There is perhaps no other invention during the twentieth century that had such a profound impact on American society than the automobile. It has become an intricate part of American culture. For many, it is a status symbol of wealth. For others, they believe that the car they drive defines their personality. While for still others, it is simply a means of getting from one location to another. However, no matter how one defines what the automobile symbolizes, it has become an important part of American society and culture.
Before the automobile, people traveled across land by horse or by train, thus living within distance of a train station was important, and the livery stable was one of the most important businesses, much as gas stations are today.
Livery stables often served as an inn for travelers to rest and provided a place to rest or board his horse, as well as a place to rent horses, carriages, sleighs and even drivers.
In the pre-automobile society, people lived in cities and worked in cities, or they lived in the country and worked on farms.
It has been said that Henry Ford freed common citizen from geographical limitations because the automobile created mobility on a scale that had never been known before, and the total effect on living habits and social customs is endless.
Prior to cars, transportation was by horse-drawn wagons that generally could only travel about fifteen miles per day, therefore anyone who lived in a community or on a farm that was more than fifteen miles from a city, railroad, or navigable waterway was basically isolated from the mainstream of economic and social life.
Automobiles and paved roads narrowed the gap between the rural and urban areas, enabling farmers to ship products easily and economically by truck.
However, the effect on city life has been even more dramatic than the effect on rural area, because the automobile accelerated the outward expansion of population into the suburbs, known commonly as urban sprawl.
Moreover, highway transportation encouraged businesses and industries to move out of the cities to areas where land was cheaper and space available for structures.
Before the automobile era, there was a sharp physical division between city and rural areas.
The city was basically a confined area beyond which there was rural areas, and in some directions rivers or other bodies of water.
City workers who lived outside urban zones were dependant upon transportation by rail for getting to and from, however the railroads were limited in providing station-to-station service and accessibility was only for relatively short distances on both sides of the tracks, thus the suburban areas were quite restricted.
In fact, for the most part, the upper income population inhabited the suburban areas, along with those who catered to their needs, thus "providing for a small sector of the bourgeoisie many of the advantages of country living in close proximity to the urban centers."
Yet, this situation changed little when the automobile first came on the market because during the early years, cars were not only expensive, but unreliable as well, thus only the wealthy could afford to buy them and take on the expense of their upkeep, not to mention the fact that except for city and town streets, roads were few and far between and not in very good shape.
Therefore, as far as the suburbs were concerned, automobiles simply complemented the existing patterns and lifestyles, rather than changing them.
As Paul Sweezy points out in the April 2000 issue of Monthly Review,
"Owned by the upper-income commuters and largely chauffeur-driven (the chauffeur fulfilling the role of mechanic as well as driver at a time when repair
and service stations were all but nonexistent), cars expanded the area within which commuters could conveniently live but introduced no new elements into the picture."
During the 1920's a process began which ultimately culminated in what has become known today as "urban crisis."
The immediate forces behind this were the fact that the automobile had become cheaper in cost, and the road and highway network had expanded.
Self-powered vehicles were demonstrated as early as 1769, yet it was more than a hundred years later, before the history of the automobile really began.
Automotive history is divided into several eras based on the major design and technology shifts, and although the exact boundaries of each era are a bit hazy, scholars generally define them as follows: Antique (1885 -- 1979), Veteran (1885 -- 1904), Brass/Edwardian (1905 -- 1918), Vintage (1919 -- 1930), Classic (1931 -- 1979), Pre-war (1931 -- 1948), Post-war (1949 -- 1979), and Modern (1980 -- present).
By the mid-1800's, steam, combustion, and electrical motors had all been attempted, and by the 1900's, it was still uncertain how the automobile would be powered.
In the beginning, the electric car was the most popular, however a battery did not exist at that time that would allow a car to move with speed over much distance.
Although the electric cars actually set some of the earlier speed records, they did not remain in production after the first decade of the twentieth century.
Moreover, the steam-driven engines lasted only until the 1920's, mostly due to the price of steam powered engines, both to build and maintain, were incomparable to the gas engines, and there was always a great risk of a boiler explosion, all of which kept the steam engine from becoming popular.
The combustion engine beat out the competition on every level, leading the early American automobile pioneers such as Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford to reject the designs of steam or electrical power, and build reliable combustion engines.
The first man to be granted an automobile paten was Oliver Evans in 1789, who in 1804 demonstrated his first successful self-propelled vehicle.
This was not only the first automobile in the United States, but was the first amphibious vehicle as well, for it was able to travel on wheels by land and via a paddle wheel in the water.
The first American automobile company in the United States was the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, founded by Charles and Frank Duryea in 1893.
However, it was Oldsmobile that was first to begin large-scale production in 1902, followed within a year by Ford, who began producing cars by the thousands.
The Ford Model T, 1908 to 1927, became the most widely produced and available car, and from 1927 to 1931, the Ford Model A sold more than 4 million, making it the best-selling car of the era.
What began as a toy for the rich, soon became affordable for the general population and freeing people to choose locations anywhere they wished as long as roads were available to connect them to other places.
Henry Ford achieved two important things, first he made the automobile affordable, and second he paid his workers enough to be able to buy the cars they were manufacturing, thus helping to push wages and car sale upward.
Most states established motor fuel taxes that were used to build and maintain the highways and to help the system become self-supporting.
Moreover, when Ford perfected the idea of mass-producing automobiles on a production line, he also created the need for specialized tools and heavy-duty machinery, forcing machine tool manufacturers to develop more efficient methods of manufacturing parts and create specialized tools, thus fostering a need for better and different raw materials.
Furthermore, to keep up with the fast-growing demands, steel makers developed better and more modern processes, and more mills, which created thousands of new jobs for construction workers, electricians, and plant workers.
This need for new plants also spurred opportunities for more engineers, thus increasing the need for more engineering schools throughout the country, resulting in additional new jobs for teachers.
And in addition, because books, repair manual, dealer brochures, and owner's handbooks were needed, authors were in great demand as well, resulting in added growth for the publishing industry in order to meet the demand for new print products, which in turn increased business for paper mills, printing presses, and even ink producers.
Cities began to sprawl over greater areas, and according to Hans Blumenfeld, "the overall density of American urban areas is about one fifth to one sixth of the density prevailing a century ago, when walking was the predominant mode of transportation."
An enormous amount of transportation of goods and people has to take place daily in order to keep cities alive, which involves large numbers of people commuting during concentrated times of the morning and evening, creating congestion on the roadways as individuals travel to work, school, and shopping.
Sweezy points out that according to a 1971 Gallup Poll, 81% of American workers travel to and from work by automobile, and in 1973, the Associated Press reported that "American housewives average about 100 miles each week just in family chauffeuring and errands around town."
Given the number of cars, the urban population, and the continuing expansion…