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The Automotive Industry in America

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For most of us, it is hard to imagine a time when there was no automobile. However, as far as history is concerned, the motorcar is an extremely recent development. The first self-propelled road vehicle emerged in about 1800, but it was a steam vehicle, not an internal combustion, engine-driven machine. It wasn't until about 1900 that the gasoline-powered car came into existence. Even then it was more a novelty than a viable means of transportation.


Leonardo da Vinci, back in the 1500s, was probably the first dreamer to envision a self-propelled vehicle. There was no way his ideas could be put to use, because at the time there was no such thing as a dependable engine. In the eighteenth century, a French artillery officer, Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, designed and built a three-wheeled carriage powered by a steam engine.


During the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a great deal of experimentation in Great Britain. Most of the work revolved around steam buses.

It was generally agreed at the time that steam was the answer, but in France and America work was underway to develop an internal combustion engine. The first was a two-cycle engine patented in Paris by the Belgian Etienne Lenoir. Meanwhile in America, George B. Bray ton designed a two-cycle engine, which he displayed at the Philadelphia Continental Exposition in 1876. The first four-cycle engine was developed by a German, Nicholas Otto, in 1878. These early engines weren't designed for cars, but for industrial application. The distinction of inventing the first motorcar goes to Siegfried Markus of Vienna. Yet, Markus did not have an operational car until about the mid-1880s.

Back in the United States, a patent attorney named George B. Selden from Rochester, New York, felt that Brayton's engine could be put to use in a road vehicle. In 1879 Selden filed an application for a United States patent on the road engine-a motor that used liquid hydrocarbon fuel (gasoline), a mechanism to uncouple the engine from the drive wheels (the first clutch), and a steering device. But he never built a vehicle with any of these elements, and his patents eventually created some controversy in the American auto industry.

About the same time, another method of propulsion came into being-the electric motor. Suddenly, there were some options. But what good are power plants if there aren't any vehicles to put them in? Enter the bicycle industry.


In England in 1885, J. K. Starley invented the safety bicycle, which was the first of the low-wheeled type we still enjoy today. It replaced the high-wheeled velocipede, which had one big wheel in the front and took quite some strength to pedal. Starley's bike, with its low wheels, was safer and had one more important advantage-it was driven by a chain and had gearing. The safety bicycle could be used easily by women and children. The sudden popularity of bicycles made it immediately apparent that American roads were insufficient. Bicyclists in America called for something to be done, and Congress instituted the Bureau of Road Inquiry under the Department of Agriculture to study the situation. Congress appropriated $1,000 for the job. Coincidentally, the year was 1893- the same year the Duryea car made its debut.

Bicycle manufacturers were responsible for much more. They invented steel-tube framing that combined strength with light weight. They were responsible for the chain drive, as well as ball and roller bearings. During the height of the bicycle craze, the manufacturers invented the differential gearing arrangement for use on multiple-geared bikes. The importance of the bi cycle industry becomes obvious if you take a look at the bicycle company that later crossed the bridge to the auto. In Germany there was Opel; ii England, Morris; and in the United States, Duryea, Pope, Winton, and Willys.

Perhaps one of the most significant inventions leading to the motorcar was the pneumatic tire perfected by John B. Dunlop of Ireland in 1888. Without the development of good roads and the pneumatic tire, there probably would not have been much incentive for highway travel, since rail transportation was much easier and speedier.


The direct ancestors of today's automobile had their beginnings at the hands of two Germans, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, who both made internal-combustion engines. Both men made single-cylinder engines. Daimler's, however, was a high-speed engine that relied on something called a hot tube, while Benz was using a spark ignition much like today's engines. Both first put their engines to use in some sort of bicycle.

Within ten years, cars were being built. In France, Armand Peugeot was putting Daimler engines in cars for the firm of Panhard and Levassor. At the same time, William Steinway was trying to interest the American people in the German engine, but without success.

Europe was buzzing with self-propelled vehicles powered with everything from gasoline to steam to electricity. There were road races and exhibitions everywhere. Levassor won a race in Paris in 1894 and the next year drove a Panhard from Paris to Bordeaux, covering 1,200 kilometers in the remarkable time of forty-eight hours. His average speed was fifteen miles per hour.

These cars were hand built. There was no such thing as a repair shop. Cars were expensive to build and operate, and they were nothing more than a curiosity for the rich to play with. But by the turn of the century, high society began to accept the motor vehicle for use as a limousine, and ladies as well as men were driving electric vehicles.
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