of the first century of the American automobile.
In Wheels In Motion, author Gerald Perschbacher traces the genesis of the American automobile during its first century. Perschbacher’s perspective as a writer, reviewer, and collector of automotive memories for more than 20 years gives him a unique understanding of automotive history. He traces the behind-the-scenes story of the men and events that shaped the automobile, the ultimate icon of the twentieth century. The story begins with the auto pioneers of the late 1890’s and follows through to the present.
Early on, Perschbacher presents his five-point formula for success that would determine the entities with staying power. The automakers who failed in executing the formula properly eventually fell to their demise. The elements for success are simple: 1. source of power 2. mass production 3. precision manufacturing 4. good distribution and 5. meeting the needs of the public. The formula still holds true today.
Perschbacher traces how the internal combustion engine won out over steam and electric as the source of power in the first decade of the auto century. A number of manufacturers dabbled with these early motive forces before settling on the gasoline engine. Studebaker built a line of electric-powered cars from 1902, before making the complete transition to gasoline vehicles in 1912.
Indiana manufacturers were at the forefront in the fledgling auto industry. He notes that by 1902, only five firms had an annual production exceeding 100 units. One of these was Haynes-Apperson of Kokomo. Indiana was home to Auburn, Marmon, McFarlan, Overland, National, Stutz, Studebaker, Waverly Electric, and others. Until 1905, Indianapolis had more auto makers than any city in Michigan.
Other areas were a hot-bed of auto manufacturing, including Ohio and Missouri. In the early part of the century, Detroit rose to automotive prominence due to two factors: 1. a large labor pool and 2. access to raw materials via the Great Lakes.
The late 1900’s saw the rise of mass production as one of the determining forces in the industry, changed forever in 1908 with the introduction of the low-priced Model T Ford. The following years saw a dramatic increase in production figures. Ford’s decade closed out in 1910 with an annual total of 32,000 units.
Precision manufacturing was introduced in the auto industry by Henry W. Leland with Cadillac. In 1908, Cadillac was the first manufacturer to receive the Dewar Trophy for interchangeability of parts. Cadillac was the only vehicle to attempt the challenge, and he accomplishment earned the company the slogan “Standard of the World.” standardization was taken to the next step by industry associations who established procurement standards across the automotive industry.
At the end of the decade, three parts of the formula were in place. Completing the formula were building distribution systems and meeting the needs of the public. These two parts of the formula were addressed in the 1910’s and 1920’s. These two decades would make or break the majority of the respective players in the industry. Large corporations who focused on producing low-priced, mass-produced automobiles met the needs of an increasing buying public. Companies who focused on building high-quality, low-volume autos fell upon hard times in the late 1920’s and didn’t survive in the market.
The economic hardships of the 1930’s claimed such Indiana-built makes as Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, Elcar, Marmon, and Stutz. Studebaker was the sole Indiana survivor of the depression, continuing production in the state until December 1963.
Perschbacher goes on to describe innovations in the post World War II boom and the demise of the independent auto manufacturers. Studebaker and American Motors are good examples of the trials and travails of the independent producer. American Motors survived long enough to be bought out by Chrysler for its coveted Jeep line in 1987. The 1960’s and 1970’s saw an increasing demand for import automobiles. In conclusion, the author looks at the present American auto industry and what might lie in the future.
Wheels in Motion provides an excellent overview of the first century of the American automobile. Over 220 photographs in the book cover the progression of the automobile. Sidebars demonstrate the evolution of styling, fender design, and various radiator badges. Perschbacher’s keen interest in the American automobile comes through.
Wheels In Motion: The American Automobile Industry’s First Century,
Gerald Perschbacher, Iola, WI, Krause Publications, © 1996, ISBN 0-87341-453-5
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