A Brief History
On September 20, 1893, Charles Duryea and his brother, J. Frank Duryea, tested their gasoline powered automobile, the first gasoline powered car in the United States. Since that historic day, Americans have been building and buying cars and other motor vehicles like no other country on Earth. Here today we list 10 Amazing Facts About American Cars, their history of manufacture, sales, performance and the like.
1. First Ever Automobile, 1885-1886.
Karl Benz of Germany came out with his Benz-Patent-Motorwagen a whopping 7 years before the Duryeas made the first American gasoline powered auto. Benz used a 1 liter gasoline engine that produced only 2/3 horsepower! This first “car” was a 3 wheel oddity. Steam powered automobiles (experimental) had been made as early as the late 17th Century and during the 18th Century, and the first electric cars also pre-dated gasoline powered cars, with a hazy beginning as early as 1828 or 1834. Thomas Davenport of Vermont made the first demonstration electric car in the United States in 1834.
2. Ford Model T, 1908.
By the time Henry Ford started producing the Model T, the United States had become the epicenter of the automobile explosion, with his humble car, only in black, being the world’s first mass produced car on the assembly line. Because of economy of production, normal people could afford the price of a Model T, originally priced at $825, but reaching a low of $260 apiece in 1925. Powered by a 20 horsepower engine, top speed was only 45 mph, but for that time and the roads available, 45 mph was fast enough. Ford made 15 million of his Model T’s ending in 1927, for many years the most produced automobile in history until passed by the Volkswagen Beetle. The first year for colors other than black was 1926, too late to revive the Model T’s lagging sales.
3. Curved Dash Olds, 1901.
Technically, Ransom E. Olds produced the first “assembly line” car with his 1901 Curved Dash Olds, but his version of the assembly line was so primitive compared to Ford’s that Ford is generally regarded as the first to use the “modern” assembly line. Only 19,000 of the Curved Dash (or Number 6) Oldsmobile were produced until 1907.
4. Ford Ruled the Automotive World, 1908-1927.
During the late teens and early 1920’s, about half of all the cars in the entire world were Fords! The Model T became so commonplace that ownership lost any bragging rights, and the public was willing to pay more for another car that would be more distinct. “A Ford is like a bathtub, useful, but you don’t want to be seen in one.” This led to the Model A from 1927 to 1931, which produced 40 horsepower and a top speed of 65 mph, huge improvements over the Model T. Ford was the first automobile brand to be manufactured in factories all over the world, as by the 1920’s and 1930’s Ford plants were building Model A’s in 6 states and 10 foreign countries (including England, Japan, Russia and Iceland). Unlike the Model T, the Model A was built in many levels of luxury and utility to appeal to a wider consumer base.
5. The V-8 Engine, 1932.
Once again, Ford was at the forefront when they offered the first mass production commercially successful V-8 engine, the preferred engine and car combination of both police and criminals. If either side of the law did not have a Ford V-8, they would lose. The ‘flathead” V-8 (side valve) was built in the US from 1932 to 1953 when it became surpassed by more modern overhead valve designs, but continued to be built in foreign countries as late as 1973. Better cooling, reliability and more power from the overhead valve engines spelled the end of the Flathead V-8.
6. Electric Cars originally ruled in the US, 1891-1910.
In 1891 William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, built a 6 passenger electric car capable of 14 mph. By 1895 Americans were playing catch up to Europe with development of electric cars, and in 1897 New York City had electric taxi cabs (12 to 68 at a time). Smoother and quieter running than gasoline powered cars, electric cars were preferred by the more wealthy city folks that did not have to travel long distances. Innovations in gasoline powered cars that did in the electric car craze included the invention of the muffler by Hiram Maxim (yes, the machine gun guy) in 1897, the mass production assembly line by Henry Ford in 1908, and the invention of the electric starter in 1912 by Charles Kettering. In 1912, an electric car cost double what a gasoline engine car cost, a sure recipe for disaster.
7. Charles Kettering, greatest automotive inventor, 1876-1958.
Born in Loudonville, Ohio (Ashland County), Kettering is one of the great Ohio inventors. Attending the College of Wooster and The Ohio State University, Kettering is best known for his work with General Motors and Delco, as well as DuPont. He invented the electric self-starter, eliminating the need for hand cranking car engines to start them, one of the really big innovations in automobile history. He also invented leaded gasoline which enabled much more powerful engines, Freon gas for auto air conditioners, and the Duco automotive colored paint that made cars lose their flat black dreariness. The 1912 Cadillac was the first production car offered with an electric self-starting motor installed. Kettering also developed the modern electrical system in cars, with the ignition, lights and starter all tied into the battery and an engine driven generator system.
8. The US has the most cars (Sort of…).
Although the United States has over 250 million motor vehicles on the road and China has 290 million motor vehicles (cars, trucks, buses, but not motorcycles), the US has the most passenger cars (9 passengers or less). On the other hand, the US ranks only 3rd in the world in per capita motor vehicles (behind San Marino and Monaco, 2 tiny countries) and a mere 33rd in per capita passenger cars!
9. The US does NOT make the best selling cars in the world, 2016.
First place and 2nd place went to the lower rung Toyota Corolla (pictured) and Volkswagen Golf models, followed by the Ford F-150 pick up truck in 3rd. In 4th place was the Hyundai Elantra, with the Honda CR-V coming in 5th (the highest ranking SUV, so even this American iconic segment is out of our hands!). The top US branded selling car in the world was the Ford Focus, currently built in Mexico and Michigan, but will no longer be made in the US at all in 2019. No other American brands made the top 10.
10. The US does NOT make the most cars, 2016.
China made over 28 million motor vehicles in 2016, while the US came in 2nd with a bit over 12 million. Wow! Have things changed! This fact is why good UAW automotive jobs are hard to find, and pay and benefits for new workers cannot approach what they used to be. American brands that used to be exported are often made in foreign countries, and so called American cars are often made in foreign countries for sale in the US. Incredibly, Buick imports the Envision from China, Cadillac imports the CT6 plug in hybrid (a flagship car) from China, and Volvo, which is now owned by China, also produces cars in China for sale in the US. In 2019, the Ford Focus sold in the US will have been made in China.
Question for students (and subscribers): What amazing facts would you include on this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please read…
May, George W. Charles E. Duryea: Automaker. Zero-g Press, 1996.