four-cylinder, twenty-horsepower Model T cost $825 when it was introduced in October 1908. It included a two-speed planetary transmission and features like a detachable cylinder head that made it simple to maintain. Its high chassis was created to smooth out the bumps on country roads. The Model T became lighter and more durable thanks to vanadium steel, and innovative methods of casting parts (particularly the engine block casting) helped keep the price low.
Ford invented modern mass manufacturing techniques at his new Highland Park, Michigan, plant, which opened in 1910 because he was committed to large-volume production of the Model T. (although he did not introduce the moving assembly line until 1913-1914). In 1912, the Model T runabout cost $575, which was less than the average yearly wage in the United States at the time. By the time the Model T was phased out of manufacturing in 1927, the coupe’s price had dropped to $290, 15 million cars had been sold, and mass personal “automobility” had arrived.
Growing Pains in the Automotive Industry
Other American automotive manufacturers swiftly embraced Ford’s mass production tactics. (They weren’t used by European automakers until the 1930s.) The increased capital expenditures and sales volume that this required put an end to the era of easy entrance and free-wheeling rivalry among numerous small companies in the United States.
General Motors, and Chrysler, which was created from Maxwell in 1925 by Walter P. Chrysler, accounting for over 80% of the industry’s output. The Great Depression wiped off the majority of the remaining independents, with Nash, Hudson, Studebaker, and Packard hanging on until the post-World War II period.
The Model T was designed to be a “farmer’s automobile,” serving the mobility demands of a country of farmers. With the passing of the 1916 Federal Aid Road Act and the 1921 Federal Highway Act, its popularity was expected to diminish as the country urbanized and rural areas emerged from the mud.
Furthermore, long after it had become technologically obsolete, the Model T remained essentially unmodified. Owners of Model Ts began to upgrade to larger, quicker, smoother-riding, and more fashionable automobiles. As the market got saturated in the 1920s, the backlog of used vehicles piling up in dealer lots tended to meet the demand for basic transportation that the Model T had supplied.
By 1927, demand for new vehicles from first-time buyers and multiple-car buyers combined had outstripped demand for new cars from first-time buyers. Automakers could no longer rely on a growing market, given current income levels. To compete with the Model T, carmakers began offering installment sales in 1916, and by 1925, nearly three-quarters of all new automobiles were purchased on credit.
Although a few expensive things, such as pianos and sewing machines, were sold on time prior to 1920, it was the installment sales of automobiles throughout the 1920s that cemented the middle-class practice of purchasing expensive consumer goods on credit as a pillar of the American economy.
GM introduces the concept of ‘Planned Obsolescence.’
Market saturation was accompanied by technological stagnation, with gradual rather than dramatic innovation taking place in both product and production technologies. The self-starter, closed all-steel body, high-compression engine, hydraulic brakes, synchromesh transmission, and low-pressure balloon tires that separate post-World War II versions from the Model T were all in place by the late 1920s.
The automatic transmission and drop-frame architecture were the final advances of the 1930s. Cars were also built in much the same fashion in the early 1950s as they had been in the 1920s, with a few exceptions.
In the 1920s and 1930s, General Motors, under the leadership of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., innovated planned obsolescence of a product and placed a new emphasis on styling, exemplified by the largely cosmetic annual model change a planned triennial major restyling to coincide with the economics of die life and with annual minor face-lifts.
The idea was to make customers dissatisfied enough to trade in and, presumably, upgrade to a more expensive new model before their current vehicle’s useful life was up. “The basic aim of the firm… was to create money, not only to build motorcars,” Sloan believed. He argued that all that was required of GM’s automobiles was that they are “equivalent in design to the finest of our competitors… it was not necessary to lead in design or risk untested experiments.” As a result, engineering was delegated to stylists and cost-cutting accountants. General Motors became the poster child for a technostructure-driven rational enterprise.
In 1927 and 1928, Ford lost the sales lead in the lucrative low-priced area to Chevrolet as Sloanism replaced Fordism as the industry’s leading marketing strategy. By 1936, GM had a 43 percent market share in the United States, while Ford had dropped to third place with 22 percent, behind Chrysler with 25 percent. GM could boast that “in no year did the firm fail to earn a profit,” despite the fact that automotive sales plummeted during the Great Depression. (GM led the industry in profits until 1986 when Ford overtook them.)
WWII and the Automobile Industry
During World War I, the automotive industry played a significant role in the production of military vehicles and war equipment. During World War II, in addition to producing millions of military cars, American automakers produced seventy-five critical military items, the majority of which had nothing to do with automobiles. These supplies were worth $29 billion in total, accounting for one-fifth of the nation’s military production.
Motor vehicle travel decreased substantially during the war years as civilian car production ended in 1942 and tires and gasoline were heavily rationed. Cars that had been nursed through the Depression long after they were ready to be scrapped were patched up, even more, resulting in a large backlog of new car demand after the end of the war.
Sloane was pursued to its illogical conclusion in the postwar period by Detroit’s Big Three. Models and options increased, and automobiles grew longer and heavier, more powerful, more gadget-laden, and more expensive to buy and operate each year, following the axiom that large cars make more money to sell than little ones.
Japanese automakers are on the rise.
At the price of economics and safety, engineering in the postwar era was sacrificed to the dubious aesthetics of nonfunctional style. By the mid-1960s, American-made vehicles were being delivered to retail purchasers with an average of twenty-four problems per unit, many of which were safety-related. Furthermore, Detroit’s larger unit profits on gas-guzzling “road cruisers” came at the cost of increased air pollution and a drain on the world’s decreasing oil reserves.
The era of the annually restyled road cruiser came to an end with the imposition of federal standards for automotive safety (1966), pollution emissions (1965 and 1970), and energy consumption (1975); escalating gasoline prices following the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks; and, most notably, the German Volkswagen “Bug” (a modern Model Tmounting )’s penetration of both the U.S. and world markets.
After reaching a high of 12.87 million units in 1978, American-made car sales dropped to 6.95 million in 1982, as imports expanded their market share from 17.7% to 27.9%. In 1980, Japan overtook the United States as the world’s leading automaker, a position it still holds today.
As a result, the American automobile industry underwent a tremendous restructuring and technical revival in the 1980s. At General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, managerial revolutions and reductions in plant capacity and people resulted in leaner, tougher companies with lower break-even thresholds, allowing them to maintain profits with reduced volumes in increasingly saturated, competitive markets.
Manufacturing quality and employee incentive and engagement activities were given top emphasis. In 1980, the industry embarked on a five-year, $80 billion facility renovation and retooling initiative. In Detroit studios, the functional aerodynamic design took the place of styling, as the annual cosmetic change was phased out.
Automobiles got smaller, more fuel-efficient, less polluting, and significantly safer. In a process of combining computer-aided design, engineering, and manufacturing, product and production were becoming progressively rationalized.
The American Automobile Industry’s Legacy
In twentieth-century America, the vehicle has been a major driver of change. The industry became the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented society in the 1920s. It ranked first in terms of product value by the mid-1920s, and one out of every six employees in the United States was provided by it in 1982.
The vehicle became the lifeblood of the petroleum industry, one of the largest users of steel, and the largest consumer of a variety of other industrial items in the 1920s. Its needs altered the technologies of these subsidiary sectors, particularly steel and petroleum.
The vehicle boosted outdoor leisure and tourism-related industries like service stations, roadside restaurants, and hotels, as well as the growth of tourism and tourism-related companies. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 launched the greatest public works program in history, with the construction of streets and highways becoming one of the most expensive items of government spending.
The vehicle decreased rural seclusion and introduced metropolitan amenities to rural America, including improved medical care and schooling (while paradoxically the farm tractor made the traditional family farm obsolete). Vehicle and trucking have created the contemporary metropolis and its adjacent industrial and residential suburbs.
The vehicle revolutionized the construction of the traditional American home, shifted the perception and composition of urban neighborhoods, and liberated homemakers from the restrictions of their homes. No other historical event has had an impact on how Americans work, live, and play.
In 1980, 87.2 percent of American households had one or more automobiles, 51.5 percent owned several automobiles, and 95 percent of domestic automobile sales were for replacement purposes. Americans have become utterly reliant on their automobiles.
Despite the fact that automobile ownership is nearly universal, the automobile is no longer a progressive engine for change. The future is being shaped by new factors, the most prominent of which being electronic media, lasers, computers, and robots. A phase in American history known as the Automobile Age is giving way to a new Age of Electronics.