Automobiles, usually with four wheels and an internal combustion engine, are self-propelled vehicles that can carry a large number of passengers and/or cargo. They are primarily used for passenger transportation on land.
Automobiles first appeared in the late 1800s in Germany and France. Originally, they were steam powered cars, which could go fast, but were inconvenient to start. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that gasoline-powered automobiles began to win the race. By the 1920s, the gasoline-powered automobile had become the dominant type of automobile on the streets of the United States and Europe.
During the First World War, the automobile industry was a vital contributor to the nation’s war production. The industry produced 75 essential military items. In 1913, the United States produced 485,000 motor vehicles. This accounted for 56 percent of the nation’s total sales.
After the war, automobile production skyrocketed in Japan and the United States. As a result, the automotive industry became a global industry by the middle of the twentieth century. But by the mid-1960s, the quality of postwar vehicles had become increasingly questionable. Many defects were safety-related.
Although the first commercially successful gasoline-powered car was produced in the United States in 1896, it wasn’t until Henry Ford introduced the Model T that the automotive industry took off in earnest. With its mass-production techniques, the Model T quickly overtook its competitors. Before long, the Model T was becoming the most affordable way for the middle class to purchase a car.
When the Model T first appeared, it sold for under five hundred dollars. However, its price declined significantly as assembly lines allowed for mass production. By the mid-1920s, the Model T had sold fifteen million units.
In the early days, automobiles were designed for short trips. By the end of the twentieth century, the cars were much heavier and more powerful. The models were more sophisticated and had become gadget-bedecked. Some of the new cars also had hydraulic brakes and a high compression engine.
Automakers soon discovered that a smaller, cheaper car could compete with the expensive Model T. A number of moderately priced cars began installment sales in 1916. Since the government didn’t impose tariffs on the cars, the sales were largely over a large geographic area.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the number of active automobile manufacturers dropped from 253 to 44. By the late 1930s, automakers had begun to adopt mass production methods. Increasing demand for cars and a dwindling supply of skilled labor encouraged mechanization of industrial processes in the U.S.
General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler formed the “Big Three” of the automobile industry in the early 1920s. While the Big Three dominated the market, their strategy changed when they began to adopt Sloanism.
Sloanism meant that the styling of the automobiles was paramount. Engineers were subordinated to the stylists. Thus, the cars began to become more stylish and less functional.
Unlike Europeans, the United States had a higher per capita income and a more equitable income distribution. That meant that the demand for automobiles was greater than in Europe. However, as the demand for new cars outstripped the supply, the automakers started to rely on the backlog of used cars in dealer lots to meet the demand.