The Era of American Autos

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The era of the automobile in the United States really began in September 1893, when a couple of bicycle mechanics drove a one-cylinder machine through the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts. Frank and Charles Duryea had read a description of Benz's car in Scientific American and decided to build their own. The Chicago Times-Herald helped the development of the automobile in another way: it sponsored races. In November 1895 the Duryea brothers entered a two-cylinder car, and they won. Who were the mechanics? The Duryeas had to do all the repairs themselves. The mechanics were the people who built the cars.

COMMERCIAL PRODUCTION

At about the same time, Hiram Percy Maxim, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, went to work for the American Projectile Company. He got together a used tricycle, some empty shell casings, and a couple of cups of gasoline. He experimented to see what would happen when gas was ignited in a cylinder. Fortunately, he didn't kill himself. He eventually built an engine that he put on his used tricycle, and it worked-sort of. But what is important is that he attracted the attention of the Pope Manufacturing Company. Pope was the world's largest maker of bicycles, and the company offered Maxim a job as chief engineer of motor carriages. This marked the beginning of the first commercial effort at motor vehicle production in America. However, Albert Pope, the owner, had Maxim building electric cars, since Pope believed that people would be afraid to sit over an explosion. The engines were usually placed under the seats. Within a couple of years, the Pope Company had built about five hundred electric vehicles and forty gasoline ones. The Popes had been making bicycles sold under the name Columbia, so they kept the name for their cars. The cars were called the Columbia Mark in Electric Phaetons.



In September 1895 the first American company was organized to produce gasoline cars. Organized by Frank and Charles Duryea, it was appropriately called the Duryea Motor Wagon Company.

In June 1896 Henry Ford drove his quadracycle down the streets of Detroit. Although Ford did not build the first American automobile, he did sell his quadracycle for $200 dollars to Charles Ainsley of Detroit. Ford was probably the first used car salesman. At the same time, the French word automobile was beginning to appear in print in American publications.

DETROIT: MOTOR CITY

Two other companies were organized in 1897. The first auto company in Michigan was organized on August 21, by Ransom E. Olds. He called his firm the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, but it failed, so he reorganized it two years later as the Olds Motor Works. He developed his curved dash Run-about in 1901 and sold it for $650, making it the first low-priced car. Unfortunately, fire destroyed his Detroit plant that year, so he moved the operation to Lansing, only to sell it two years later. It ultimately became the Oldsmobile division of General Motors. As a result of the fire, and in order to get back into business, Olds had to use his one and only car as a sample for building others. He was forced to contract for parts and subassemblies from small shops in the Detroit area. Most of these subcontractors eventually decided to get into auto making themselves, and consequently Detroit became the "Motor City."

A BOOMING INDUSTRY

By 1899 the American auto industry was blossoming. The American Motor Company in New York opened a garage and advertised that it had "competent mechanics always on hand to make repairs when necessary." Meanwhile in Boston, the Back Bay Cycle and Motor Company opened a shop for "renting, sales, storage, and repair of motor vehicles."

In 1900 many of the United States manufacturers at last moved the engine from under the driver's seat to under a hood. The gasoline car finally beat a steam car in a free-for-all race held at the Washington Park horse-racing track outside of Chicago. Something else happened that was to ultimately put gasoline engines ahead of steam and electric. The tremendous gusher called "Spindletop" near Beaumont, Texas, came in on January 10, 1901. The price of crude went down to five cents a barrel. The irony of this is that gasoline was formerly considered a waste by-product that was burned off in the production of lubricants. With the advent of the gasoline engine, it was suddenly in demand, and because of its ready availability, it was cost-effective to use. Besides, steam engines needed a trained technician to control the burners and valves on board. The gasoline engine could operate by itself, so the driver did not need a helper.

America had entered the automotive age in a big way-soon to be bigger than any country in the world. Who was responsible for bringing it along? The technician, whose know-how and eagerness to learn made the American mechanic an essential ingredient in the development of the industry.
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