The Americans’ love for their cars is truly unique. Yes, the Japanese have their Kei cars and roadsters, while the Europeans are known for manufacturing well-known, prestigious cars. But there’s something about Americans and their bond with their vehicle that you won’t be able to find in other cultures. In fact, according to a study, the majority of car owners in the country consider their vehicle a member of the family. Where else can you see that, right?
This article will examine in detail the history of American cars, from the model T Ford and the moving assembly line to the development of iconic American car manufacturers such as General Motors, Chevrolet, Dodge, Chrysler, and Ford, among others. A section will also highlight the developments and changes in the modern American car industry, with a particular emphasis on electric-powered cars.
The First American Car
The first American car was built in 1893 by Charles and Frank Duryea. Operating from Springfield, Massachusetts, the Duryea brothers built the “Duryea Motor Wagon.” They road-tested it in September 1893 by driving it down the main street of Springfield under the cover of darkness.
After the successful trial of the first horseless carriage, the Duryea brothers found some venture capitalists willing to invest. They started manufacturing cars in the Ames manufacturing plant, where they had been previously employed as bicycle mechanics. By 1905 the Duryea brothers employed over 50 workers, producing sixty cars a year, and they are generally considered the first American car manufacturers.
In 1897, in what can only be described as a moment of fortuitous foresight in the evolution of automobiles, the Studebaker Corporation opened a subsidiary in South Bend, Indiana, specifically for building motorized vehicles.
Studebaker evolved rapidly, and in 1902, the company released its first electric-powered vehicle. In 1904, they released their first gasoline-powered vehicle. Unlike the Duryea brothers, the Studebaker South End plant continued to produce cars for another 61 years until December 20, 1963.
Throughout the 50s and into the 60s, Studebaker cars were a household name across the length and breadth of the American mainland, and they are responsible for some of the most iconic American-made cars.
Henry Ford and the Mass Production Assembly Line
Arguably the biggest name in the American automotive industry is the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford and his partner Alexander Malcomson invested $28,000 and founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903.
The first Ford car assembled was the Model A in 1903 at the Mack Avenue manufacturing plant. And then, five years later, the iconic Model T Ford was introduced.
No history of American cars is complete without mentioning the Model T Ford. The Model T was the first automobile manufactured using the new assembly line process, revolutionizing automobile production throughout America and the world.
Henry Ford’s moving assembly line for cars significantly decreased production time and production costs. As a result, the number of Model T’s rolling out of the factory increased, and the purchasing price decreased. In 1908 a Model T would cost $850, but by 1925 this price had decreased to $300. In short, the assembly line process meant that cars could be produced more quickly and sold for a lesser price.
The Golden Era: 1950’s and 60’s
The fifties and sixties are generally regarded as the golden era in the history of American cars. It was when the “big three,” General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, bought the smaller car manufacturers and consolidated as the three major American automobile manufacturers.
In the 1950s, the big three dominated car manufacturing and were responsible for 90% of all car sales on the American mainland. The 50s were a time of unprecedented growth in the car industry, as is demonstrated by the number of people employed and the car sales. For example, it is estimated that the American car industry in the 1950s employed one-sixth of the available workforce, and car sales rose to over 57 million.
The Malaise Era: 1970s & 1980s
Whereas the 1950s were a period of growth and innovation, the 1970s and 80s were known as the Malaise Era. Several separate events combined to make the decade one of slower market growth and lower production levels and sales.
In the 70s Asian and European car manufacturers such as Toyota and Volkswagen made significant inroads into the American market, rapidly increasing their market share. The 70s and 80s also saw the price of oil increase substantially due to oil embargoes from Arabian countries, which caused consumers to veer towards smaller engine cars with increased miles to the gallon.
After two decades of inconsistent sales and industry growth, the 1990s ushered in a new period of growth for the American auto industry. According to the US Bureau of Statistics, the US auto industry was divided into three segments: motor vehicle assembly, manufacturing parts, and car stampings. The 1990s also saw consistent growth in labor productivity from 1991 to 1998.
None of us can gaze into a crystal ball and see the future of the American automotive industry. However, by looking at innovations of the recent past, it is possible to make educated guesses as to what the future may hold. In the case of the automotive industry, the future will likely be associated with internet connectivity, smart cars, and electric vehicles.
For example, autonomous self-driving cars with electronic recognition are already being produced by American car companies. Other technological features that we can expect to see in the future include:
- 5G-connected cars
- Advanced digital navigation systems
- Easier access to entertainment sites and apps
- New and improved digitally based safety features
- Enhanced electronic security features
- Flying or hovering cars
The history of the American automotive industry has been dominated by technological innovation, boom-bust economic cycles, consolidation, and mergers. Americans did not invent the car, but they did industrialize its production and dominated the global car industry for at least half a century. The car industry is also one of the biggest industries in America’s manufacturing sector and, despite extensive mechanization, one of the biggest employers.
The American car industry has a tumultuous history. However, one thing has remained consistent: Americans’ love for their cars. American cars have developed beyond a means of transportation into iconic symbols representing American power, strength, ingenuity, and technological advancement, and they have even become status symbols.
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