Few inventions have had as profound an impact on the world as the car. It was an invention that has not only change the way people lived, it’s influenced business and the economy in ways no one could have foreseen when Henry Ford put together a mass production operation for his Model T. Some would even say that Americana culture wouldn’t exist without cars.
Of course, there have also been a few drawbacks to the creation of the automobile. Buckle up for a informative, entertaining look at how the car changed the world.
Cars Helped Revolutionized Production
Henry Ford is known as the godfather of the American car industry, even though Carl Benz invented the first vehicle in 1879. He may not have invented the vehicle, but he did revolutionize how they’re manufactured, which made cars affordable enough for people outside of the upper class.
Ford perfected step-by-step assembly line production by using standardized, interchangeable parts. He then trained employees in only one or two steps so that each person could work as quickly and efficiently as possible. But then Ford took it one step further by using the first ever moving assembly line for large-scale manufacturing. It’s a production model that’s been adopted in countless other industries, allowing for mass production that cuts cost. Without the Model T, manufacturing may not be what it is today.
Cars Dramatically Changed the Economy
It’s an understatement to say automaking has changed the economy. Today, over 4.25 million people work directly within the automotive industry. Not only has car manufacturing become one of the largest industries in the world, it’s also been the driving force behind the growth in the oil and gas industry. Of course, over the years horse breeders and buggy makers have taken a hit.
Cars Enabled People to Travel and Relocate More Readily
The most obvious change for everyday people was that cars gave them a way to get around quickly. Suddenly, people had a new mode of transportation that could get them more places, which meant leisure travel became something common folk could afford.
Where people live has also been influenced by the automobile. Up until the early 1900s, few people lived more than a few miles from where they grew up. It was a matter of choice and logistics. Before cars were invented moving just a short distance away meant hours of buggy travel on rough roads. The rise of suburban areas also wouldn’t have been possible without the automobile.
The trend to moving further away really took off after President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs created thousands of miles of roadway across the U.S. Once people could easily get from sea to shining sea more people started to relocate. Not surprisingly, the U.S. is now third in the world for the number of residents who move per year. As we’ve seen in recent years, many people are more than willing to pack up and relocate for work.
Death and Injury – The Downside to Driving
In life, you have to take the bad with the good. Cars have given people freedom, income and convenience, but vehicle accidents are also a leading cause of death. Across the globe 1.3 million people are killed in car accidents every year and another 20-50 million are injured.
Unfortunately, young teen drivers are among the most likely to be involved in an accident that leads to death or injury. Got to buckle up!
The Politics of Driving
Because vehicle manufacturing is such a huge industry and affects safety, politics and government regulation are inescapable. Teen drivers know this all too well. Getting a driver’s license now requires a learner’s permit period, drivers ed courses and other stipulations along with the road rules everyone must follow.
But road regulations aren’t the only political consideration when it comes to cars. Plenty of economic decisions focus on automaking. One of the most notable political interventions in the auto industry was the bailout of 2009. The U.S. government decided to help several U.S. automakers stay financially stable through the recession, largely because they are American institutions that employ thousands of people.
Environmental Concerns and Further Invention
Environmentalists aren’t the biggest fans of most cars. Their beef isn’t with the cars themselves but the fuel that provides power and harmful byproducts. According to the EPA’s estimates, transportation (mostly passenger vehicles) is responsible for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions.
But environmental concerns have led to the creation of the latest car technology. The production of hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs) are steadily increasing by the day as demand for cleaner cars rises. This (and government regulations) has prompted car manufacturers to rethink engines, fueling systems and the overall design of vehicles.
Tesla is among the most prominent companies at the forefront of the clean car movement. The company has proven that all-electric vehicles can be powerful and stylish as well as energy efficient. Of course, Toyota and Leonardo DiCaprio also helped establish the hybrid industry with the Prius.
The Future of Vehicles and What It May Mean for American Society
Now that all-electric vehicles are old news, car engineers are turning their attention to new groundbreaking transportation technology. Industry insiders are extremely excited about the concept of driverless vehicles.
Remember those death and injury stats you read a few minutes ago? Automakers are hoping that driverless vehicles will help alleviate the problem. Since virtually all accidents are due to driver error, the rational is computer systems will be able to make better, quicker decisions. There are already a number of driverless vehicles being tested, but only time will tell if backseat drivers will be the way of the future.
U.S. history textbooks typically relate early automobile use from the perspective of three distinct narratives. One focuses on Henry Ford, the inventor of the Model T and founder of Ford Motor Company. Ford was a hands-on mechanic who enjoyed tinkering with automobiles. He formed his own firm in 1903 to create a reliable, low-cost, easy-to-operate and easier-to-fix device for the masses.
While ultimately successful, it took Ford five years and several failed product lines to produce the Model T. Affectionately called the "Tin Lizzie" or "flivver" (so-called because its bouncy ride was supposedly good "for the liver"), the car remained in production for over 20 years.
The second story locates the car within the economic transformation of the 1920s. Ford's mass production techniques increased worker productivity and throughput. This allowed Ford to make more cars and sell them for less money. But these methods remained hard on laborers, many of whom were required to perform routine repetitive tasks for hours on end (made famous by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times). In order to retain trained workers, Ford paid higher hourly wages and lowered the work shift from 12 to eight hours per day.
Ford Motor Company serves as the perfect symbol of the modern integrated industrial economy.
The combination of a good product, productive assembly methods, and consumer desire produced amazing economic results. Ford sold more than 15 million cars by 1927, more than all other brands combined. The demand for products used to build and operate automobiles, such as steel, rubber, oil, gasoline, and glass multiplied as well. In this way, Ford Motor Company serves as the perfect symbol of the modern integrated industrial economy.
Third, the automobile reflected a new cultural outlook in America. Behavior beyond the workplace soon took precedence in the minds of many who preferred to "work to live" rather than "live to work." The new technology allowed for more flexible and individual mobility. People moved to the suburbs, took extended vacations, used the car to free themselves from the bounds of the home, and generally consumed their free time in ways never before imagined.
These activities—like the heightened demand for steel and glass—multiplied across the American economy to produce travel-related services such as roadside restaurants, service stations, and motels. The car also obliterated the need for some existing industries, particularly fixed-rail commuter service and animal-powered transit.
...Americans defined a happy life by one that offered personal and immediate gratification.
Some textbooks address the implications of these changes. As a powerful symbol of modernity, the automobile represented individual freedom, mobility, and independence. The car also linked the profound economic changes (especially the rise of big business) to the pursuit of personal happiness through consumption. Increasingly, Americans defined a happy life by one that offered personal and immediate gratification, even if this meant rising debt and a loss of local community.
Those unable to meet the economic threshold required to sustain the "goods life" soon found themselves excluded from consideration. The social costs of individual automobile use remained hidden. Tax dollars once applied to public mass transit shifted to user fees (gas taxes) that paid for road improvements or liability insurance. Rising incidents of automotive crime, auto accidents, and sexual promiscuity earned the condemnation of isolated agencies (and the sorrow of their victims), but did little to stem the rising tide of change.
Increasingly workers defined their lives through the goods they consumed rather than the jobs they held.
While textbooks do a fine job framing these three issues, they too often neglect several other key considerations. For example, the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine remained only one option (see Primary Source Internal Combustion Engine ). Steam and electric cars were both functional and productive options in 1910. They were discarded because of the relative low cost and availability of gasoline.
Ford's business model, too, significantly changed the relationship workers developed with their employers and their careers. Perfectly suited to the new consumer ethos of America, increasingly workers defined their lives through the goods they consumed rather than the jobs they held.
Finally, automobiles profoundly influenced youth culture and women's lives. Freed from the constraints of the home, young people found their leisure beyond the watchful eyes of their parents and other relations. While we today, a product of these changes, may look favorably upon these individualistic freedoms, others might reasonably counter that community standards and a sense of belonging were lost as Americans hit the gas pedal.
The social, economic, and, increasingly obvious today, environmental costs of...individual liberties rarely entered the public debate.
Historians today generally examine the car within the boundaries of these material and cultural changes. The automobile proved to be a harbinger of modern, liberating technologies that provided individuals extensive new freedoms, but with a price tag. Like complex cell phones and high-speed internet today, consumer technologies such as the automobile freed those able to afford the gas, hotel bills, ticket prices, and especially the time needed for leisure. The social, economic, and, increasingly obvious today, environmental costs of these individual liberties rarely entered the public debate.
One exception proved the rising toll of auto-related fatalities, especially those produced by intoxicated or otherwise reckless drivers. While the market responded to poor driving through rising liability insurance premiums, by the mid-20th century most states instituted formal licensing procedures. States also began to require minimal safety standards for all cars and criminal codes for habitually reckless drivers.
[Textbooks] too frequently ignore the costs associated with the type of economic and cultural change brought by the automobile.
While most textbooks are limited by space and state standards, they too frequently ignore the costs associated with the type of economic and cultural change brought by the automobile. Mass production lowered consumer costs, to be sure, but just as certainly they made it increasingly difficult for new innovators (the next Henry Ford) to enter the market. Widespread auto use also enjoyed state support—in the form of road improvements, the interstate highway system, and a lack of regulation—that the railroads and light-rail did not share.
Finally, textbooks too often minimize the ways that modern consumerism saddled Americans with a culture of debt and rising material expectations that promised individual "satisfaction" while delivering an unquenchable desire for something new. These remain complex and intriguing aspects of America's car culture.
Primary Source Annotated Bibliography
University of Michigan, Dearborn, and The Henry Ford. Automobile in American Life and Society.
This website was designed as an academic resource for courses focused on the automobile and the automobile industry. Each section—design, environment, gender, labor, and race—has a short introduction and two illustrated scholarly essays (often including annotated bibliographies).
New York Public Library Digital Gallery. Taking the Wheel: Manufacturers' Catalogs from the First Decade of American Automobiles.
This collection allows the visitor to explore the early history of the American automobile through images from 69 manufacturer's catalogs published in 1909. There are more than 800 total images. Of particular interest are a 27-page Ford catalog with a price list of parts for the company's Model N, R, and S cars; a similar catalog from the E.R. Thomas Motor Company; a Studebaker catalog of "electric pleasure vehicles" featuring a description of the Model 22f Electric Coupe, a car "for evening social engagements, for use in inclement weather in the summer and for winter use, a comfortable and stylish vehicle"; a catalog describing Packard Motor Car Company's "Packard Truck," with images of the truck delivering various types of goods; and a 17-page instruction book on the "Matheson six-cylinder car" with detailed technical diagrams of the car's engine, transmission, and controls.
Hagley Museum and Library. Hagley Digital Archives.
With a focus on business history and its connections to larger cultural, social, and political trends, the Hagley archive presents a number of digital images related to the early automobile industry. These include a collection of DuPont Automobiles (1919-1931). Type "automobile" into the keyword search to uncover a diverse collection of catalogs, advertisements, and other resources.
The Henry Ford. The Henry Ford Museum.
The Henry Ford Museum provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America's traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation. Its purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future.
John W. Hartman Center and Duke University Digital Scriptorium. Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920.
This site focuses on the rise of consumer culture in America and the development of a professionalized advertising industry. Keyword searches on "automobile" and "car" return advertisements, log books, and safety guides from the early years of the industry.
Secondary Source Annotated Bibliography
Belasco, Warren. Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel: 1910-1945. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979.
A well-written account of early cross-country travel and the culture of mobility spawned by automobile use.
Blanke, David. Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of America's Car Culture, 1900-1940. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
An analysis of the rising auto accident crisis in America and the country's response to this peril.
Borg, Kevin. Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Borg examines the role of automobile technology, especially the rising dependence most have on the technical experts who keep our cars running.
Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.
The standard account of America's adaptation to automobile use in the 20th century, Flink's work is comprehensive and highly informative.
Lewis, David L. The Public Image of Henry Ford. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976.
An analysis of the life and public legend of Henry Ford.
McCarthy, Tom. Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
A study of the economic and environmental costs of automotive use in America.
McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
An essential analysis of how the automobile changed and was changed by the American city.
Scharff, Virginia. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
A well-written account of women motorists in the automobile age.
The Society of Automotive Historians.
The Society of Automotive Historians includes members from all walks of life and includes authors who write books and articles about automotive history as well as people who simply enjoy reading and researching it.