The story of the car is rich, disorderly and inextricably linked with the history of the 20th century. Some highlights of a fascinating evolution:
The question of who invented the automobile is a contentious one. But the three-wheeled Velociped first built by Carl Benz of Mannheim, Germany, in 1885 is now widely acknowledged as the earliest direct ancestor of the modern car, with its water-cooled, coal-gas-fired internal combustion engine. Benz’s name survives in one of the world’s most renowned firms, Daimler-Benz AG of Stuttgart. But to his neighbors the inventor was just a crank, and to local police a public nuisance.
Ford Model T
As a young man, Henry Ford migrated from his father’s farm near Dearborn, Mich., to Detroit on foot, armed with little more than what he called “knowhow” that he used to put America on wheels with the legendary Model T. By teaching the world how to mass-produce cars, he created an economic dynamo which is still the greatest source of wealth in any modern economy. Ford sold more than 15 million “Tin Lizzies”
that between stood 1908 for and almost 1927—a 50 years. sales record
Ford invented mass production, but it was Alfred Sloan Jr. of General Motors who invented modern car marketing. The concept emerged in 1927 “Most Beautiful Chevrolet,” the first tentative expression of Detroit styling. The timing was exquisite: in 1927 sales of cars bought to replace old ones overtook sales to people who had never before owned a car. They wanted something more than Ford’s basic black, and the 1927 Chevrolet, available in several colors, outstripped Ford in sales for the first time. In 1927 Chevrolet also pioneered the concept of planned obsolescence, with a crude but effective campaign offering five-dollar discounts to buyers who demolished their old cars. A company letter outlined a special fourstep process guaranteed to remove old cars—especially Fords—from the road.
It declared: “The use of the sledge and pick is the best method.”
The Duesenberg SJ
The tradition of fine craftsmanship continued to link cars with their prehorse-
less heritage long after the emergence mass production. The Depression almost killed it—but not before a final flowering which produced some of the world’s most extravagant and beautiful cars. Made in Indiana between 1921 and
1938, the Duesenberg SJ epitomized the trend. It was one of the largest (150-inch wheelbase), most expensive (as much as $60,000) and fastest (115 m.p.h. cruising speed) cars ever built. Last year a 1937 SJ sold in the United States for $800,000.
When U.S. government engineers conceived the vehicle, they called it “Truck 14-ton, 4x4, Command Reconaissance.” But it promptly won the nickname “Jeep” (from GP, which stood for Gener-
al Purpose). First produced by the Toledo, Ohio-based Willys-Overland Motor Company in 1941, the four-wheeldrive Jeep could climb a 60degree grade, tow 992 lb. and cross 21-inch-deep rivers—capabilities that helped the Allies to win the Second World War and that have kept it in constant production ever since.
The 1959 Cadillac
On a United States visit, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev once pointed to the foot-high tail fin of a 1959 Cadillac and asked, “What is this thing for?” And although some early advertising made engaging claims about highspeed stability, there really was no answer. Tail fins, gadgetry and the pounds of chrome that went with them were nothing more than an expression of the capitalist good life, glorious but inane, and evidence of a premature senility that soon led Detroit into crisis.
The KdF Volkswagen
A brilliant car designer, Ferdinand Porsche first dismissed Adolf Hitler’s 1933 specifications for a lowpriced “people’s car” as impossible. But he gained faith after visiting the Ford factory, where he learned about low-cost mass production. Still, the Beetle did not become popular until after the war, when Allied servicemen learned to love it and brought their taste for the car home. Crude, eccentric, vulnerable in collisions —but relia-
ble—the Beetle touched off a revolution in the North American car market, preparing ground for the “Japanese invasion.” In 1972 it surpassed its spiritual forebear, the Model T, as the world’s most popular car, and is still being made—in Brazil.
The 1976 Honda Accord
Many experts attribute Japan’s success to the regimentation of its work force. But Soichiro Honda was a renegade, a high school dropout and race driver obsessed with motorcycles. His creative genius spawned exceptional motorcycles and, with the Accord, a stunning sedan that destroyed all myths about Japan’s “toy cars.” Although far from
perfect, the Accord combined superb craftsmanship, high technology and cost in a package so convincing that Detroit, despite its best efforts, has yet to produce a good imitation.
1985 BMW 318i
Bayerische Motorenwerke AG (BMW) in Munich first entered the North American market in the late 1950s with the
tiny Isetta 300, the sort of car used by circus clowns. But in the 1980s, the nononsense German functionalism of BMWcars has made them the ultimate status symbol among anti-Detroit Yuppies. The value of that symbol is best illustrated by the $22,000 318i, a “baby Bimmer,” which sells for almost twice as much as other quality small sedans.
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