Automobiles in the 20th Century

The automobile was a useful invention that affected American daily life more than any other technological advance in the 20th century. It gave people access to jobs, places to live and services. It also allowed people to explore places they could not easily reach without a car. And, it brought a host of new businesses like motels and restaurants.

While exact credit for the automobile goes to a number of individuals, most accounts point to Karl Benz in Germany and Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Germany and France in the 1890s as the inventors of the first modern motor cars. By the early 1910s, Ford introduced modern mass production techniques in his Highland Park, Michigan, plant and the Model T runabout was the first affordable car.

In the late 1920s, a number of innovations made it possible to produce many more cars than ever before. Some of the most important included the self-starter, the closed all-steel body, the high-compression engine and the hydraulic brakes. Other significant developments included the syncromesh transmission and drop-frame construction.

But by the mid-1950s, market saturation coincided with a decline in innovation. Engineering became subordinate to nonfunctional styling and quality deteriorated. And the higher unit profits Detroit made on gas-guzzling “road cruisers” came with the social costs of increased air pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil reserves.