Henry Ford is usually credited with introducing mass-production techniques to automobile manufacture, but Ford actually adapted innovations made earlier by Ransolm E. Olds. Olds was but thirty years old when he designed his first internal combustion vehicle in 1897.
Later, Olds was forced to seek financial help from a friend, a scrap merchant in Detroit, who agreed to advance the needed capital if Olds would locate his plant in Detroit, then a city of less than 300,000 people. By 1902, Olds was turning out 2,500 cars annually with assembly-line techniques, and the “Motor City” was born. Today, the Detroit-Flint corridor in Michigan produces about one-fourth of all American cars.
Henry Ford began his motor company in 1903 with capital of only $28,000, twelve workers, and a plant only 50 feet wide. Additional funds were supplied by the Dodge brothers, themselves auto manufacturers, and the Dodges’ initial $20,000 investment was eventually worth $25 million. Soon afterward, Ford improved on Olds’s mass-production ideas and introduced the conveyor-belt assembly line. Ford’s first successful mass-produced car was the Model N, brought out in 1906 for $500. (From the very beginning, Ford used letters of the alphabet to identify his models.) But the car that made Henry famous was the Model T.
Preparation for the Model T’s production brought Ford so close to bankruptcy that he had to borrow $100 from a colleague’s sister to pay for the car’s launch. That $100, by the way, was eventually worth $260,000 to the generous donor. The first “Lizzie” rolled off the line in 1908, with a four-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine capable of speeds of forty miles per hour. It carried a price tag of $850.
Mass-production innovations continued to lower the price of the Lizzie. In 1916, a new model sold for just $360! Each vehicle finished its turn around the assembly line in just ninety minutes, compared to the earlier day and a half assembly-line run.
Today, most plants can turn out fifty to sixty cars an hour, and till Chevrolet plant in Lordstown, Ohio, the nation’s most modern, can produce over 100 vehicles an hour.
Sales of the Model T rose to 734,811 in 1916, accounting for half of all American-car production. Eventually some 15 million Lizzies were produced before the car was discontinued in 1927. From 1915 on, the Ford Company offered its prize automobiles in any color, so long as it is black.”
In 1908, there were over 500 car companies in the United States, but that year marked the beginning of General Motors’ eventual domination of the automobile market. The corporation was largely the work of William Crapo Durant, the millionaire grandson of a Michigan governor. Durant gained control of his first car company, Buick, in 1904, and moved his plant to Flint, Michigan. In 1908, Durant took over the Olds Company, although Ransolm Olds himself had left the firm in 1905 to form the Reo Company. Durant now began to absorb a number of ailing car and accessory companies under the corporate umbrella of General Motors. The Cadillac Company-named for Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit-joined GM in 1909. Durant even approached Ford with an offer to join General Motors, but Henry turned him down.
The roller coaster career of W.C. Durant took a turn for the worse shortly after General Motors was formed, and he eventually lost control of the corporation he had founded. Durant’s new car firm, the Chevrolet Company, named after a race driver who had designed engines for Durant, was such a success that the new leaders of GM were forced to take Durant, and Chevrolet, into the firm. By 1918, Durant was again at the helm of the corporation. But the founder of what is presently the largest manufacturing corporation in the world, with sales of $35 billion in 1975, declared bankruptcy in 1936, claiming over a million dollars in debts and assets of just $250, the clothes on his back!
The first decades of this century saw bankruptcy and merger greatly reduce the number of American car firms. In 1920, Walter Chrysler, a former vice-president at General Motors, joined the Willys-Overland company, once the number 2 car producer after Ford, and laid the groundwork for the Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler absorbed Maxwell-Chalmers and the Dodge brothers’ company, and introduced the Plymouth in 1929. The Lincoln Company became part of the Ford Corporation in 1921, and the Mercury was introduced in 1939.
The Studebaker and Packard, both introduced before 1902, eventually merged, and the Nash Company, founded by Charles Nash, who had replaced Durant at General Motors-joined the Hudson Company in the 1950’s to form the American Motors Corporation. As early as 1914, 75 percent of all American cars were manufactured by the ten largest companies.
The Rolls-Royce Corporation was founded in 1904 by two Englishmen named, you guessed it, Rolls and Royce.
The familiar Volkswagen “beetle” was first produced in 1938. By the 1950’s, Volkswagen was the largest car producer in Europe; and in 1972, the “beetle” surpassed the Model T in total sales for a single model, with over 15 million sold throughout the world.
The United States has been the leader in automobile production for many years. Over a million cars were produced here in 1916, and over 3 million in 1924, when there were some 15 million cars registered in America. In 1952, about 4 million American passenger cars rolled off the line, ten times the number produced by the second-rank ing nation, Great Britain. At the time, there was a car on the road here for every 3.5 persons alive, compared to, for example, one car per 564 persons in Japan. The second-ranking nation in car use was, surprisingly, New Zealand, with six persons for each car.
American dominance of the automobile market has slipped some what in recent years, yet the United States still ranks first in total production, with 6.7 million passenger cars turned out in 1975. Japan ranked second that year with 4.5 million cars, followed by West Germany and France with just under three million each, Great Britain and Italy with about 1.4 million each, Canada with one million, and the Soviet Union with 670,000.
What is the most popular car in America? For years it’s been the Chevrolet. In 1975, 1.6 million new Chevies left the assembly line, while the Ford ranked second with 1.3 million cars, followed in order by the Oldsmobile, Buick, Pontiac, Plymouth, Mercury, Dodge, and Cadillac. Among American auto manufacturers, General Motors was far and away the leader, with 3.6 million cars produced; Ford was second with 1.8 million, Chrysler third with 900,000, and American Motors fourth with 320,000.
In 1978, there were about 107 million passenger cars registered throughout this country, and 125 million licensed drivers. Car registration began here in 1901, in New York State. The first license plates appeared in France in 1893.
England’s first license plate, Al, was purchased in 1903 by Lord Russell, after an overnight wait outside the license bureau office, and that plate was reportedly sold to a collector in 1973 for $35,000! As late as 1909, driving licenses were required in only twelve American states, when there were few traffic laws of any kind. The first modern traffic light, in fact, did not appear until 1914, on Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio. And in England driving tests were not required for would-be drivers until 1935!