The first traffic accident in the United States was recorded in 1896 when a Duryea Motor Wagon collided with a bicycle in New York City, sending the cyclist to the hospital and the driver to jail. Three years later, a sixty-eight-year-old real estate broker named Henry Bliss became the first American to die as the result of an auto accident, when he was run over while stepping from a New York streetcar. By the early 1920’s, traffic fatalities were already topping the 20,000 mark annually-not to mention an estimated 700,000 auto injuries each year.
In the mid-1950’s, close to 3 million Americans were killed or injured each year in automobile accidents-about 570 deaths for every 10 billion miles driven, compared to fourteen deaths for every 10 billion airplane miles, thirteen deaths for the bus, and just five for the train.
But Americans are far from the world’s most reckless drivers. That honor belongs to the Austrians, who in a recent year suffered 386 auto deaths per one million population. That year, drivers in West Germany, Canada, and Australia also suffered more fatal accidents than their American counterparts, with the United States in fourth place with 272 deaths per million persons. The lowest rate among major car-using nations belonged to Mexico, with just 83 deaths per million persons.
Surprisingly enough, the death rate per vehicle mile has actually declined here since 1941, due in large part to the proliferation of di vided highways. The Interstate Highway System, the largest single construction job ever undertaken by man, will, when complete, include about 42,500 miles of divided highway, accommodating an estimated 25 percent of all United States traffic. The system was 80 percent complete in the mid-70’s.
Automobile design and usage have changed a great deal since the days of Daimler, Benz, and Duryea, but almost all cars, past and present, compact and luxury, have one thing in common: the internal-combustion engine. (A present exception is the Mazda, which operates with a rotary, or Wankel engine.) The internal-combustion engine converts heat generated by the burning of gasoline to the motive power required to turn the car wheels.
Basically, the internal-combustion engine works like this: fuel and air first mix in each cylinder of the engine. The piston in the cylinder, rebounding from its previous stroke, compresses the fuel and air mixture. At this point, a hot electric spark ignites the compressed mixture. The rapid combustion of the gasoline and air mixture speeds up the motion of their molecules, increasing the pressure they exert on the top of the piston. This pressure forces the piston down the cylinder.
Each downward stroke of the piston turns the crankshaft, which in turn spins the drive shaft. The drive shaft turns the gears in the differential, the gears turn the rear axle, and the axle rotates the rear wheels. Unless the car is equipped with four-wheel drive, the front wheels are not connected to the engine-driven mechanism.
A car runs more smoothly at night or in damp weather simply because the air is cooler, not because it contains more oxygen; the amount of oxygen in the air is constant. Cool air is more dense than warm air; and therefore, an engine takes in a greater weight of air when it is damp and chilly. This accounts for the increased power and the freedom from engine knock which so many motorists notice when they drive at night or in the rain.
Most cars today are equipped with either a 4, 6, or 8-cylinder engine-but a 1930 Cadillac was powered by a sixteen-cylinder engine! And speaking of Cadillacs, the largest automobile ever constructed was a special limousine built for King Khalid of Saudi Arabia in 1975, measuring twenty-five feet, two inches in length and weighing 7,800 pounds.
The largest car ever produced for regular road use was the 1927 “Golden Bugatti,” which measured twenty-two feet from bumper to bumper. Only six of these cars were made, and some of these survive in excellent condition.
Automobiles over twenty feet in length are built more for comfort than speed, of course, but compared to the earliest automobiles even the most cumbersome of today’s limos are virtual speed demons. The first auto race in Europe, held in France in 1895, was won by a car averaging but fifteen miles per hour. The Duryea brothers’ car won the Chicago-to-Waukegan race that year with an average speed of only seven-and-a-half miles per hour. By 1898, the record automobile speed stood at a mere 39.3 miles per hour. A little over sixty-five years later, Craig Breedlove became the first person to drive a car over a mile course at an average speed in excess of 600 miles per hour. The record for the highest speed ever attained by a wheeled land vehicle was set on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1970, when Gary Gabelich drove a rocket-engined car at an average speed of 631 miles per hour over a distance of one kilometer.
With the current fifty-five mile-an-hour limit on all American roads, you certainly won’t need such horsepower. But if it’s sheer velocity you’re interested in, you might take a look at the Lamborghini Countach or the Ferrari BB Berlinetta Boxer, the fastest regularly produced cars now available, which can both reach speeds of 186 miles per hours.
If price is more important to you than speed, you might want to test -drive a Mercedes 600 Pullman, the most expensive standard car now on the market. One of these six-door beauties will set you back $90,000-less your trade-in, of course. And if used cars are your preference, you might be interested in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, once owned by the Queen of the Netherlands, that sold in 1974 for a record $280,000!
Speaking of used cars, the most durable car on record was a 1936 Ford two-door model that in 1956 logged its one-millionth mile-with the odometer showing zero miles for the eleventh time. Today, a car is considered well into old age by the time it reaches 75,000 miles.
But surely, the most incredible automobile record ever achieved belongs to Charles Creighton and James Hargis who, in 1930, drove a Ford Model A roadster from New York City to Los Angeles without stopping the engine once. The two men then promptly drove back to New York, completing the 7,180-mile round-trip in forty-two days.
Oh, one more thing: on both coast-to-coast journeys, the car was driven exclusively in reverse!