From the perspective of the first decade in the 21st century, it is relatively easy to imagine an America without an American auto industry. General Motors and Chrysler are one step from following Studebaker and Hudson into the history books. Ford is no longer on life support, but it is still in intensive care.
We now see the automobile as the root of all manner of evil from environmental degradation to the demise of the great cities. We demand cars that are little more than motorized cup holders laden with all manner of electronic gadgetry and bemoan the high cost of repair associated with them. With the illusion of protecting the environment as our guide, we succumb to guilt and buy boring vehicles that will not deliver the fuel economy of a 1958 Rambler.
We are also now a nation with a split personality. At the same time, we embrace an unfettered romanticism for Route 66, the muscle car and the hot rod. We zip along the generic interstate highway in a climate-controlled cocoon and quietly plan for a vacation on the Lincoln Highway. What a difference a century makes!
In the mid 1890s, an automobile, a Duryea motor wagon, received top billing over the albino and the fat lady at the Barnum and Bailey Circus and drew record-breaking crowds. One decade later, an automobile built by the Stanley Brothers was driven to a new land speed record of nearly 150 mph, and the automobile industry as a whole was a multi-million dollar a year business.
In the first years of the 20th century, the perception was that European-built automobiles were of better quality than their American counterparts. In 1912, William Durant had hoped to capitalize on that perception by linking his newest manufacturing concern with a popular Swiss-born mechanic and race car driver, Louis Chevrolet.
In 1920, three out of five vehicles on the road in the entire world wore the Ford name. A study organized by a consortium of automobile manufacturers that year found more families owned an automobile than had indoor plumbing.
By the teens, Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow dominated the American luxury car market and were garnering a large share of that market internationally. In the vast British Empire during the early 1920s, Packard often outsold Rolls Royce.
Studebaker, once a world leader in the manufacturing of horse-drawn equipment, was by this time a leader in the development of automotive technologies. Their initial offering, an electric car designed by Thomas Edison, had given way to large stylish vehicles with a reputation for durability.
In 1909, manufacturers in this country produced 828,000 horse-drawn vehicles and less than 125,000 automobiles. By 1929, two short decades later, the American auto industry had transformed American society, forever altered the landscape of cities and villages and swept the horse-drawn vehicle from center stage.
With the introduction of an electric starter as standard equipment by Cadillac in 1912, Americans abandoned electric- and steam-powered automobiles. Ease of operation and freedom to travel unfettered by limited range more than the price of fuel led to the demise of the first-generation alternative vehicles.
Freed from the constraints of steam- or electric-powered vehicles, and with a rapidly rising standard of living, Americans took to the roads in ever-increasing numbers. In turn, this fueled an explosion in the development of supportive infrastructure.
In 1903, standard equipment for those who traveled by automobile was a funnel and cloth for straining impurities from fuel. In 1905, Sylvanus Bowser of the Bowser Pump Company patented the first suction pump that filtered fuel and that allowed for direct dispensing of fuel into automotive tanks. The age of the service station had arrived.
In 1919, the world's first tricolor traffic signal introduced to regulate the chaos on city streets that was a by-product of an explosion in automobile ownership appeared on the streets of Detroit. Ten years later, the first cloverleaf interchange opened in Woodbridge, N.J., and the government was averaging 10,000 miles of paved highway construction annually.
AAA ramped up its efforts to standardize highway signage and to lobby the federal government for increased involvement in the development of an all-weather highway system. Still, portions of legendary U.S. 66 were not fully paved until 1936, when the last dusty stretches near Hackberry, Ariz., were buried under a ribbon of asphalt.
With the introduction of the federal highway system in 1926, utilization of numerical signage with odd numbers for north and south roadways, even numbers for those that ran east and west, the former confusing and conflicting system of local designations was resolved. It also allowed clever entrepreneurial promoters to spotlight their communities to travelers and tourists by joining forces with like-minded individuals in other communities through the creation of associations to market a specific highway.
On rare occasions, these efforts would take on a life of their own, and the highway, as well the communities along its route, would develop a larger-than-life persona. The iconic nature of Route 66 today is a direct result of the Herculean efforts of Cyrus Avery in the 1920s.
Words like motel and Duesey, a comparative to the amazing prowess of the Duesenberg, transformed the American lexicon. Billboards and Burma Shave signs urbanized rural roadsides. The words to jingles and slogans such as "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet" and "Ask the man who owns one" became better known than the national anthem.
Throughout America, the past and the future came together in a collision of chrome, asphalt and rubber as the automobile exploded on to the scene. In Clarkdale, Ariz., in 1928, legendary frontier-era lawman Jim Roberts took on outlaws Earl Nelson and Willard Forester as they attempted their getaway in a Hudson. Tap Duncan, another legend of the old west with ties to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, met his end in the crosswalk of a busy intersection in Kingman in 1948.
In July of 1919, to promote the need for good roads and to test the feasibility of long-distance motorized military transport, a huge convoy consisting of motorized machine shops, motorcycles and scout vehicles left Washington, D.C., for California. After weeks of building roads, strengthening bridges, using mules to pull vehicles from mire and repairing vehicles, the convoy arrived in San Francisco during the first week in September. The journey enthused Lt. Dwight D. Eisenhower with a passion for an all-weather road system that would become manifest during the 1950s in the interstate highway system.
Within one generation, we became an automotive nation. Within 30 years, America and the automobile were so intertwined that more than 80 percent of the population earned their income, directly or indirectly, from the automobile industry.
The transition of the American automobile industry as well as American society during the first decades of the 20th century is staggering to contemplate. Only the rapid transformation of society and technology through the development of the personal computer and the Internet can compare.
With the demise of the American auto industry looming, we stand on the cusp of an era of even greater and faster transition. The question is, what form will this transition take and how will it transform our society as we are still a motorized nation with a deep rooted love/hate relationship for our automobiles?
Perhaps the answers for the problems which confront the auto industry, or the industry that will replace it, are found in our past. From that perspective, perhaps the past is really a mirror that enables us to see the future.
If you enjoyed this feature, I recommend:
Breaking The Banks In Motor City
By Darwyn Lumley
The Big Book of Car Culture
By Jon G. Robinson and Jim Hinckley
The American Highway: The History and Culture of Roads in the United States
By William Kaszynski