The History of the Automobile: The Impact of the Automobile on the 20th Century

Publicat deIoana Ioana

Starting in the late 1700’s, European engineers began tinkering with motor powered vehicles. Steam, combustion, and electrical motors had all been attempted by the mid 1800’s. By the 1900’s, it was uncertain which type of engine would power the automobile. At first, the electric car was the most popular, but at the time a battery did not exist that would allow a car to move with much speed or over a long distance. Even though some of the earlier speed records were set by electric cars, they did not stay in production past the first decade of the 20th century.

The steam-driven automobile lasted into 1920’s. However, the price on steam powered engines, either to build or maintain was incomparable to the gas powered engines. Not only was the price a problem, but the risk of a boiler explosion also kept the steam engine from becoming popular. The combustion engine continually beat out the competition, and the early American automobile pioneers like Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford built reliable combustion engines, rejecting the ideas of steam or electrical power from the start.

Automotive production on a commercial scale started in France in 1890. Commercial production in the United States began at the beginning of the 1900’s and was equal to that of Europe’s. In those days, the European industry consisted of small independent firms that would turn out a few cars by means of precise engineering and handicraft methods. The American automobile plants were assembly line operations, which meant using parts made by independent suppliers and putting them together at the plant. In the early 1900’s, the United States had about 2,000 firms producing one or more cars. By 1920 the number of firms had decreased to about 100 and by 1929 to 44. In 1976 the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association had only 11 members. The same situation occurred in Europe and Japan.

The first automobile produced for the masses in the US was the three-horsepower, curved-dash Oldsmobile; 425 of them were sold in 1901 and 5,000 in 1904–this model is still prized by collectors. The firm prospered, and it was noted by others, and, from 1904 to 1908, 241 automobile-manufacturing firms went into business in the United States. One of these was the Ford Motor Company which was organized in June 1903, and sold its first car on the following July 23. The company produced 1,700 cars during its first full year of business. Henry Ford produced the Model T to be an economical car for the average American. By 1920 Ford sold over a million cars.

At the beginning of the century the automobile entered the transportation market as a toy for the rich. However, it became increasingly popular among the general population because it gave travelers the freedom to travel when they wanted to and where they wanted. As a result, in North America and Europe the automobile became cheaper and more accessible to the middle class.

Popularity of the automobile has consistently moved with the state of the economy, growing during the boom period after World War I and dropping abruptly during the Great Depression, when unemployment was high. World War II saw a large increase in mass transit because employment was high and automobiles were scarce. The rapid growth of car owners after World War II, particularly in the United States and Western Europe demonstrated the population’s favor towards automobiles. During the war, automobile motors, fuel, and tires were in short supply. There was an unsatisfied demand when the war ended and plenty of production capacity as factories turned off the war machine. Many people had saved money because there was little to buy, beyond necessities, in the war years. Workers relied heavily on mass transportation during the war and longed for the freedom and flexibility of the automobile.

A historian has said that Henry Ford freed common people from the limitations of their geography. The automobile created mobility on a scale never known before, and the total effect on living habits and social customs is endless. In the days of horse-drawn transportation, the practical limit of wagon travel was 10 to 15 miles, so that meant any community or individual farm more than 15 miles from a city, a railroad, or a navigable waterway was isolated from the mainstream of economic and social life. Motor vehicles and paved roads have narrowed the gap between rural and urban life. Farmers can ship easily and economically by truck and can drive to town when it is convenient. In addition, such institutions as regional schools and hospitals are now accessible by bus and car.

Yet, the effect on city life has been, if anything, more prominent than the effect on the farms. The automobile has radically changed city life by accelerating the outward expansion of population into the suburbs. The suburban trend is emphasized by the fact that highway transportation encourages business and industry to move outward to sites where land is cheaper, where access by car and truck is easier than in crowded cities, and where space is available for their one or two story structures. Better roads were constructed, which further increased travel throughout the nation. As with other automobile-related phenomena, the trend is most noticeable in the United States but is rapidly appearing elsewhere in the world.

Before the automobile, people both lived in the city and worked in the city, or lived in the country and worked on a farm. Because of the automobile, the growth of suburbs has allowed people to live on the outskirts of the city and be able to work in the city by commuting. New jobs due to the impact of the automobile such as fast food, city/highway construction, state patrol/police, convenience stores, gas stations, auto repair shops, auto shops, etc. allow more employment for the world’s growing population.


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