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Automobile:from Horse To Horsepower Essay, Research Paper

"In the first hundred years of active life, it has been described as a menace ands a blessing, a blight and a godsend, as a savior of our countryside and cities, and as their curse, as socially divisive and the greatest social leveler. It has been worshipped and reviled, celebrated and scorned." The automobile is an invention that has had a tremendous impact on society. The automobile has taken diverse segments of the American population; farmers, small town residents and urban dwellers and given them access to the same opportunities and experiences. Autos have given us motels, shopping plazas, drive-thru?s, vacations, commuting, and, certainly not the least, suburbia. The genesis of the automobile is one of the most profound and important chapters in the development of American culture.

Before the automobile, people traveled by means of bicycles, trains, street cars and horse-drawn carriages. These methods of transportation were slow, limited and not private. Up until the about 1880, inventors experimented with building a "horseless carriage." These experiments were powered mainly by steam, and were not practical. They traveled at slow speeds (six miles an hour), were very noisy, frightened horses, smelled awful and polluted the air. Sometimes the coals (used to make steam) would fall off the auto, and burn wooden bridges down. Railroads and stage coach lines hated the automobiles because they did not want competition. Autos were scarce and ridiculed by most of the population. "The car began life as a rich man?s toy, rather than a means of transport or as an instrument of social change." They were displayed in circuses because they were considered a wacky idea with no future. The development and acceptance of the automobile in America took place around the turn of the century, from 1895 to 1910.

The most successful steam car was the Stanley Steamer, invented in Newton, Massachusetts in 1897 by Francis and Freelan Stanley. It was produced until 1924. The steam car did not fare well because it was not suited for long distance travel, was too hard to start and posed the hazard of an open fire. In the late 1890?s and early 1900?s the electric car was the most popular type of automobile. William Morrison was the creator of this type of car. People liked the electric car because it was easy to operate, ran quietly and did not give off fumes. Unfortunately for modern society, the electric cars could not go faster than 20 miles an hour, and the battery had to be recharged every fifty miles. The electric car lost popularity because of these two problems which were overcome with the invention of the gas powered engine in 1879, by George B. Selden of Rochester, New York.

"The first gasoline powered vehicle, an experimental model, was not built until the 1860?s, and gasoline automobiles were not produced commercially in this country until a few years before the start of the twentieth century." The patent on Selden?s internal combustion engine was not granted until 1895, and it was this patent that had a profound revolutionary effect on the fledgling automobile industry.

Charles and J. Frank Duryea were the most notable of the pioneers of the gasoline automobile. The Duryea Motor Company produced the first gas powered car in 1893 – 1894. In 1896, they produced thirteen identical cars, the beginning of mass automobile production in the United States. Only one of these cars remains today, in the Smithsonian institution. Autos in Europe were touted as being superior to the American car. A slightly different model of the Duryea won a road race in England proving that American automobile development was on a par with European efforts.

The work of Henry Ford, Elwood Haynes, Stephen Balzer, Charles Brady King, and Ransom Olds in experimenting with gasoline engines, was beginning to change the perception of the car by the American people. They built many test automobiles during the 1890?s. Haynes invented the carburetor and muffler, which improved the automobile. He also invented a cobalt metal alloy named Stellite which was important in metal working tools. Ransom Olds developed the first US car to be sold abroad. He founded the Olds Motor Works in Detroit in 1899. He pioneered the development of a light weight, one cylinder, inexpensive car called the "Curved Dash." Many thousands of these cars were sold by 1906. In 1904 Olds left the Olds Motor Works and formed the Reo Motor Company. Many people consider him to be the founder of the American auto industry.

Two developments spurred the growth of the automobile industry in 1901. Gasoline prices were reduced as a result of oil fields discovered in Texas. The supply of gasoline was greatly increased so that automobiles could be operated inexpensively. The other development was the advent of mass production and the use of assembly lines.

Ransom Olds built the first factory specifically for manufacturing cars. Unfortunately, it burned down in 1900. Olds arranged for outside machine shops to manufacture the engines and transmissions for his cars. The parts were brought to the factory and were wheeled from one worker to another to be assembled. In 1901, 425 cars were produced, in 1902, 3750 cars were made and in 1903, 5000 cars were produced. Other manufacturers began to use mass production techniques.

A important enhancement to mass production came when Henry M. Leland, the president of Cadillac Automobile Company, came up with the idea for interchangeable parts. Interchangeable parts can be used in any car of the same model. Up to this point, parts were made to fit only one car so that repairing or replacing a part was very difficult. Leland proved the value of his theory by sending three cars of the same type to England. Mechanics took the cars apart, jumbled the parts together and then reassembled the cars successfully.

The "horseless carriage" era of automobile manufacturing came to an end in 1906. That year the United States took over world leadership of the automobile industry. The Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Buick plants set records for motor car production. Production increased by 25%, and the plants turned out 32,200 cars. Automobile production increased by 25% again in 1907. Cadillac and Buick began producing large powerful cars which were accepted by the public. The Ford Motor Company slipped unnoticed into the growing automotive industry. While steam and electric cars were still manufactured, the gas powered automobile was clearly the future of the automotive industry.

Henry Ford became a prominent figure in the automotive industry in 1905. Ford had experimented for years with cars. Before establishing the Ford Motor Company, he had little commercial success in the motor car industry. He founded the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899, but it went out of business in 1902. The Henry Ford Company lasted for one year, from 1901 to 1902. He formed the Ford Motor Company in 1903, when the market for motor cars was bountiful. Cadillac and Buick could not keep up with the demand for cars, so Ford stepped right in.. "With twenty-eight thousand dollars in cash, the Ford Motor Company was founded, and only one month later the bank balance showed just two hundred twenty-three dollars and sixty-five cents. At about this time, they sold their very first car at the full price of eight hundred and fifty dollars…within a year, the directors shared nearly one hundred thousand dollars in dividends."

Ford believed that producing an affordable car was the key to success in the growing automotive market. Ford produced the Model T in 1908. The car was originally sold for $850.00. The price was reduced to as low as $400.00 in 1916. Ford was able to produce the inexpensive high quality cars because he used and improved on the modern manufacturing techniques, pioneered by Olds and Leland. A little known fact is that the Dodge Brothers, who later formed the Dodge Motor Company in 1915, ran a machine shop in Detroit. Ford contracted with them to build engines and transmissions for his Model T. The Dodger brothers built the insides of more than 500,000 Model Ts. Ford introduced the moving assembly line, where parts were put on conveyor belts and moved from work station to work station. He sold more than 15,000,000 Model T?s from 1908 to 1927. More than half the cars in America during this time period were Model T?s.

"The appearance of the Model T is generally regarded as the milestone in the transition of the car from its role as a ?toy of the rich? to a ?tool of the people.?" The advent of the Model T allowed new levels of society to buy and experience the benefits of owning a car. The Model T or "Tin Lizzie " as it was otherwise known was the culmination of all earlier efforts to, in effect, build the perfect car. Unlike in Europe, where the auto remained a luxury, the Model T became ?everyman?s car?, and changed the American cultural landscape. The Model T first appeared in 1908, and was produced with almost no change until 1927. About 15,000,000 Model Ts were sold in this time period.

The engine of the Model T was a four cylinder, four cycle, water cooled L-head unit. It had 22.5 horsepower. The transmission provided two forward speeds and reverse. The driver controlled the forward speeds with the left pedal, the reverse with the center pedal and the transmission brake with the right pedal. There was a lever to operate the rear wheel brakes. By combining the use of the pedals and the lever the driver could control the speed of the car.

The car weighed a little more than 1,200 pounds. The wheels were wooden spoke wheels mounted on clincher tires. The body was made of wood and metal and the seats were upholstered in tufted black leather. The car had three doors, two in the back, and one in the front opposite the driver. There was a folding windshield, a collapsible top, a horn and kerosene tail and side lamps. There was no spare tire. The gas tank was beneath the front seat.

The advertising campaign for the Model T read as follows: "The same old Ford Company has been manufacturing Ford cars designed by Henry Ford, since the very earliest days of the industry. The first automobile ever seen in Detroit was a Ford. One of the first half dozen built in America was designed and built by Ford; 40,000 Ford cars have since been built and all have made good. There never was a Ford failure – there never was an unfulfilled Ford promise and the years have built up a reputation for Ford that it would be folly to risk at this late date." The mass production techniques of the Model T were applied to other industries to manufacture their products more efficiently. An example of this is the production of gas powered farm equipment, such as the tractor. The whole concept of manufacturing was turned on its ear. Assembly lines and mass production became the norm.

Another major event with far reaching consequences occurred in the car industry in 1908. William G. Durant, a former carriage maker, formed General Motors, combining Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, Oakland and seven other companies. The rise of the company was slow but steady. One of the biggest contributions of General Motors to the development of the car was the invention of the electric starter in 1912. This made the starting and operation of a car much easier and much safer. General Motors achieved success in the 1920?s, when the popularity of the Model T waned. Today General Motors is the nation?s largest auto manufacturer.

By 1908 the automobile industry was a success. Modern manufacturing techniques, the gasoline powered engine, affordable fuel and acceptance by the American people all combined to make the automobile part of our world. There were many people in addition to those mentioned in the report who contributed to the success of the automobile. Listed below are some of these people with a brief description of their contributions:

David Buick – developed the original Buick, the first car to demonstrate and popularize the valve-in-head engine, now used in all American cars.

Louis Chevrolet – chief engineer of the first Chevrolet motor cars. These were six cylinder, heavy, beautiful and expensive cars. Chevrolet has made more transportation vehicles than any other manufacturer.

Walter Chrysler – founder and first president of the Chrysler Corporation. He added Dodge to the Chrysler Corporation. He was president of Buick and vice president of GM.

James Couzens – early business manager of Ford Motor Company. He held Ford?s respect, was pivotal in the financial dealings of the company. He helped hold together the company during the manufacture of the Model T.

John and Horace Dodge – produced parts for Oldsmobile and Ford. Developed the Dodge motorcar, the motor cars used by the United States Army.

Charles F. Kettering – developed the first electrical self starter now used in all cars. A force in demanding the establishment of automotive research as equally important as manufacturing and marketing cars.

Henry Leland – developed the Cadillac and the Lincoln. His machine shop produced motorcar parts with excellent precision. Introduced the concept of interchangeable parts. He invented the electrical system of the motorcar.

Charles W. Nash – executive of Durant-Dort Carriage Company, became president of Buick and General Motors. Established the Nash Motor Company.

James W. Packard – designed and introduced the Packard in 1899 in Warren, Ohio. The Packard became the American luxury car between the two World Wars. It was sold for 59 years from 1899 to 1958

C. Harold Wills – engineer and designer who worked with Henry Ford to develop the Model T. He urged the use of lighter steel alloys in making cars. He created the Willis-St. Clair car, one of the luxury cars of the 1920?s.

John N. Willys – founded and ran the Willys Overland Company for twenty years. He sold more cars in competition with the Model T than any other company.

Alexander Winton – designed and produced the third successful internal combustion motor car . The Winton was the first luxury car to be produced in the US before World War I. It was produced from 1896 to 1925.

From Horse to Horsepower is an appropriate name for this era. In 1865, the common method of transportation was the horse and buggy. By 1908, it was apparent that the automobile was the transportation of the future. The automobile had radically changed America, and has become a symbol of modern times. Today over seven million automobiles are produced in the U.S. as well as over three million trucks and buses. The automobile industry is the leading manufacturing industry in the Unites States and is the primary customer of many other industries. For instance the auto industry buys 15% of all steel, 62% of all lead, and 65% of all the rubber manufactured and processed in the United States. About thirteen million Americans are employed by the auto industry and related businesses. The automobile has a spawned many other industries and created millions of other jobs. Examples are the Federal Highway Systems, state and local road systems and the workers who care for these roads. A familiar example of a small business developed because of the automobile is snow plowing, a very lucrative part time occupation in this part of the United States. All this is the result of the ingenuity and creativity of the turn of the century automotive pioneers.


1) Berkebile, Donald & Oliver, Smith The Smithsonian Collection of Automobiles and Motorcycles, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968

2) Burness, Tad, The Auto Album, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

3) Crabb, Richard, Birth of a Giant, New York: Chilton Book Company, 1969

4) Hill, Frank The Automobile How it Came, Grew, and Has Changed Our Lives, New York: Dodd, Mead and co., 1967.

5) Hendry, P.G. Vintage and Veteran Cars, New York: Arco Publishing Company, Inc,1974

6) Ludvigsen, Karl & Wise, David The Encyclopedia of the American Automobile Secaucus,, NJ: Chartwell Books, Inc., 1977.

7) Pettifer, Julian & Turner, Nigel Automania, Great Britain: Little, Brown & Company, 1984.

8) Sedgewick, James Early Cars London: Octopus Publishing, 1962.

9) The World Book Encyclopedia, Chicago: World Book, Inc., 1997

*Picture of Model T Ford from Vintage and Veteran Cars by P.G. Hendry.


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