How the Car Economy Began

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It makes sense that the US is a car-based economy. The bulk of the continent is rural and everyone needs to use them to get from town to town. Unlike Europe with large population centers a small distance apart where public transport is more economical privately owned vehicles are baked into Americana. But when did it start and were there people trying to defy the rise?

Despite the latter days of the nineteenth century being a steam driven age, the biggest form of transport was actually the horse and carriage. It was such a slow method of being transported that people often got out and walk overland to avoid crowded, windy roads, and easily outran a horse-drawn wagon. Horses also added to the amount of manure in big cities. It seems that things were ripe for a change.

While steam travel rose sharply it had its own problem; the smoke from a steam train was a great deal more polluting than the early cars.

The idea of cycling could have taken off, but in many ways, it is harder to cycle than use one of these early cars. Consider the size of a wagon or horse compared to a bicycle for starters. Remember they didn’t have crosswalks, traffic lights, or for the most parts paved roads. Ever ride a bike on cobblestones? Not easy.

The first big issue with cars was the price. Every part of a car had to be scratch built and that is a highly expensive way of building autos. There were no plastic parts either, so you built everything out of steel, brass, or wood—even the dashboard. All that medal and labor were costly. A car cost $1,000, about $30,000 today.

A side effect of all that metal is weight, and with no power steering, it’s no wonder cars were difficult to operate which brings us to the second big difficulty with cars. They broke down a lot, requiring anyone who drove one to also be a mechanic. And fairly intrepid, as they occasionally blew up. The early internal combustion engine wasn’t as perfected as they are now and maintenance wasn’t an exact science.

Although mechanics were in great demand it was not until the Ford assembly line factories that they would get anything like $5 a day, about $130 today. It was not until the process became slick that car builders were paid anything like their true worth.

Since the price already put cars in the luxury category, makers tried to help sell the car with interior trim, giving it a plush look. This was an unfamiliar environment for those accustomed to buckboard, but it allowed cars to compete with the railway carriage for first class travelers.

The other problem for the early car driver was the lack of infrastructure, in other words, the roads. Although tarmac was invented in 1902 it took a long time for it to be the mainstay of roads, in America, the longest roads resembled trails for a long time. Even when the cities had tarmac it would take decades for interstate highways to be created.

It was an industry finding its feet. The fact that the automobile pushed through to success is a function of the American dream, families all searching for freedom and the ability to travel. By no coincidence, it was during the great era the 1950s that the car completely replaced horse and steam as the main form of transportation for most Americans.

 

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