Autos, Past and Present
FROM the earliest of times, man has been interested in transportation. At first, he depended on animals for locomotion. But there was a need for more efficient ways of getting around. A key element was the wheel, which led to horse-drawn carts and coaches. However, innovations of the 19th century revolutionized transportation in ways that were previously unimaginable.
In the second half of the 19th century, a German named Nikolaus August Otto developed a four-stroke gas-powered engine, which eventually prevailed over both steam and electric engines. Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler of Germany were important pioneers in European automobile manufacturing. In 1885, Benz ran a three-wheeled car driven by a two-cycle, one-cylinder engine that reached 250 revolutions per minute. Daimler had been building stationary gas engines since 1872. More than a decade later, along with Wilhelm Maybach, he developed a high-speed internal-combustion engine with a carburetor that made it possible to use gasoline as fuel.
Soon Daimler and Maybach built an engine that reached 900 revolutions per minute. Later, they built a second engine, which they mounted on a bicycle and ran for the first time on November 10, 1885. In 1926 the Daimler and Benz firms merged and sold their products under the name Mercedes-Benz.a Interestingly, the two men never met.
In 1890 two Frenchmen—Emile Levassor and René Panhard—produced in their shop a four-wheeled vehicle with a motor mounted in the center of the chassis. The following year they placed the motor on the front end, where it was better protected from the dust and mud of the unpaved roads.
Making Autos More Accessible
The first autos were quite expensive and, hence, beyond the reach of most people. But this changed in 1908 when Henry Ford began the assembly-line production of the Model T, which came to be known as the tin lizzie. This car revolutionized the auto industry. It was inexpensive, versatile, and easy to maintain. Even people of modest income could afford one.b According to the book Great Cars of the 20th Century, the Model T “was responsible for putting America—and ultimately the world—on wheels.”
Now, nearly a century later, many deem the automobile a necessity rather than a luxury. Indeed, one study published in the Independent daily newspaper of London indicates that people sometimes even use them for trips of less than half a mile [1 km].
Technological advances have permitted not only greater speed but also greater safety. Indeed, recent years have seen decreases in fatal accidents in a number of countries. For some, safety has become more of a selling point than aesthetics. For example, improved crumple zones enable the greater part of an impact to be absorbed by certain parts of the chassis, while the more rigid structure immediately around the driver and passengers forms a safety cage. Antilock brakes allow for better control of the vehicle on slippery surfaces. Three-point seat belts secure the chest as well as the hips, while air bags can keep the head from hitting the steering wheel or dashboard during a collision.c
Of course, there is no substitute for good driving habits. “It does no good to make cars safer if the way we drive is not right; not even the most advanced technology on safety will be able to save us if we break certain physical laws,” points out El Economista, of Mexico City.
Some of today’s vehicles seem to resemble rolling homes. A number are equipped with a compact disc player, television, telephone, and separate sound and temperature controls in the front and back. There are also cars with a satellite-aided global positioning system, enabling drivers to find the most convenient route to their destination. Some systems offer updated information on road problems. Of course, having the latest devices and the most recent model has become a status symbol for many people—a tendency that manufacturers and advertisers have not ignored.
As we have seen, the auto has come a long way since its first appearance more than a century ago. Used responsibly and safely, it can be a powerful tool for business or pleasure travel.
a Emil Jellinek, a major Daimler investor, suggested that the line be named after his daughter Mercedes. He feared that the German-sounding name Daimler would not sell well in France.
b The initial cost of the Model T was $850, but by 1924 a brand new Ford could be purchased for as little as $260. Production of the Model T continued for 19 years, during which time more than 15 million were manufactured.
c Air bags can be dangerous if used as the only protective device, particularly for children and small adults.
[Chart/Pictures on page 22-25]
Years indicated are production period
1885 Benz Motor Car
First practical automobile in the world
1907-25 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost
Fast, powerful, quiet, luxurious, and reliable
1908-27 Ford Model T
Fostered mass production; more than 15,000,000 cars sold
Background: Ford production line
1930-7 Cadillac V16 7.4-L
World’s first and most successful production of a 16-cylinder engine
1939–today Volkswagen Beetle
More than 20,000,000 produced. The new Beetle (below left) was released in 1998
May be the world’s most recognized vehicle
1948-65 Porsche 356
Based on Volkswagen Beetle; started Porsche’s success
1952-7 Mercedes-Benz 300SL
Nicknamed Gullwing, it was the first car with a space frame and a fuel-injection engine
1955-68 Citroën DS 19
Had hydraulic power in its steering, brakes, 4-speed gearshift, and self-leveling suspension
This innovative and popular car was also very successful in races and rallies
1962-4 Ferrari 250 GTO
A 300-horsepower V-12, very capable sports racer
1970-3 Datsun 240Z
A reliable and affordable sports car
1970–today Range Rover
Considered the world’s best 4-wheel-drive utility vehicle
1984–today Chrysler Minivan
Helped to start the minivan craze
On October 15, 1997, crossing the desert of Black Rock, Nevada, U.S.A., it set an official speed record of 763.035 m.p.h. [1228 km/h]
Benz-Motorcar: DaimlerChrysler Classic; background: Brown Brothers; Model T: Courtesy of VIP Classics; Rolls-Royce: Photo courtesy of Rolls-Royce & Bentley Motor Cars
Jeep: Courtesy of DaimlerChrysler Corporation; black Beetle: Courtesy Vintage Motors of Sarasota; yellow Beetle: VW Volkswagen AG
Citroën: © CITROËN COMMUNICATION; Mercedes Benz: PRNewsFoto
Chrysler Minivan: Courtesy of DaimlerChrysler Corporation; Datsun: Nissan North America; Thrust SSC: AP Photo/Dusan Vranic