From an historical perspective, the transition from stirrup and reins to throttle and steering wheel was a rapid one. The transition from carriage without a horse to climate-controlled cocoon took a bit longer but not much. Along the way were milestones that marked the quantum leaps in automotive technology that made this possible and also made possible the modern era where more than 95% of all employment is related to the automobile in one way or another.
In the beginning vehicles powered by electricity or steam dominated the urban landscape in America. An advertisement for the 1903 Jaxon gives a hint at why, “Steam is reliable and easily understood.” Of even more importance, there was no need to risk life or limb in cranking the engine. In 1911, that advantage vaporized.
From the very inception of the automobile inventors had devised means to eliminate the need for crank starting a vehicle with compressed air, springs, and even acetylene explosions. None was reliable and many were more dangerous than the manual crank.
In 1911, Charles Kettering introduced an electric starter activated by a short burst of power from a modest size storage battery. In essence, it was simply an improved and larger version of a similar device he had previously invented for his previous employer, National Cash Register. Kettering’s electric starter first appeared on the 1912 Cadillac but by 1916 almost every American automobile manufacturer, except for Ford, offered, or featured the device.
If one word were used to summarize America’s century plus love affair with the automobile it would be power. Moreover, if that word were made manifest in steel it would be in a V8 configuration.
Numerous American and European manufacturers have toyed with the idea since at least 1907. None, however, was reliable, cost effective to manufacture or maintain. To some degree, the engineers at Cadillac resolved many of these problems in time for the 1914 model year.
However, the engines were still expensive to produce and as a result were available in only the most luxurious of automobiles. An attempt to produce and offer a lower priced version in the 1918 Chevrolet did nothing to change that.
It would be the 1932 model year before the legendary V8 became available to the masses. The revolutionary process of casting the block in one piece that made this possible would represent the zenith of Henry Ford’s creative genius.
In retrospect, it seems quite odd to consider with all of the technological advancement made in getting cars to go faster between 1900 and 1920 there was little advancement in getting them to stop. During this period a variety of configurations – cables, wires, or rods – were used to improve on the carriage version of applying something to the wheel to make a vehicle stop. All, however, were trouble prone, wore unevenly and most always pulled to one side making a safe emergency stop almost impossible.
In 1918 Malcolm Loughead (later changed to Lockheed), a builder of airplanes, patented a revolutionary braking system in which fluid hydraulically transmitted equal pressure to all four wheels. In 1922, the performance cars built by Duesenberg were the first to offer this advanced braking system and in 1924 the Chrysler Six became the first mass produced American vehicle to offer it as standard equipment.
In spite of dramatically improved safety and ease of maintenance, several companies continued utilizing the more archaic systems. A few went so far as to brand these brakes as unsafe. By 1938 all manufacturers with the exception of Ford, and Crosley in 1939, featured hydraulic brakes.
Automatic transmissions, power steering, air conditioning and numerous components all contributed to dramatic changes in the automobile and society as a whole. However, one little item introduced quietly in some 1975 General Motors built vehicles transformed the industry more completely than any invention in the history of the automobile – the microprocessor.
As an option on some high-end models, that year a Motorola designed chip recorded distance on a trip. In 1978 they used a “chip” to control fuel flow, spark and combustion. From those humble beginnings has come a torrent of revolutionary innovation.
Memory seats and climate control, stereo systems and DVD players, digital instrumentation and all variety of system monitors are but a few. However, by far the most important contribution has been the ability to make an adjustment, redesign a system, or enhance performance with the mere installation of a new or different chip.
Short of an apocalyptic event that returns man to the Stone Age, it is difficult to imagine anything that could inhibit or destroy America’s love/hate relationship with the automobile. From that perspective, the changes and advancements in automotive technology that loom on the horizon are nothing short of exciting. However, for those of us who still treasure the freedom and independence that comes with being able to keep our vehicles going without the assistance of a technician this euphoria is most definitely tinged with a bit sadness as with the passing of an old friend.

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