Rust & Smoke

In a recent conversation with a friend, the topic not surprisingly turned to automobiles, and the question was asked what I thought was the most influential automobiles ever produced.

My response was met with a rather surprised look.

1) The Model T – This lowly Ford, with all its flaws, must top any list of influential automobiles.

The initial success, in 1909, was the result of a relatively low sales price, $850, and being an extremely durable, easy to repair vehicle.

By 1922, the peak year for Model T sales, the car had received very little in the way of update or benefits from the explosion of technological advancement.

As a result, the sole reason for its continuing success lay in an ever-decreasing sale price, $285.00 by 1925, and an explosion in the availability of reasonably priced, after-market products that could be used to modernize the "Tin Lizzie."

In spite of its many shortcomings, by 1914 Ford was producing more than twice the number of vehicles built by all other American manufacturers combined.

In 1915, one of three automobiles on the American road was a Model T.

A survey completed in 1919 found that, incredibly, Ford built one in four automobiles in the entire world! The Model T, more than any other vehicle, was responsible for putting the world behind the wheel.

2) The 1919 Essex – Before the introduction of this now forgotten automobile, the closed car, or sedan, was almost exclusively the product of luxury car manufacturers.

Pioneering the production of the sedan enabled Hudson, the manufacturer of Essex, to continually lower the price, the cornerstone of success for the Model T Ford.

In 1922 the sedan carried a factory list price of $1,495, $300 more than an open touring car.

By 1925 the streamlining of production enabled this model to be sold for $5 less than the touring car.

For the first time in automotive history, the ownership of a convertible was now a choice.

3) 1929 L29 Cord – Even though it was not the first automobile to feature front-wheel drive, it was the first to offer it in a practical format.

In the years to follow, the Cord would see numerous improvements and be fitted with some of the most classic coachwork ever fitted to a production automobile.

With the exception of electrical problems, the transmission was revolutionary in its use of electric solenoids for operation of the shifting mechanism.

The car proved to be a relatively nimble, brisk performer.

4) 1935 Chrysler Airflow – This revolutionary vehicle has been described by some automotive enthusiasts and historians as the Edsel of the pre-war era.

However, unlike the Edsel, the shortcomings of the Airflow were to be found in the consumer and not the vehicle.

Initial concepts of the Airflow utilized a wind tunnel, an industry first, to come up with the perfect design.

The result was a car that, in its time, appeared too futuristic for the average buyer.

But the advanced body styling was only one of the revolutionary features to be found on this vehicle.

Unlike any other vehicle in production at the time, the engine was placed over the axle instead of behind it, as was the standard of the day.

For the first time the body and chassis was a welded unit that was cradled between the axles, this at a time when many manufacturers were just abandoning the use of wood framing for body support.

Headlights were flush-mounted instead of free standing.

Power brakes were standard equipment on the Imperial models as was a revolutionary one-piece windshield.

The increased aerodynamics resulted in an average 15 percent increase in fuel economy.

5) 1984 Plymouth Voyager – The all-new Chrysler "Magic Wagon" received mixed reviews but most all agreed it was revolutionary.

Just how revolutionary no one could have foreseen.

The extensive use of robotics and computer aided design was a first in the America auto industry.

Likewise, the perfection of front-wheel drive, strut suspension and easy modification of interior appointments, such as seats, gave the vehicle great versatility.

By the end of the year it was evident Chrysler had a winner and competitive manufacturers were left in a rather desperate position, as they had nothing to offer.

Of particular historical interest is the effect the introduction of this remarkable vehicle had on another line of vehicles, the station wagon.

By 1970, with increasing fuel costs, the station wagon had begun to fade from prominence with the most successful replacements coming from Japan and Germany.

Even though the minivan is in essence an advanced version of the station wagon, the traditional concept began to fade rapidly after 1984 and had, for all intents and purposes, disappeared by the early 1990's.

But the most telling effect of the 1984 Voyager on the auto industry and society can be found in the addition of a new phrase to the American lexicon – minivan.

James Hinckley is the Miner's automotive and travel writer.