The History of Automobiles


An automobile (also called a car) is a wheeled passenger vehicle that runs primarily on roads and seats one to six people. Modern life is largely inconceivable or at least highly inconvenient without access to an automobile, and there are about 1.4 billion of them in operation around the world. The automobile has influenced society in many ways and created numerous jobs and industries.

Automobiles have been around for several hundred years. The earliest automobiles were little more than horseless carriages with engines. By the end of the 19th century, however, manufacturers had produced a number of vehicles powered by steam, electric power, or gasoline. Ultimately it was the gasoline-powered automobile that won out.

In the 1920s, the automobile became a major force for change in America. It ranked first in value of manufactured products and was the largest customer of steel, petroleum, and other industrial commodities. It also provided one out of every six jobs in the nation and helped develop a consumer goods-oriented economy. In addition, it gave many women a means to travel outside the home and participate in work or other activities previously reserved for men.

It was the invention of Henry Ford, who introduced assembly-line production techniques and made his Model T affordable to middle-class families, that truly revolutionized automobile production. This, in turn, brought many other manufacturers into the market and enabled them to produce a large variety of models at a fraction of the price of prior designs.

The automobile has become a symbol of freedom for many Americans. It has given many people the opportunity to rediscover pristine natural areas and shop in towns they had never before visited. It has helped teenagers gain independence by driving themselves and allowed dating couples a private place to have physical contact. Despite these benefits, the automobile has come with some drawbacks: traffic congestion and crashes; demands for licensing and safety regulations by states; high fuel consumption and air pollution from exhaust; and the draining of dwindling world oil supplies.

Throughout the decades of automobile history, engineering has often been subordinated to questionable aesthetics and nonfunctional styling. This has come at the expense of safety, economy, and quality. As a result, by the mid-1960s American cars were being delivered to retail buyers with an average of twenty-four defects per unit. The era of the annually restyled “road cruiser” began to end as engineers and consumers alike demanded more functionally designed, safer, more economical, and better-built vehicles. These changes were soon accelerated by escalating gasoline prices and a growing desire for smaller, more efficient vehicles. In recent years, companies have begun to respond to this demand with a wide variety of new and improved vehicles. These include small sedans, hatchbacks, and sporty compact cars. New engine technologies have also helped increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. As a result, the automobile industry has been changing rapidly and continuing to expand worldwide.