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Automotive History

Automotive History


After the steam engine was invented in the early 17th century, various attempts were made to apply this source of power to self-propelled road vehicles. Early efforts were unsuccessful, except for those that produced interesting toys such as the machine developed about 1680 by the English scientist Sir Isaac Newton, which was propelled by the back pressure of a jet of steam directed to the rear. The first successful self-propelled road vehicle was a steam automobile invented in 1770 by the French engineer Nicolas Joseph Cugnot. It was designed to transport artillery, and it ran on three wheels. In Great Britain the inventors William Murdock and James Watt constructed another form of automobile in 1781, and in 1784 they produced a model of a wagon that used the power of a high-pressure, noncondensing steam engine. The British inventor William Symington in 1786 built a working model of a so-called steam carriage.

19th Century

The first automobile to carry passengers was built by the British inventor Richard Trevithick in 1801. In December of that year, Trevithick conducted a successful road test of his vehicle, which carried several passengers, on an open road near his native town, Illogan. His success was due to the greater efficiency and smaller size of his power unit, which was the first to have the piston moved by steam at high pressure. Earlier power units had pistons that moved as a result of atmospheric pressure against the vacuum produced by the condensation of steam. The quantity of water required for this condensation necessarily precluded the use of these earlier engines for vehicles. Their bulk and weight relative to the power developed, moreover, were such that they could not have moved themselves if mounted on a vehicle. Later, Trevithick successfully embodied his power plant in a locomotive for rails. He is considered the founder of both road and rail automotive transportation. In the United States, the inventor Oliver Evans obtained the first patent on a steam carriage in 1789. In 1803 he built a self-propelled steam dredge, which is regarded as the first self-propelled vehicle to operate over American roads. Improvement in the steam engine and in vehicles continued, especially in England, and by 1830 steam coaches were in regular daily use to transport passengers over English roads. Starting in 1831, however, restrictive legislation in England forced the steam coaches off the roads, and by 1860 development of self-propelled vehicles virtually ceased. In France and Germany, meanwhile, attention turned to the development of the internal-combustion engine.

The Internal-Combustion Engine

The first internal-combustion engine was designed by the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens in 1678; it was to have been fueled with gunpowder, but it was never built. About 1860 a French inventor, Etienne Lenoir, built the first practical internal-combustion engine; it burned illuminating gas. In 1866 two German engineers, Eugen Langen and Nikolaus August Otto, developed a more efficient gas engine, and in 1876 Otto built a four-cycle engine, a prototype of the so-called Otto-cycle engines used in most modern automobiles and airplanes. The high-speed internal-combustion motor of the German engineer Gottlieb Daimler revolutionized the automobile industry. His four-cycle, single-cylinder motor, patented in 1887, achieved speeds many times those of any previous engine, thereby producing many times the power for the same weight. In 1889 he developed a two-cylinder engine that gave still greater power; the cylinders were in a V-type configuration. This engine design was adopted by a French manufacturer, Emile Levassor, who launched experiments in 1891 that subsequently led his firm, Panhard et Levassor, into automobile manufacture. Levassor's first automobile, produced in 1894, not only incorporated the Daimler engine but also was the first car in which the working parts were arranged in the operational sequence still used in present-day models. That is, the engine was in front, followed by the clutch, gearbox, propeller shaft, and differential and driving axle. The superiority of the high-speed Daimler engine over the then highly developed steam engine was conclusively demonstrated at the famous Paris-Bordeaux Race of 1895. The first car, propelled by a Daimler engine, came in six hours ahead of the second car, and the next three cars to finish were all propelled by Daimler engines. Another pioneer with the gasoline engine was the German engineer Karl Benz, who in 1885, working independently of Daimler, produced a mechanically propelled tricycle. In the United States, pioneer automobile manufacturers were very active in the 1890s. Charles Edgar Duryea and his brother Frank Duryea brought out their horseless carriage in 1892-1893; the design of 1894 had two cylinders. Elwood Haynes constructed his automobile about the same time, and Alexander Winton produced his in 1896. Henry Ford produced his first car, an experimental model, in 1893.

The Selden Patent

An important development in the commercial and industrial history of the motor vehicle in the United States was the patent applied for in 1879 by George Baldwin Selden, a lawyer in Rochester, New York. By legal technicalities, the actual issuing of this patent was delayed until 1895, so that the original patent rights did not expire until 1912. This patent covered the application of an internal-combustion engine to the propulsion of a vehicle. It included the combination of such a motor with a clutch, or similar engaging and disengaging device in the train of mechanism, by which the motor drove the propelling wheels. It also covered the use of reducing gear, by which the propelling wheels could be driven at speeds lower than that of the motor shaft. Several leading companies took licenses under the patent, but others, led by Ford, refused to do so, leading to litigation that continued from 1903 to 1911. This litigation terminated in the decision that Selden's patent was not infringed because it was valid only for an automobile driven by an engine of the specific type described in the patent, instead of the four-cycle engine then in universal use. By the time the Selden patent suit ended, 600,000 automobiles were being operated in the United States, some driven by steam, some by gasoline, and some by electricity. These cars were almost all open models of the roadster and phaeton, or touring-car, type. Before that time motoring had been regarded primarily as a sport; from then on it was increasingly considered a means of transportation.

Rise of U.S. Automaking

To meet the growing demand for automobiles of all types, Ford greatly speeded up production by introducing, in 1913, the conveyor belt to carry automobile parts on assembly lines. Another important influence in the subsequent growth of the automobile industry was the formation at this time of the organization then known as the Automobile Board of Trade and now named the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. Members of the organization, which today embraces all automobile manufacturers in the United States, made a cross-licensing agreement whereby any member company might use the patents controlled by any other member, without the payment of royalties. The virtue of the agreement was that it established a custom of "patents for use," instead of patents as advantages to be monopolized and exploited. Under the agreement, patent rights were shared so that better automobiles might be made, no matter who might make them. Many early U.S. manufacturers located their plants in and about Detroit. This is where the home establishments of the manufacturers of all the passenger-car and most of the motor-truck vehicles produced in the United States are now located. While Ford was perfecting his Model T, the General Motors Corporation (GM) was established in 1908 by William C. Durant, who combined the Buick, Oldsmobile, and Oakland companies and, later, Cadillac, to form GM. The firm started by Louis Chevrolet was added in 1918. General Motors weathered numerous financial crises in its early years, finally gaining stability when the Du Pont family bought much GM stock in 1920. The invention by Charles F. Kettering of the electric self-starter in 1912 was a benchmark in U.S. automotive development, but others quickly followed, including balloon tires in 1921. Among other U.S. automotive pioneers were the brothers John Dodge and Horace Dodge, machinists and bicycle builders, for whom the Dodge car is named; Walter P. Chrysler, a railroad worker who later formed Chrysler Corporation; and John N. Willys, whose company won worldwide fame during World War II as a manufacturer of military Jeeps. Since its inception, the automotive industry has shown a steady expansion, with the exception of the years during World War II when its plants were converted to the production of war materials. In 1978 motor-vehicle production reached an all-time high of 12,878,000 units, including about 9.2 million cars. In the aftermath of the fuel shortages of 1973-74, U.S. motor-vehicle production was less than 9 million units by 1975. In the late 1970s, however, production had recovered to about 11 million units.

The Modern Auto Industry

By 1980, more than 300 million cars and 85 million trucks and buses were operating throughout the world, forming an indispensable transportation network. In the United States, automobile registrations stood at about 114 million, with 30 million commercial vehicles in operation. Germany's Volkswagen sent its first shipments of autos, popularly known as Beetles, to the United States in the early 1950s and eventually became a major force in the U.S. auto industry, opening a U.S. assembly plant in Pennsylvania in 1978 and planning another for Michigan for 1983. British and French automakers also enjoyed growth in exports to the United States during the 1950s. In 1959 the French shipped in a record 187,000 units and the British a record 208,000 units. In that year, U.S. auto manufacturers introduced their first lines of small "compact" cars to compete with imports, and initially they were successful. In later years, however, size and weight were added to these models, once again leaving the smallest-size market to exporters, notably the Japanese. The first Japanese imports to the United States-16 compact pickups-arrived in 1956. Ten years later Japanese vehicle imports reached 65,000 units. By 1980, the Japanese claimed 2.1 million sales in the United States. The Japanese firm Honda built an assembly plant in Ohio that began production in 1982, and another Japanese firm, Nissan, constructed a plant in Tennessee that began producing compact pickup trucks in 1983.

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