TCS Daily

Mad for 'Motor Cars'

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - May 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Think about your day - where you go, what you do, what you eat. Now try to think about your day without the automobile. Not just without your car, but without cars. Think about it.

Except for electricity, nothing else has so profoundly changed our lives as has the automobile. Few, if any, Americans are still alive who can remember the rapidity with which it came to dominate our culture. Go back one hundred years and take a glimpse at what was happening in the United States.

More than 11,000 automobiles were built in 1903. It was the year the industry really seemed to take off, after a decade of fits and starts marked particularly by the rapid evolution of the gasoline engine from a smoky, noisy, teeth rattling contraption to a relatively smooth, much quieter and reliable source of power. There were already magazines, The Horseless Age, The Motocycle, and Motor Age, chronicling developments in the industry, and several makes of cars were firmly established - Duryea, Winton and Packard among them.

By the last decade of the 19th century the automobile had been fairly well established in its birthplace - Europe. Cars had been in production there since the early 1890s. Panhard, for instance, the French maker, had introduced what would remain the classic pattern of the automobile - an internal combustion engine mounted in front and delivering power to the rear wheels via gearbox and driveshaft. Indeed, by 1896, the French word automobile was quickly replacing terms like horseless carriage and motor carriage in America.

But as Scientific American magazine observed in 1898, while Americans may have been inspired by foreign cars, they did not want to copy them. They seemed to want to reinvent the automobile, approaching the gasoline engine in many different ways and experimenting with various types of electric motors and varied approaches to steam power.

By 1903 it seemed everyone wanted to get into "the auto game." It was easy to do because most cars were not manufactured from the ground up. They were "assembled cars," with engines, frames, wheels, seats, etc., purchased from various sources and put together often in a back alley factory. (Very early on the term "assembled" had a negative connotation to automobile purists).

Some people bought the parts and built their own personal cars. In Youngstown, Ohio, for instance, a doctor, Carlos Booth, put together his own motorized carriage back in 1895, and is believed to be the first physician to use a car to make house calls. But by 1903, dreamers and schemers all over the country were starting up auto companies; buying parts on credit, putting them together and trying to recoup their "investment" by selling the cars for cash.

In 1903 alone, 88 companies began making and selling motorcars. Some of them are names still familiar today, Ford, Cadillac, and Buick. Other makes are forgotten and forgettable - like the Buckmobile, the Clarkmobile, the Tincher, the Welch Tourist, or the Zentmobile. (The most famous "mobile," the Olds, had already been in production for four years by this time.)

For a while it looked as if anything on four wheels without a horse in front of it would sell. But markets work. Packards sold; Moncrief Steams did not. Neither did the Berg, the Randall Three-Wheeler, or the Glide. The sorting out process was brutal. More than 3000 car companies were started in the United States in the opening decades of the auto age, and as we well know only a handful survived.

One of the founders of a hardy handful, Henry Ford, had been fooling around with self-built engines and cars for years. His first buggy with a motor, dubbed the "quadricycle," had taken to the streets of Detroit in 1896. But it was on June 16, 1903 that Ford Motor Company was incorporated and began building cars in a little factory on Mack Avenue. Total capital of the corporation was $28,000. The company's first car, a Model A with a two-cylinder engine, cost a hefty $850 when it was sold in July. By November, Fords were selling by the hundreds and the company paid out its first stock dividend.

One century ago certain things were already firmly established about the automobile in America:

It was not a passing fancy.

It was not a "rich man's toy."

And, oh yes - It had to be fast.

Any self-respecting car nut today accepts the need for speed. It's fun, of course, and it's so efficient. I'm going up to my college reunion later this week. It's a 150-mile trip. In other words, nothing. I'll be there in less than three hours. That's the way we think of car trips now. How many hours is it? Great. See you for dinner.

But it may be difficult to fully appreciate the speed mania that was developing by 1903. Put yourself in the shoes of a middle-aged man back then. He may not have thought much about it, but deep within his psyche and understanding of the way the world worked was the fact that most of human history had moved at a pace no faster than that of a horse. The only exceptions were sailing ships in good wind and, with the advent of steam power in the 19th century, steamships and railroads.

But by 1903 men were tantalized by the possibility of personally traveling from point A to point B at heretofore unheard of speeds. On Memorial Day in 1897, a Winton amazed early gearheads by traveling at a speed of 34.6 miles per hour. It covered a mile in one minute and 48 seconds. Later that summer the same car was driven from Cleveland to New York in 10 days. People were astonished.

By 1901, Henry Ford had built what was unabashedly a "racing car." Its two cylinders developed 26 horsepower. On October 10 of that year it went up against a Winton on a special 10-mile course in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Henry Ford won the race, averaging a blazing 43.5 mph.

Men began daring to think of traveling down a road at a mile a minute. Or down a beach. The flat, hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach had already been discovered by early motor maniacs. In April 1902, at Daytona, a driver named Dan Wurgis got behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile racer called the Pirate. It was little more than an engine (one cylinder!) four wheels and a seat. The crowd cheered as he raced over a one-mile course at 54 mph.

Later that year, on October 5, a man whose name was to become legend, Barney Oldfield, took the wheel of Ford's newest racer, the "999," and covered five miles in five minutes and 28 seconds, a speed of 54.87 mph.

In 1903, the Olds Pirate, souped up a bit and renamed the Flyer, returned to Daytona and became the first car to cover a mile in less than a minute. In fact it did the mile in 42 seconds - a jaw-dropping 85.7 mph. Now, anything was possible. The first Cadillac, a single-cylinder, 7.3 horsepower car appeared that same year, but "one-bangers" were on the way out. Packard introduced its smooth, quiet four-cylinder Model K and the multi-cylinder movement was well underway.

Perhaps because of the reputation of its Daytona racer, Oldsmobile sold 4000 cars in 1903, far outpacing Cadillac (2,497) and Ford (1,708). And over the next hundred years all three makes would become bywords. (Now, sadly, it appears that the venerable Oldsmobile will soon be put to sleep by General Motors).

Ford, of course, would change everything, as Brock Yates wrote in his recent TCS article. But if it had not been Ford it would have been some other maker. There was a market, broad and deep. Although most of their roads were still unpaved and there were no gas stations to speak of, it was abundantly clear by 1903 that Americans were - as they are today - mad for "motor cars."

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