In 1896, the Barnum & Bailey Circus gave top billing over the albino and fat lady to the Duryea Motor Wagon. A few months later Montgomery Ward noted that children should see this wonder before the fad passed. One driver, a blacksmith, in a fifty-mile Chicago automobile race quit within half that distance because of exhaustion.
Less than a decade later, the American automobile industry was a multi million dollar business, automobiles were being driven coast to coast, and steam powered vehicles were pushing the speed record limits to near one hundred fifty miles per hour. Within one generation this country became a nation on the move and for the first time the horse played no role. Within two generations America had become a car culture nation with the throttle replacing the stirrup and has never looked back.
By 1920, every aspect of American society had been touched or transformed. More homes had automobiles than indoor plumbing. Family vacations and Sunday drives no longer were relegated to the rich and famous and tourism related businesses flourished as never before.
In a seemingly blink of an eye the American landscape was transformed. In 1919, the world’s first tricolor traffic signal to regulate traffic appeared on the streets of Detroit. By end of the following decade, the first cloverleaf interchange had opened and the federal government was annually paving 10,000 miles of roads.
Before 1924 motorists had but two time honored choices for lodging; sleeping under the stars or at a local inn or hotel. Then in 1925 Los Angeles architect Arthur Heineman introduced lodging designed with the motorist in mind.
The unique layout of the property featured two room bungalows that included a small kitchen and private adjoining garage all facing towards a central courtyard. Other amenities included a swimming pool and picnic tables. The property was billed as a motor hotel but the owner soon shortened this to motel.
As Americans took to the road in record numbers enterprising individuals transformed the roadsides into a never-ending sideshow. In Oklahoma, there were albino buffaloes and in California, there was the mysterious “Thing.” You could stop to see live rattlesnakes and Indians in Arizona and hillbillies in the Ozarks.
Before 1920 today’s automotive essentials – heaters, air conditioners and even doors and windows – were often unimaginable luxuries and concepts. Nevertheless, with each passing year the luxuries of the past become the standard features of the next.
In 1912, Cadillac introduced the electric starter as standard equipment. Within ten years, most every major automaker with the exception of Ford had followed suit. Windshield wipers, and heaters, turn signals and automatic transmissions all began as expensive options.
The very thought of buying a new automobile without a gas gauge prominently displayed in the instrument cluster is as foreign to the modern consumer as buying a good surrey for daily transportation. Surprisingly the in dash gas gauge is a relatively recent phenomena.
Initially gas level measurements were sight glasses or a measuring stick. Ford would utilize the later as standard equipment through 1927 when production of the Model T was suspended. Even luxury carmakers such as Franklin were using tank-mounted gauges on the exterior of the car as late as 1928.
In 1904 a coast-to-coast drive of just over one month was worthy of headlines throughout the world. As late as 1919, a military convoy required sixty days for a drive from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. It would be 1936 before the entire length of Route 66 was paved and the early 1950’s before Route 6 was in a similar state.
By 1960, automotive slogans and jingles were better known than the Star Spangled Banner. Most everyone was familiar with “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” or “Ask the man who owns one.”
In retrospect, the automobile can be seen as a time capsule documenting the dramatic changes of the past century. The curved dash Olds of 1902 epitomizes the pioneering automotive spirit. The Model T encapsulates the rise of the middle class. The stylish Cord 810 reflects the American spirit during times of trial. The optimism of the 1950’s can be found in the rakish fins and garish chrome of Detroit produced land yachts.
The 1960’s were a time of confusion and turmoil. This too is reflected in the popular automobiles of that era – the GTO and VW microbus, the Corvair and Olds Vista Cruiser. Likewise with the 1970’s and its distinctive Gremlin and Pacer, and powerful Trans Am and the 1980’s with the Plymouth Voyager.
With the exception of the computer, the automobile was the driving force behind the largest societal change in history. Even with the rising price of gasoline there seems to be no indication America is ready to give up its love affair with the automobile. Therefore, only one question remains unanswered, what form will the next generation of American car culture time capsules take in the years to come?
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