*** travel and transport -- mode : automobile car United States America








The Automobile and America

automobiles and America
Figure 1.-- The picture is of Bill Dobler, a lifetime member of AAA, as a boy about 6 years old. He is sitting on his grandfather's car. The photograph dates from about 1930. Note the 1929 Missouri license plate on the car.

No mechanical device affected American culture more than the automobile. Much of the growth in the American economy after the turn of the 20th century was centered on the new automobile. The American economy by the 1920s was to a large extent centered on the automobile. It was the industry centered on the automobile and trucks that provided the back bone for the arsenal of democracy that helped defeat the NAZIs and Japanese militarists in World War I. The automobile also have a profound cultural impact on America. City planning began to take place when the automobile in mind. Sometimes more attention was given go the automobile than people. The automobile made possible the move to the suburbs, especially after World War II. There were many other cultural impacts of the automobile. Few events were more important for an America boy than obtaining that all important driving license. Other countries were similarly affected, but not to the same extent as the United States. Historical images of boys' clothing sometimes appeared in automobile advertisements. Many American families would have photographs taken around the family automobile. It is interesting to note when searching through E-Bay, the number of American portraits picturing the children and parents with the family car.

Economic Importance

No mechanical device affected American economy in the 20 century more than the automobile. Much of the growth in the American economy after the turn-of-the 20th century was centered on the new automobile. Americans did not invent the automobile. Here the Europeans led the way. And what they produced was a craft product a high-priced play thing for the wealthy. Workers had to live near the factory where they worked. They purchased bikes to get to work. This was the situation in America as well at the turn of the century. A large number of companies made small numbers of autos--all high priced and beyond the purchasing power of workers--even American workers who earned more than European workers. The contribution to the economy was minimal. Bicycles were more important. Henry Ford changed all of this. Ford produced eight versions of cars before the revolutionary Model T (1908). He started out making high-priced cars like the other companies. The Model-T was different. Ford got the price down to $260. It turned the automobile from a luxury item and plaything for the wealthy. Ford's Model-T became a necessity for the average Joe meaning workers and farmers. It was inexpensive, versatile, and simple, meaning easy to maintain. The United States by 1870s was exceeding economic production levels beyond the great European powers (Germany, Britain, France, and Italy). And before the turn-of-the 20th-century America a surpassing the great European powers just in manufacturing. The United States by 1910 was beginning to approach the economy of those powers combined and by 1940 (before massive war damage), the American economy reached that level. Much of that massive economic growth in the 20th century was due the automobile industry. Not only did the industry provide well-paying jobs with good benefits, but there important linkages with supplier industries. Jobs and production in the auto industry support many more jobs and production in supplier and service industries--giving it an oversized role in economy. Not only did the American automobile industry make cars that its workers could afford, but in doing so dominated car production around the world. American subsidiaries led the industry in Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. And very importantly, the United States was the only important automobile manufacturer that also had an important oil industry. As automobile production increased, the American oil industry shifted from kerosene to gasoline. American trucks played an important role in World War I, but it was the industry centered on the automobile and trucks that provided the back bone for the Arsenal of Democracy that helped smash the NAZIs and Japanese militarists in World War II. It would also provide the security umbrella that would allow free societies to flourish during the Cold War. and Soviet Communism to implode.

Cultural Importance

The automobile also have a profound cultural impact on America. It began to reshape cities and the American landscape. It also began to significantly shape daily lives. Before the automobile, American was connected by the railroads. Roads were mostly unimproved tracks, especially west of the Mississippi. There were paved roads in the cities, but the pavement did not even reach into the suburbs, let alone connecting cities. The advent of the automobile brought with it public demand for improved streets and roads. City planning began to take place when the automobile in mind. Sometimes more attention was given go the automobile than people. The automobile made possible the move to the suburbs, especially after World War II. There were many other cultural impacts of the automobile. Few events were more important for an America boy than obtaining that all important driving license. That seems to be changing, but was very important during the 20th century. The changing landscape and mobility led to huge changes in the American lifestyle. This included included commerce, courting, jobs, school, recreation, shopping, socializing, vacation, work, and much more. Other countries were similarly affected, but not to the same extent as the United States. European roads were also very limited. The German Autobahn was a rare exception, but if you look at pre-War photographs you will see almost no cars. Unlike Americans few Germans owned cars. After World War II, the changes that remade America began to transform Europe--at least Western Europe. The cost of petrol, however, meant that that automobile ownership was never as widespread as in America.

The Automobile and the American Boy

Boys since the dawn of time have loved power and speed. Dating back to ancient times this mean horses. With the Industrial Revolution this changed what attracted boys' attention was steam river boats and railroad engines. Of course these were the products of steam power--marvelous engines that were loud and powerful. Steam whistles were a real draw. And boys loved these loud powerful machines. The problem is that they could not have one, only observe them from afar or obtain a toy. Henry Ford changed this when he created the Model-T Tin Lizzy. Now they were not as powerful as a riverboat or steam engine, but they were something that could be owned and dad began pulling up to the front door with a shiny new one. Ford actually went out of his way to produce a car that his workers could afford to buy. Now Ford and America did not invent the automobile. What Ford did was produce a car that the average Joe could afford for his family. America was the only country to do this. It was the Europeans that invented the automobile. All the major European countries built cars, but cars that only well-to-do people could afford. They built finely crafted, but expensive cars that only people with substantial incomes could afford. Which of course meant they built relatively small numbers compared to the American car companies. America was the world's leading industrial power at the turn-of-the 20th century, but then Ford and the Model-T propelled American industry into the stratosphere. Soon American industrial production was approaching levels of all of Europe combined. This fact would largely determine the outcome of the 20th century and the dystopian challenge of the great totalitarian powers. Back home, an American boy's life was a progression of vehicles beginning with peddle car, tricycle, scooter, and then the bicycle. In between there were all kinds of toy cars to play with. This lead inexorably toward a car of their own. Here we are almost exclusively talking about boys. his occurred first as a teenager could acquire a car a used car at virtually no cost. And at school you could take shop classes that enabled you to work on the car. My first car cost the grand total of $50. Not only was the car important with the power it put in a teenagers' hands, but also what it meant--independence. Teenagers ether at home or at school were always under adult supervision. It was only in a car that that they were first free.

Historical Importance

American and European companies made small numbers of luxury automobiles (early-1900s). They were done in very small numbers and very expensive. There was a large number of small manufacturers. Henry Ford revolutionized the industry with the Model-T Tin Lizzy. Rather than making small numbers of luxury cars, Ford took the vital step of applying assembly line manufacturing techniques to motor vehicle construction. The result was the Model-T--a vehicle for the average man. It was inexpensive and American workers were paid enough to afford one. He result was a huge new industry for America's already expanding industry. At the time, the United States was the largest industrial economy in the world. The automobile industry enabled it to grow far beyond the capacity of the European countries. The resulting economic boom resulting from the automobile industry created an industrial juggernaut far beyond the potential of the European powers. American motor vehicle production was something like 80 percent of world production. American motor vehicle production would be an important factor in World War I--primarily the trucks. When World War I began, transportation was just beginning to make the move from horse carts to trucks. In this transition, Europe was far behind America, in large part thanks to Ford's Model-T. World War I proved to be a major turning point in transportation. Before the War, goods were mostly delivered to cities by rail and then horse-drawn wagons to wholesalers and retailers. This shift began in America with the introduction of the Model-T Ford. Soon small trucks began to be built by Ford in large numbers. And the advantages of motorized vehicles soon became apparent. The Germans asked for an armistice before American industry had fully covered to war production. The automobile sector was of huge economic importance. The automobile industry continued to grow in the Roaring Twenties, but production declined some 75 percent after the Wall Street Crash (1929-32). The industry began to grow again as the economy began to revive (late-1930s). World War II would be very different than in World War I. The American automotive industry would play a crucially important role. And it was far larger than in World War I. In fact the American automotive industry had an economic footprint larger than the entire economies of most countries. The American automobile industry was hard hit by the Depression. Curiously many of the unemployed owned cars. Will Rogers quipped, "America was the first country to go to the poor house in the automobile." The mass production of cars was still largely an American phenomenon, but Europe was beginning to change. In contrast to the Germans, the American automobile industry was fully capable, but American did not have a substantial army to equip. Instead American automobile companies in 1939 were having their first good year since the onset of the Depression, turning out sleek new cars using large quantities of steel, copper, and chrome. After Pearl Harbor (December 1941), President Roosevelt after nearly a decade of lambasting businessmen, he called then 'economic royalists.' he turned to them in a desperate effort to save America. And he understood the importance of the automotive industry. World War II was an industrial war and industry would be America's route to victory. In fact, the President called the leading and hugest paid businessman (Outside Hollywood) in the country--the chairman of General Motors--William Knudsen. His job became to mobilize the Arsenal of Democracy for war and the automobile industry would be a major part of it. America would not only arm it's own military, but help arm it's fighting allies. And at the heart of the production miracle that followed would be Knudsen and the American automotive industry. America had dominated the sector before the War. Unlike other countries, it was not only the well-to-do who owned cars in America. Henry Ford had brought the automobile within the purchasing power of the average worker. And a huge industry had grown up to fill that demand.

Environmental Impact

The automobile since Henry Ford introduced the Model-T (1908) has had a huge environmental impact. The first major impact was byn injecting lead into the atmosphere because of the development and use of leaded gasoline. There were also many indirect and direct impacts. The greatest indirect impacts was facilitating the move from the cities into the suburbs. The automobile meant that you did not have to live close to where you worked. In that regard, the new work from home dynamic has even furthered that dynamic. The major direct impact was air pollution. Now initially this was a positive, because cities were beginning to have a problem with the huge piles of manure deposited on city streets daily. But as the number of cars increased, so did the internal combustion engine emissions. The major concern here is carbon-dioxide (CO2) which is a greenhouse gas. A typical passenger car emits some 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. 【EPA】 This of course varies from car to car. And there has been enormous success in increasing gasoline car mileage in recent years. The success, however, of the United States in facilitating capitalist economic models has greatly expanded the problem. The simple fact is that prosperity inevitably generates pollution. This began with the western European economic miracles following World War II and then with rise of the Asian Tiger economies. The major international economic success stories have usually included an automotive component. The enormous increases in prosperity around the world has meant that it is no longer only America where people can afford to have motor vehicles and other prized possessions. Thus the use of cars and levels of emissions has been steadily increasing despite advances in gasoline mileage rates. Some see electrical vehicles (EVs) as the answer to the emissions problem. But this is not as simple as it sounds. EVs have a substantial carbon footprint of their own. First in the added electricity that has to be generated to charge EVs--which in China mostly come from coal and in most other countries coal and other hydrocarbons. The world is years away from converting to renewables. Second is the additional quantities of metals that have to be mined both to produce EVs and massive batteries that drive them. There are even serious questions as to the potential to produce the quantities of metal necessary to fully convert the existing automobile fleet to EVs let alone the quantity needed for the expanding numbers of cars around the world. There may well be technological answers to these problems, but at this point they have not yet arrived.

Family Car Images

Historical images of boys' clothing sometimes appeared in automobile advertisements. Many American families would have photographs taken around the family automobile. It is interesting to note when searching through E-Bay, the number of American portraits picturing the children and parents with the family car. These images both illustrate cultural trends as well as clothing trends. The automobile by the 1920s had become an integral part of the American life style. Henry Ford with the Model T had made the car an affordable item for most Americans. In the prosperous 1920s many American families purchased cars. And with many families the car was a prized possession. Countless American children were photographed by the family car. It was in the 1920s that a family vacation in their car became an American institution and motels and roadside cabins sprang up all over America. These snapshots by the family car provide interesting time-line views of both the place of the car in American life and children's fashions. Until the 1960s virtually all of the cars involved were American-built cars.

Sources

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Greenhouse gas emissions from a typical passenger vehicle," (August 28, 2023). Unfortunately, the EPA has been engaging in social activism far beyond the bounds of scholarly constraints. Thus their work can not be taken as unbiased fact. But it is undoubtedly true that automobiles are injecting vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. The EPA because of promoting EVs has not, however, seriously addressed the question of the EV carbon footprint.

Harrison, Mark. "The economics of World War II: An overview," in "The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers" in Mark Harrison, ed. International Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).







HBC






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Created: June 28, 2003
Spell checked: 5:49 AM 5/29/2024
Last updated: 5:49 AM 5/29/2024