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The Automobile’s Adolescence: 1905- 1914

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Due to its past in the production of industrial goods as well as both the country’s social and economic conditions, America was able to surpass France, Germany, and Great Britain to become the world’s largest producer of automobiles by 1904. Where European countries focused on creating high-end vehicles for the affluent, American companies focused on driving down production costs to expand the market for automobile ownership.  American industrial production techniques relied heavily on unskilled laborers compared to Europe’s reliance on a smaller, more skilled, worker base. Ford Motor Company was the leader in this movement through its use of the assembly line, in combination with a high daily wage for its workers (to decrease the turnover rate) to create a basic, affordable, reliable car that would cater to a wide market. Whereas Ford focused on making a mass-market vehicle, General Motors was founded in 1908 with an entirely different business plan. GM combined many different companies such as Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, and Chevrolet, to produce cars for every economic category of the market.

Throughout the early 20th century the automobile underwent many improvements such as, all metal, welded, closed bodies, electric headlights, windshield wipers, rearview mirrors, carbon-black rubber and individual cotton cords in the tires, increased speed, and most importantly the electric self-starter. With fewer tire problems, a more all weather capabilities, and a decreased risk of broken arms, the automobile was starting to look increasingly attractive to the country as a whole.

Although the vehicle itself was improving greatly, the widespread use of the automobile was reliant on other changes in the country throughout the early 20th century as well. It was only with the support of bicyclists and farmers that the public financing for road construction and maintenance became popular. With their support, the implementation of a gasoline tax to fund roads became a reality, contributing to the convenience of automobiles. In addition, catalytic cracking of petroleum started to be used in the United States during the mid 1930’s, increasing the production of gasoline by 43%, lowering its cost. With the decreasing price of gas, along with the addition of gas stations across the country, the fueling of automobiles became less of a hindrance, increasing their convenience as well.

The increase in the use of the automobile in the early 20th century changed the United States. People living in rural area were no longer restricted to a 20 mile radius that could be covered by a horse and buggy. Rural habitants could commute for work, church, school, and social activities. General stores, country churches, and one-room schoolhouses no longer were the only sources of these resources. In urban areas, the use of automobiles decreased the amount of horse excrement in the streets, leading to a decrease in the spread of dangerous pathogens. Automobiles opened up new areas for housing, offering more privacy and space for inhabitants. By 1914 the automobile was far on its way to becoming a staple in the American way of life.

Source: Cars and Culture by Rudi Volti 


  1. A very informative article about American automobile industry i like to read very good written and well researched facts keep them coming

    April 25, 2014
  2. As later posts will indicate, we’ll read a paper on entry and exit; it’s hard to imagine the ferment of the early years, though that pattern shows up in many new industries – computers, cell phones, restaurants to name a few.
    Separately, that higher wages lowering costs is not unique to Ford. In the US, studies of minimum wages suggest that they can lead to lower costs through less turnover and absenteeism, and thus higher employment (a famous paper by David Card and Alan Krueger). Compare Costco with Walmart, the former is famous for good service and profits consistently higher than its rival. Now this might not be true if the US minimum wage was set at $20, but we are well below the historic real average, and periods when it was higher were not ones of widespread un- and under-employment.

    April 29, 2014
  3. Interesting article and well explained about the American automobile industry.Eagerly waiting for such wonderful articles from you.

    April 30, 2014
  4. mayolj16

    I think it is also important to remark (and this is how Volti justifies it) that the higher wages were also to compensate for the type of job, that would involve performing the same activity for hours without any variations.

    May 6, 2014

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