100 Years of Car History
It is natural, at the start of a new year, to look toward the future and dream, both wildly and realistically, about what it might hold. The automotive world, filled with innovators, designers and a multitude of dreamers, has always played into the hand of daydreams, imagining concept cars shaped like spaceships, land speed records and the ever ubiquitous and widely-shared fantasy of the flying car.
Movies of the past depicted myriad new technologies, techniques, and designs, and as we near the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we can acknowledge that many of those insane ideas actually came to life–as did many we could never have expected.
But as we, the collective car community at large, dream of starward adventures in Cadillacs, and rocketships sparkling in chrome, it is also important, and uniquely interesting, to look back at where we came from, and to explore just what a century of time means in one of the fastest-growing, most influential industries on earth. Let’s take a look back at the world, the automotive world and the world at large, at the beginning of 1918, one hundred years ago.
In 1918, the world was still at war, in what had been dubbed “the war to end all wars.” The United States had joined in April of 1917, and the war would continue to rage until nearly the end of the year, before giving way to a new world, much more interconnected and politically entwined than ever before. The end of the war would give way to modernization in communication, ideology and progress, leading to the debaucherous era of the Roaring 20s and eventually The Great Depression.
But in January of 1918, the world was focused on winning an international battle. Telephones were coming into homes, though electricity wouldn’t reach a full half of the population until 1925. The horse and buggy was still the most ubiquitous form of transportation, and the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which President Woodrow Wilson has signed in that year, was struggling to pay dividends, with the weight of the war drawing attention and resources away from infrastructure and big dreams .
Because, in 1918, cars were still a big dream. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the total number of cars and trucks combined came in at just over 6.1 million, great swathes of which were concentrated in Ohio, Illinois, New York, California and Pennsylvania. In 1917, Nevada had only 6,885 registered automobiles. Despite the low numbers of 1916-1918, the United States is estimated to have been home to nearly 85% of the world’s automobiles at the time.
But things would change, if not rapidly. The Ford Model T had been around for a decade and would last for nearly another ten years, largely responsible for the numbers above. General Motors had been officially formed in 1908 as well, having been reorganized from General Motors Company into General Motors Corporation in 1916. In May of 1918, the auspicious merger of Chevrolet and GM would take place. Chrysler, the last of the American Big Three, would not be officially founded until 1925, when Walter P. Chrysler, who would win Time Magazine’s Man of the Year four years later, reorganized Maxwell Motor Company into the Chrysler Corporation.
And Chrysler was not the only car company still unfounded 100 years ago. Volvo would not become a company until 1927, Volkswagen until 1937, Ferrari until 1939, Lamborghini until 1963. Mercedes-Benz, we know it today, was not officially formed until 1926.
Of course, there were safety and infrastructure innovations to contend with, as well. The automotive industry has long played leap-frog with rules and regulations, determining their necessity well after the rules have been broken, as with drunk driving laws, seat-belts, speed limits and traffic lights. By 1918, drunk driving had been illegal in New York for over eight years, with other states quickly following the example. This was the year that cars were required to have license plates, though driver’s license would be slow to follow, and by 1935, only 39 states required them. The requirement to pass an exam before getting your license would not exist in all 50 states until 1959, with South Dakota as the last hold out.
In 1918, the top of the line money you could put out for a Ford Model T was $695, though you could drive home with one for as little as $325. Today, 100 years later, the average cost of a new car is around $31,000. Of course, back then, the well-paid auto mechanic made eighty cents an hour.
Times, they are a’changing, of course. We now have seat belts, motorcycle helmets and three-way stop lights. The Department of Transportation was formed in 1966, and speed limits have been enacted countrywide. Even our cheapest cars still have top speeds in the three digits, and the role of auto mechanic had evolved and evolved again. We have a female CEO of one of America’s largest automotive companies. The government has bailed out the auto industry. Oil prices have led to wars, protests, and the evolution of the electric car. Women had made their mark on racing and industry alike, as have people of all races, religions and backgrounds.
What does it mean to be a car enthusiast today, in 2018, 133 years after Karl Benz produced what is known as the first automobile, over a century after Henry Ford took the world by storm? It means understanding that the history of the car comes in large brushstrokes and tiny details, in the actions of one woman or the needs of an entire people. It means knowing that the car does not exist in a bubble, and that politics, economy and social change are inextricably linked the automobile, as the automobile is to them. Look at the Ford Mustang. Look at the Toyota Prius.
Where will the automotive world, with its factions of industry, racing, engineering and creativity be in 2118? Who can possibly know? In 1918, no one could have ever assumed the Internet, let alone that it would be available in cars. Self-driving autos of 100 years ago were called horses. We cannot know what we do not know, just as they didn’t in 1918.
But what we do know is that the world at large and our little world in the automotive hobby, has evolved from something incredible to exceed all expectations or creative imaginings in just one hundred short years. Imagining how far we’ll be able to go from here, well, the sky’s the limit. Maybe literally, because by 2118, we might just have those flying cars, after all.
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