Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Automotive … Planes and Trains Too

article number 405
article date 12-18-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Roots of Our American Auto Industry Part 1, 1880’s-90’s
by Keith Sward

From the 1948 book, The Legend of Henry Ford.


THREE TURNS of history set the stage for the career of Henry Ford, the most celebrated Yankee mechanic of his age. These events were the invention of the automobile in France, the readiness with which the North American continent embraced the new invention, and the fact that Ransom E. Olds, the first American to bring the automobile into mass production, did his work in Michigan, not far from the farm where Henry Ford was born two years before the American Civil War had run its course.

For the original conception of the automobile, mankind is indebted to Gottlieb Daimler, the inventor of the high-speed, internal-combustion gasoline engine, as well as the first man to apply this new power plant to a self-propelled vehicle.

Opening a new epoch in history, Daimler demonstrated a crude gasoline motor car on the streets of Paris in 1886, seventeen years before the founding of the Ford Motor Co. His labors were duplicated almost immediately by Carl Benz of Mannheim.

Then, using Daimler’s patents, the French firm of Panhard and Levassor evolved the basic design of the automobile as we know it today.

This company’s engineers conceived the fundamentals of the modern motor car, placing the engine forward, and adding the refinements of clutch, gear-box and transmission system. Panhard and Levassor had the further distinction of being the first practical manufacturers in the field.

At the outset, consequently, France was the world’s first automotive center. She added the words “automobile,” “garage” and “chauffeur” to the language of nations.

For more than a decade she was to lead the world in the production of motor cars. Her output for 1903—the last year of her supremacy and the year in which the Ford Motor Co. was founded—exceeded that of the United States by a margin of 5000 cars.

At the turn of the century, however, France had to cede her leadership to Yankee machinists, to men like Olds and Ford and Studebaker. Not that her own mechanics and industrialists were less apt or less enterprising than the American “automobileer.” She lost out simply because for the purpose of exploiting the motor car, the new world was more richly endowed than the old.

By contrast with France, the United States had a superior technology, a larger potential market, and, an infinitely greater wealth of material resources.

Once the automobile caught on in the 90’s, it found its perfect medium on the North American continent. Here, all the basic industries of the nation were ripe and ready to supply the wants of the rising automobile manufacturer.

The developed resources of the country were limitless. The land was rich in steel and oil. Rockefeller’s work was all but finished. Ten years earlier, S. F. Bowser had invented a self-measuring oil pump, the forerunner of the modern filling station. By 1890 the United States was producing more than one-third of the world’s annual tonnage of iron and steel. The 90’s brought Andrew Carnegie’s career to a close.

Likewise in this decade the pioneers of the American automobile could draw on the experience of a mature rubber industry. Goodyear had vulcanized rubber twenty years before the Civil War. Hard rubber tires had been used on horse-drawn vehicles since the 50’s. And the principle of the pneumatic valve, which made possible the air-filled tire of the American bicycle of the 90’s, had been conceived by August Schroeder half a century before the invention of the automobile.

The first American builders of the automobile had a further advantage over their French rivals in that they had access to a richer experience in the arts of mass production. Most of the fundamental factory appliances like the jig and the crane, and most of the basic machine tools—the pneumatic drill, the air-hammer, the turret lathe and other power machinery for molding and milling and grinding—had become standard equipment in the more advanced machine shops of the new world.

Correspondingly, there were more Americans than Frenchmen who had had a first-hand acquaintance with machinery and mechanical work.

The Americans of the 90’s had only finished conquering a continent with the use of their hands and elementary tools. They could boast a small army of artisan-mechanics, already at work in the railroad shops, in the plants which were making bicycles and carriages, and, above all, in the machine shops of the eastern seaboard.


For their first lessons in precision manufacturing—without which mass production of the automobile would have been impossible—America’s automotive pioneers had no need to leave their native soil. They had only to apply to a new product the arts of production which had been worked out a generation earlier in the American munitions factories, in the domestic manufacture of sewing machines, and in the foremost machine shops of New England.

Among the assets which made America, of all the semi-industrialized nations, best suited for the development of the automobile was the most extensive railroad system in the world, the largest self-contained population—hence, the largest body of potential users of the automobile and the greatest reaches of sheer space.

At the close of the 80’s, seven transcontinental railway lines connected the coastal limits of North America. By this time the United States had laid one-half of the world’s track-bed, and of the 76,000,000 people within her continental borders in 1890, 21,000,000 lived west of the Mississippi, in states and territories where there were fewer than ten inhabitants to the square mile.

The invention of the automobile was perfectly timed, therefore, to meet ‘the needs of the expanding American West and Middle West.


At the outset the American motor car made enemies as well as friends. It was too noisy and too fast for a generation that was geared to the quiet and easy tempo of a horse age. It antagonized the farmer because it threw his teams into a panic.

Moreover, the first American cars, built entirely by hand, were so expensive they were beyond the reach of the average citizen. Thus for a decade the automobile failed to displace the horse because, as Duryea once put it, “Oats were too cheap.”

Furthermore, the early models were utterly undependable. Breakdowns were the rule. The enterprising “automobileer” had to harden himself to the jeering of lookers-on and passers-by.

Frank Duryea driving his automobile, 1895.

The antagonisms toward America’s first gasoline buggies are reflected in the laws and journals of the period.

In 1899 the town of San Rafael, California, had an ordinance which required the driver of an automobile to come to a dead stop within three hundred feet of every passing horse. A year later Vermont was enforcing a statute which compelled every motorist in motion to employ “a person of mature age” to walk ahead of him one-eighth of a mile, bearing a red flag in his hand.

The speed limit within the city limits of Savannah, Cincinnati and of San Francisco in 1902 was eight miles per hour.

By act of city council, motorists at this time were barred from the parkways of most of the country’s larger cities. An “automobileer” who defied such an ordinance in Chicago in 1902 was arrested for “riot, disturbance and breach of the peace.” He had made bold to take his machine onto Michigan Boulevard, traveling at a moderate rate of speed but over a course reserved for horse-drawn vehicles.

The farmers of the nation, meanwhile, were bitter in their denunciations of the “devil wagon.”

All in all, it took ten years to wean the American public from its original prejudice against the motor car. By 1905 or thereabouts, most of the country was willing to concede what Thomas Edison had foreseen a decade earlier. In discussing the future of the automobile, Edison had remarked with finality in 1895, “The horse is doomed!”

All that America was waiting for in 1900, so far as automobiles were concerned, was a car that would run and one that it could afford to buy. The nation was marking time until someone had the genius to carry the new product from the field of invention into the realm of practical manufacturing.

That transition took place in the city of Detroit. It occurred there rather than in some other center of the United States because of a series of social “accidents” and because of the direct influence of two outstanding personalities: Ransom E. Olds and Henry M. Leland.

The first of the social “accidents” that was to make Detroit the automobile capital of the world was the fact that, before the rise of the motor car, the bicycle and carriage manufacturers of the country had concentrated their operations in Michigan and Ohio.

By the time it became feasible to manufacture automobiles, both of these older trades had begun to slip. The “bicycle bubble” exploded in the 90’s. Simultaneously the timber reserves of Michigan were getting thinned, and the carriage-makers of the State, stripped of a natural advantage in their basic raw material, had begun to cast about for new fields of enterprise.

Thus Studebaker, Nash, Durant and the seven Fisher brothers went over to the automobile trade direct from the wagon and carriage shops. The migrants from the defunct bicycle business included men like Alexander Winton, John Willys, W. E. Metzger, Charles Duryea, Barney Oldfield and the Dodge brothers.

Ransom E. Olds in his “Pirate” racing automobile.

Long before they made the shift, these promoters and manufacturers had a sound basic knowledge of factory method. Those who had worked in the carriage plants of Flint led the country in advanced assembly methods of production.

Certain other economic conditions made Detroit ripe for its work of incubating the automobile. Many of its mechanics and industrialists were already familiar with the gasoline motor. They had been making marine engines since the 80’s.

The city had, in addition, a large reservoir of machine shops and of metal-working establishments.

When the need arose, it could solicit labor from the adjoining Province of Ontario into which skilled machinists had migrated from the factory towns of England and Scotland.

Finally, the city enjoyed a favored location on the Great Lakes waterway.

But before it could comprehend either its own industrial destiny or the potentialities of the automobile, Detroit required the example of Ransom E. Olds. Olds appeared on the scene in 1899 when the company which he managed, the Olds Motor Works, began to produce the original Oldsmobile.

Olds and his associates started out on a shoestring. Their plant, located on East Jefferson Avenue some distance from the heart of Detroit, was small. The money behind their venture could have been raised by any small-town banker. Their undertaking succeeded where others failed, however, in that it was guided by an excellent business sense and a degree of genius.

To begin with, Olds made the job easier by farming out most of his work. The Dodge brothers who ran a thriving machine shop were placed under contract to build his engines. His transmissions were made by the Lelands, father and son.

Olds concentrated on the job of final assembly. For that work a miniature factory was adequate. The “merry Oldsmobile” was soundly put together; Olds made a cheaper car and a better product than any other pioneer in the business because he was the first to bring the automobile into quantity production.

Small as it was, the factory on East Jefferson was the model of its day. It was the first plant in the United States specifically designed and laid out for the manufacture of motor cars. In five years’ time the growth of factory methods at the Olds Works was so remarkable that Olds is remembered to this day as the “father” of automotive mass production.

1901 Oldsmobile.

When the industry finally became entrenched in the city of Detroit for good, more than a hundred of its prominent executives were former associates or employes of the original Olds group.

In their haste to get a footing in the new field and because they were green at the job, most of Olds’ imitators and Olds himself had one major fault in common. Their factory methods were raw, and their cars were correspondingly crude and unreliable. The man who best understood this basic shortcoming and who pointed the way to its correction was Henry M. Leland, one of Olds’ suppliers.

Unlike most of his fellow-pioneers in the automobile business, Leland was a craftsman from the very beginning. When he entered the industry, he was already expert in four of the fields which contributed to the rise of the automobile.

Having worked in the federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, during the Civil War, and later at the Colt arms plant, he had had his first exposure to precision-machine work in the munitions industry. He had an intimate knowledge of the best factory practices of New England from having worked for one of the foremost tool-making firms of the East in the 70’s and 80’s.

Moreover, he was thoroughly familiar with two products which were immediate forerunners of the American motor car. Throughout the 90’s he had made marine engines and bicycle parts in a factory of his own in Detroit.

From the day he began making automobile parts for Olds in 1899, Leland was the foremost artisan of the trade. The gears which he built for the first Oldsmobile were models of workmanship. They gave this car much of its reputation for smooth and dependable performance.

The following year, in 1900, Leland became a manufacturer in his own right. He designed the Cadillac and began his notable career as production manager of the Cadillac Motor Car Co.

Six years later, Leland made a dramatic experiment that could have been duplicated by none of his fellow-manufacturers in America and, perhaps, by no other car-maker in the world. He took three Cadillacs to London, and in the presence of impartial experts, he had the cars disassembled and their parts scrambled so that none could tell which pieces had come from which car. Then, from this hodgepodge of parts, workmen proceeded to reconstruct three new automobiles on the spot. Once reassembled, the Cadillacs not only ran but they succeeded in passing as well a rigorous 500-mile speed test.

This brilliant performance was the first demonstration that precision techniques had been successfully applied to the manufacture of the motor car and that a producer of the automobile had mastered the principle of “interchangeability of parts.”

Meanwhile, it was Leland’s personal achievement in the arts of production, along with Olds’ example, that made Detroit the birthplace of the American automobile industry. Because of his influence, Detroit clinched its primacy in the new field; it perfected its techniques of manufacturing more quickly than any other factory center in the country.*

*Although he was nearly sixty when he produced the first Cadillac, Leland was to remain in the trade for twenty years to come. Selling out to General Motors in 1909, he continued to manage GM’s Cadillac unit for the next eight years. Then at the close of the first World War, Leland and his son, Wilfred, made a fresh start. They designed the Lincoln and founded the Lincoln Motor Car Co. This enterprise, in turn, was to be absorbed by the Ford Motor Co.

New York Automobile Show, 1900.
< Back to Top of Page