It is a funny thing how the passing of time warps and twists history until the perception of the past bears little resemblance to the reality.
The dominance of the legendary and iconic '57 Chevy at car shows, as well as among collectors, would lend one to believe that this car was a hot seller when new. The reality is the redesigned Ford that year was the king of the hill in regards to sales.
In that same year, the performance king for sedans was the Rambler Rebel. Rambler and Studebaker were the economy champions. When was the last time you saw a Rambler Rebel or '57 Ford?
The "See the USA in your Chevrolet" and "Hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" marketing campaigns elevated Chevrolet from mere transportation to America icon. Few remember that in 1923, extensive problems with the air-cooled Chevrolet resulted in the first automotive recall.
From an automotive perspective, the current obsession with hybrids, the Chevy Volt, and other "green" vehicles represents another manifestation of historical myopia and amnesia. If one were to rush to judgment based solely on the press releases, the advertisements and the general hype surrounding these cars, the only conclusion to be drawn is that these represent the dawn of a new era.
In actuality, this is merely the second act of a play that began more than a century ago. These vehicles simply represent the application of modern technology to old ideas.
Ransom Olds' first vehicles utilized steam engines. The first tentative automotive ventures of Studebaker were with the production of an electric vehicle designed by Thomas Edison. Steam-powered vehicles built by White were the first automobiles purchased for the White House motor pool and the first automobile officially used in a presidential inaugural parade.
On the track as well as in hill climbs and other feats of endurance, early proponents of gasoline engines for automotive applications literally were left in the dust by steam-powered vehicles. In 1906, Fred Marriott, at the wheel of a special bodied Stanley, established a world's land-speed record of 127.66 mph.
Devised in 1908 to promote the need for improved roads as well as the viability of gasoline-powered automobiles, the grueling Los Angeles to Phoenix Desert Classic "Cactus Derby" represented a true challenge to the durability of machine as well as man. Much to the embarrassment of the organizers, the winner of the first race was F.C. Fenner at the wheel of a four-year-old White-built "steamer."
Initially, steam-powered automobiles dominated the automobile industry. An advertisement for the 1903 Jaxon succinctly explained the reasons for this: "Steam is reliable and easily understood."
Electric vehicle manufacturers also built a great deal of promotion on the ease of operation. One company went so far as to proclaim their vehicles were so easy to operate, "... a child or women could drive it."
Electric vehicles had two primary shortcomings - limited range of operation and weight. Quite often, the batteries alone weighed in excess of 1,000 pounds.
Steam-powered vehicles provided customers with more freedom in regards to distance, but they too had numerous shortcomings. Chief among these was the time required to build adequate pressure for operation, often a half hour. Then there was the mandatory maintenance and cleaning of the boiler to ensure safe and efficient operation.
Though several companies continued limited production of electric vehicles for urban usage through the 1930s, the zenith for electric vehicles, until the modern era and the GM EV-1, was the Woods Dual Power of 1916. At speeds below 15 miles per hour, the four-cylinder gasoline engine idled and electric motors propelled the vehicle; the Woods Dual Power was a hybrid!
The steam-powered automobile reached its zenith with the third generation Doble produced from 1923 to 1931. To say the very least, the Doble was a highly advanced vehicle.
It featured a flash boiler system with a burner lit electrically with the push of a button on the dash that produced operational steam pressure in less than two minutes. A condenser integrated into an ingenious system for recycling water allowed the car to travel 1,500 miles on 24 gallons of water.
The compound engine allowed for phenomenal performance. Zero to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds, and tests as well as owners attested to top speeds in excess of 100 mph and this was from a car that weighed nearly 5,000 pounds!
The downside was fuel economy, about 16 miles per gallon of kerosene, and cost. In an era when a new Ford sold for less than $500, the Doble sold for more than $8,000 and the company still was not turning a profit!
By 1905, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the gasoline engine was a more viable option than either steam or electricity for automobile development. Still, a number of factors, including the danger and inconvenience of crank-starting, hindered the development of the gasoline-powered automobile.
The introduction of the electric starter, developed by Charles Kettering on the 1912 Cadillac, served as the death knell for electric as well as steam-powered vehicles. Cheap oil and gasoline hastened their demise.
The latter, as well as successful marketing, were key components in the American consumer's abandonment of "alternative energy" vehicles. Today, guilt rather than education or common sense is the catalyst for the "green" movement among the consumer.
As a result, we have assurance that a century from today historians will look at our era in amazement and disbelief. I can here them now as they wonder why we didn't develop urban planning that made the use of electric vehicles and bicycles practical, or why we didn't apply and develop technologies that enhanced historic efforts to achieve fuel economy with gasoline engines.
This leads us to another automotive myth; older cars were not fuel-efficient. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact, many vintage vehicles deliver better average fuel economy than their modern counterparts.
In August of 1954, Dodge introduced a 241-c.i.d. V8 engine option for its light duty truck models. A truck with this motor was tested 50,000 miles in 50 days without mechanical failure, and at the Bonneville Salt Flats under AAA supervision, accelerated from zero to 60 in 17 seconds.
Then, again under AAA supervision, it was driven from the Salt Flats to Pikes Peak in Colorado with a 500-pound payload, a driver and passenger. The average fuel economy for the trip was 22.21 mpg.
The 1953 Studebaker 2R6 pickup truck delivered an average of 20 mpg under supervised testing. This truck also turned in a zero-to-60 time of 14.95 seconds.
Some models of Rambler- and Hudson-built cars in the 1950s delivered in excess of 25 mpg. Economy tests for the 1956 Ford Fairlane, with V8 engine, three-speed transmission and overdrive, indicated an average of 23.25 mpg. The diminutive, and archaic, Crosley-built vehicle during the 1940s and early 1950s was able to touch the golden 40 mpg in numerous tests.
Without proper historic perspective, it is quite easy to believe these really are the best, or the worst, of times. Without knowledge of the past, costly mistakes are made and we will really believe that Cash for Clunkers is about saving the environment.
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Jim Hinckley is an associate editor for Cars & Parts magazine and the author of numerous books including "The Big Book of Car Culture," the bronze medal recipient at the 2006 International Automotive Media Awards. In addition, he maintains a daily blog on automotive topics at www.route66chronicles.blogspot.com
Recommended reading on this topic:
American Automobile Advertising, 1930-1980: An Illustrated History; Heon Stevenson; 294 pages; 282 photos; hardcover; $75; 978-0-7864-3685-9; McFarland Publishing (www.mcfarlandpub.com)
The Automobile and American Life; John Heitman; 260 pages; 44 photos; soft cover; $39.95; 978-0-7864-4013-9; McFarland Publishing (www.mcfarlandpub.com)