TCS Daily

Birthdays and Funerals for Automotive Icons

By Brock Yates - November 14, 2003 12:00 AM

The tiny but intense claque of historians who devote themselves to the automobile and other related transportation issues have found Nirvana in 2003. Thanks to an odd confluence of birthdays, anniversaries and other coincidences, this year prompts the celebration and studied examination of four intriguing and influential motor vehicles that each in its own altered the course of modern civilization.


The foremost of course is the centennial celebration of the Ford Motor Company, formed by that cranky backyard genius Henry Ford in his Dearborn, Michigan hometown 100 years ago. While it took Ford several years to gain traction, his Model T and its attendant development of modern mass-production techniques altered western civilization. Not only did the Model T "put America on wheels" as the saying went, but in fact mobilized private citizenry around the world. The "Flivver," "Tin- Lizzie," T-bone" or simply "T" joins the telephone, the light bulb, the radio, television and microchip as a seminal tool of progress for modern civilization. No other machine came as close to revolutionizing personal mobility as the Model T. No other transportation devise so strongly influenced the mass exodus of entire American populations, first from the south to the north in the early teens, then westward in the Depression. In the end over 15 million Model T's were built before they gave way to the Model A in 1927, thereby becoming the all-time best selling automobile until displaced by the Volkswagen Beetle in 1972.


Ironically 2003 marks a milestone for the Beetle as well. This year it finally joins the Model T in the graveyard of defunct models after a run of well over fifty years. First developed as a "people car" by Ferdinand Porsche in the early 1930's and planned by Hitler to be sold through an ill-conceived coupon collecting system, the Volkswagen never made it to market prior to World War II. Its massive Wolksburg factory was converted to war production, including, slave-labor assembly of V2 rockets. After Porsche spent time in a French pokey for alleged war crimes he and his son, Ferry created the famed Porsche sports car. British and American government post-war funding revived the defunct Volkswagen and by the middle-1950's the "Beetle" was booming in sales.


Thanks to its ultra-simple air-cooled engine, its Spartan bodywork and crab-like mobility, the VW triggered the import revolution in the United States, raising public consciousness for small light, fuel-efficient cars that in turn opened the door for the Japanese invasion by Honda, Toyota and Datsun (Nissan) in the 1970's. In 1972 the Volkswagen surpassed the Model T's record 15 million sales and then slowly drifted off the map. The little car was produced in Brazil until 1996 and in Pueblo, Mexico until this year.


While a few funeral dirges are being played for the demise of the old Beetle, Milwaukee, Wisconsin is alive with the rattly thunder of Harley-Davidson twin-cylinder engines as the "Motor Company" also celebrates its centennial. This venerable firm first fired up its prototype motorcycle in the backyard shop of the Davidson brothers, Arthur, Walter and William 100 years ago and led to a partnership with boyhood friend William Harley that created one of America's most legendary businesses. Conceived by the partners as a low-cost alternative to the automobile, their motorcycle quickly found a market niche as a sporting machine for young men. Plans for a utility role for their Harley-Davidson machines were dashed when Henry Ford was able to produce full-sized, four-passenger Model T's for only a few hundred dollars more than a single seat motorcycle. Today the Harley is cherished by millions, a woolly, earth-shaking expression of ego-masculine puffery.


The youngest of these of celebrates is the Chevrolet Corvette, which is counting fifty candles on its cake this year. Once a fibre-glass clad joke among sports car purists who reviled its Detroit-based crudeness against such thoroughbreds as the Ferrari, Porsche, and Jaguar, the "Vette" is now respected and accepted as a legitimate member of the clan. While a mere youngster in relation to Ford, Harley-Davidson and the Volkswagen, the Corvette now proudly carries the banner "America's sports car" and joins the other trio as a true automotive icon.


Happy Birthday, anniversary, etc. to all four.

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