| A report on the life and good times of America’s favorite toy
Journey of the century
by T.C. Browne
The thing to remember is this: The automobile was never invented. The anniversary we are celebrating come from some rather arbitrary choices. But, if you’re going to have a birthday party, you have to pick a date.
The one chosen by the French is February 12, 1884, when patent number 16027 was issued for the Edouard Delamare-Deboutteville steam carriage, to be powered by a gasoline engine. It is uncertain whether this device ever actually ran; but the date suits the French admirably, since it precedes the one chosen by the Germans.
The English decided on 1885, the year in which Carls Benz (don’t worry about the first name, that’s the way he spelled it) tested his first successful motorcar.
Germans will celebrate this most important event for them on January 29, 1886, as the date when patent number 37435 was first issued for the Patent Motor Wagen of Carl Benz. The original vehicle can be see today in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. For better or worse the United States decided to conform to the German calendar.
Why Carl Benz and not Gottlieb Daimler, the significant other in German early automotive history? The judges who made the choice for us were spot on, at least so far as picking between the two leading candidates is concerned. Gottlieb Daimler was interested in engines, internal combustion, gasoline-powered engines. His first “motor vehicle” was a horrible, cobbled together wooden motorcycle, created solely to test an engine. His first “car” was an actual carriage that he ordered from a coachmaker in Cannstatt” ….fur den Geburtstang meiner Frau.”
This ruse about his wife’s birthday was intended to mask his real intentions, either from some imagined competitor, or possible from the authorities, who, upon observing his early rod-testing of his motorized hybrid in 1886, took a dim view of such antics and ordered the offending machine off the streets because it violated custom by failing to display a visible means of locomotion. Daimler didn’t actually produce his firs purpose-built, wire-wheeled motorcar until 1889.
Meanwhile, in Mannheim, 60 miles away and with no apparent knowledge of his rival’s pursuits, Carl Benz dreamed of and finally created what has come to be called “the world’s first practical motorcar.” Now that can mean whatever you think it means, but this spindly three-wheeler did meet two ex post facto criteria: 1) it was a fresh design that owed nothing to the horse, 2) The creator intended it to be offered for sale to the public. And as we all know, it has been successful, contrary to the forecast of the German Yearbook of Natural Science, which commented at the time: “Benz also has made a petrol car which caused some stir at the Munich Exposition. This employment of the petrol engine will probably be no more promising for the future than the use of the steam engine was for road travel”–a reference to the number of more-or-less successful steam -powered vehicles that preceded both Benz and Daimler.
In spite of this gloomy forecast, automobile fever soon reached France, which was to become the leading producer of automobiles in the device’s first decade. This has been explained variously as the result of the system of national highways built by Napoleon, greater enthusiasm for the car on the part of the French or less interference with the operation of motor vehicles on public thoroughfares by the authorities. Each factor had a role, but it was the last one that probably had the greatest effect. Certainly, Britain was held back by the infamous, and inaccurately referred to “Red Flag Act,” which required three persons to be in attendance upon any movement of a “road locomotive” on public roads , one of them to walk in front, while the speed was limited to two miles per hour (mph) in the city, four mph in the country.
Anyway, in France you could do anything, as long as you pronounced it right, and the success of the automobile was so great and so sudden that it wasn’t until 1906 that the United States displaced France as the largest manufacturer of automobiles, a position it has yet to surrender, although there has been an ominous reduction in our margin of safety in recent years. One of the early French success stories was Peugeot. In 1891, the management sent one of their primitive vehicles on a distinctly risky mission –to follow the contestants in the 2,047 kilometers (1,270 miles) Paris-Brest-Paris cycle race. It covered the distance in 139 hours, which helped to sell five cars that year, and another 29 in 1892!
Across the Atlantic, things were not quite so exciting. For a start, there really wasn’t much of a road system. The automobile that Americans think of today as the Great Freedom Machine couldn’t have done much to set one free before the dawn of the 20th. century, simply because there was no place it could go without using some kind of road. And roads were few and far between.
The first American automobile (if we ignore steam-powered vehicles) may have been the Schank tricycle, which made it’s debut at the Ohio State Fair of 1886. It’s chief achievement was to inspire Charles Duryea to start investigating the “atmospheric engine. American innovators like Duryea seemed almost too innovative. There were operating engines for sale right here in America from such established pioneers as Daimler, whose friend William Steinway, the piano tycoon, was building them under license on Long Island.
Duryea and his brother Frank first tested their horseless carriage in Springfield, Massachusetts. But Frank recalled 50 years later that “…. because of it’s friction transmission, the car was barely operative, and I was never able to give a demonstration to a prospect.”
The brothers persevered and, in 1895, founded the country’s first automobile manufacturing enterprise as the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, in Springfield.
Meanwhile, Henry Ford had made a pair of false starts toward entering the industry with which his name would so soon become synonymous. eventually, He founded the Ford Motor Company in the summer of 1903 with the intention of making a car to sell for $500.
His first car was the twin-cylinder Model A Runabout which sold for $750. It did not exactly debut to a standing ovation. Things got so bad that by July of 1903 the firm had a cash balance of $223.65 and couldn’t pay it’s bills. Then came an order from a Dr. E. Pfenning, of Chicago and by August there was $23,060.67 in the bank. In the first year of business, the company sold a million dollars worth of cars, which put it up with the biggies: Cadillac, Olds, and Packard.
In the long run, Ford came to build the $500 car for the average man. In fact, by 1924, that man could be so average as to be able to get a Model T two-seater for only $260, if he didn’t care what color it was.
While there was no vehicle in World War One equivalent to the Jeep, there was one incident in which the automobile played a major role. By September of 1914, the German Army had punched through the western defense line and was marching on Paris. When the French general staff realized how close they were, there was panic in the streets –along with 600 twin-cylinder Renault taxis looking for fares. The French Army commandeered them to rush reinforcements to the front to halt the German advance at what became know as the first Battle of the Marne.
1932 Packard Emblem
By the 1930s the French were still doing outstanding things with autos. In particular, one manufacturer named Ettore Bugatti had a plan of his own for a car that might have some appeal for the few remaining people with the money to buy what he regarded as a decent automobile. Bugatti Announced the largest, most expensive car in the world, to be sold only to crowned heads. It was his crowning achievement–the Type 41, La Royale. With a straight-8, single-overhead-cam, 12.7-liter engine, producing 250 horsepower, this monster was scheduled for a production of 25, none of which would wear a factory body, but a chassis only to be reserved for talented expressions from the great coach-makers.
As it turned out, six were actually built. None was sold to royalty. A most remarkable fact: The six Type 41 Bugattis built still exist, and all of them are in good shape.
While the Chrysler Airflow of 1934 ( picture below) wasn’t the only effort up to that time to produce an aerodynamically designed passenger vehicle, it did have a unique history. Carl Breer, a certifiable genius, was driving back from his vacation in upper Michigan when he saw a flight of Canadian geese heading south for the winter. He began speculating about why man couldn’t travel on the ground disturbing the air as little as the geese were doing. The outcome of his musings was Walter P. Crysler’s Airflow. It was a sincere effort to produce something, not “streamlined,” but aerodynamically clean. The car was good. It had a welded unitary body, the engine was pushed far forward, providing plenty of legroom and between-the-axles seating for the people in back, the headlights were flush, silence and comfort were standard. The Airflow didn’t sell well and was discontinued in 1937. The car did pave the way for other adventures; the Lincoln Zephyr, to name one, and it wasn’t long before slippery shapes became the rage in Europe. But those savants who sagely remarked in the mid-’30s that the Airflow was” … 20 years ahead of it’s time” probably weren’t available in 1954 when it failed to make Chrysler line-up.
The 1940 Lincoln Continental
was a graceful and svelte as the Airflow was bulgy and drab. And nobody cared whether it was aerodynamic. But it wasn’t designed by a committee. Edsel Ford got daddy to let him go through the parts bins, and he came up with this remarkable assortment of bits that — all put together–worked beautifully.
This car was esthetically superb then, and it hasn’t lost anything through the intervening years that have been so unkind to so many others. Thank you, Edsel. And we want to apologize for what they did to your name later.
|1955 Thunderbird||1956 Thunderbird||1957 Thunderbird|
While the ford Thunderbird of 1955, 1956, 1957 looked great, ran just fine, and held up quite well, the company didn’t make enough of them. Some marketing genius asked his mother-in-law what she though and suddenly the best thing Ford had done since Edsel’s last trick had four seats. Unlike Coca Cola, the Ford people took forever to admit their mistake and bring out the T-Birds. successor.
Once again, there was rummaging in the parts bins, but this time the searcher was engineer-turned-sales manager Anthony lido Iacocca. While the committee gave him a lot of help, nobody must have done much wrong. The little notch-back coupe, expertly made from Falcon mechanicals and dressed in new non-designer jeans, couldn’t have made a bigger hit. It was the car for everyone. The secretary on a budget, but with an eye for something cute, could buy the 170 cubic inch six with the 3-speed manual for under $2,500, even if she took the radio and white walls. The street racer could go for the V-8, but if he didn’t wait until the Hi Po 289 GT 2+2 arrived, he was sorry.
And there was everything in between. But, while you could get all sorts of décor packages, lighting groups, deluxe interiors, even 8-track and air condition, you couldn’t by anything that looked stodgy. By the time Carroll Shelby got through running his GT350 serious racers around the road courses of America, hardly anyone wanted anything but a mustang. Ford sold more cars in the first year of that model than any car in history.
For our last item on the first hundred years of the car (and we know we’ve had to ignore many landmarks), we have saved what we feel may be the most beautiful expression of rolling sculpture of the century. When Italy’s Ferruccio Lamborghini unveiled the bare chassis of his Miura at the Salone di Torino in 1965, (picture right) the spectators were stunned. And it didn’t even have Bertone’s indescribably exquisite coachwork on it. In fact, it was at this auto show that Sr. Bertone saw the strange construction for the first time. He told Lamborghini that he would like to make a body for it. The result of that conversation is the magnificent Grand Touring machine pictured on page 62. The engine is as marvelous in it’s way as the coachwork. Everything is state-of-the-art, a much abused term, but accurate in this case, and we don’t mean in it’s day, but right now. To ride in it is torture, to drive it is ecstasy. It is a high-water mark in the Italian intimacy with art and machinery. The people of that peninsula usually chose the elegant solution. We think this may be the most elegant solution to the automobile problem ever.
1927 Ford Model T