The Car at 100: a Machine That Has Shaped America
DETROIT — With a tired wheeze, the old car shudders to life before rolling onto Eight Mile Road for the trek to the State Fair Grounds, three miles away.
Sitting behind the wheel, Dean McMinn beams with pride and wonder. He's spent years - and far too much money - bringing his 1909 White Motors Sport Touring Toy Tonneau back to life.
"I got a real thrill out of restoring a piece of American history," he says.
Apparently, so did the 1,300 other classic-car enthusiasts who turned out Sunday for Auto 100, the largest historical car parade in history, and the cap to a week of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the American automobile industry.
It was 1896 when two brothers, J. Frank and Charles Duryea, produced 13 identical copies of their Duryea Motor Wagon, transforming a hobby into a business. Their company didn't last long, but by 1908, there were 408 different manufacturers vying to make a living selling horseless carriages.
"The auto industry was bred in Detroit but it wasn't born here," notes Keith Crain, publisher of the trade publication Automotive News.
The Duryeas were based in Springfield, Mass., and early entrepreneurs set up shop in every corner of the country. Yet slowly, carmaking consolidated in Detroit. The city had several key advantages. It was already a manufacturing center, turning out most of the country's stoves and bicycles. So there were foundries and a ready supply of skilled labor. And there was no shortage of visionaries, tinkerers, and financiers, men like Henry Ford and Billy Durant, the founders of the Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corp.
"The idea of a self-propelled vehicle is as old as man himself," says Richard Scharchburg, professor of industrial history at GMI, formerly the General Motors Institute, in Flint, Mich.
Steam-powered models were built during the earliest dynasties of China. And during the 3rd century AD, a self-propelled cart - powered by tightly winding up human hair, much like a rubber band - was entertaining crowds in the Roman Coliseum.
Ever-creative American inventors drafted designs for self-propelled vehicles as far back as the Revolution, but the first to roll off the drawing boards was Oliver Evans's Orukter Amphibolous. Built in 1805, the steam-powered dredge was put to work in Philadelphia's busy harbor.
Germany gets credit for developing the modern automobile. To most historians, the breakthrough occurred in 1885, when a German tinkerer by the name of Carl Benz mated a petroleum-powered engine to a small carriage.
But Americans transformed the rich man's toy into a medium for the masses.
And in turn, America has been reshaped in the image of the automobile. A largely agrarian nation has become the world's industrial powerhouse. Car manufacturing today provides roughly 1 in 7 American jobs.
The suburbs, now home to more than half the country's population, were designed to accommodate the automobile. The typical suburban home, with its two-car garage, provides more space for cars than kids, notes Michael Marsden of Northern Michigan University in Marquette, one of America's leading scholars of popular culture.
"There's no aspect of America that hasn't been transformed by the automobile," Dr. Marsden suggests. "The major rites of passage in American life are centered around the automobile."
The automobile has become personal shorthand. For many Americans, "you are what you drive." It is a centerpiece in popular culture. It is hard to imagine a TV detective show without a car chase. And what would the Beach Boys have had to sing about if not their "Little Deuce Coupe"?
There is, of course, a dark side to the automobile. Some 40,000 Americans a year die in auto accidents - nearly as many each day as in last month's ValuJet airplane crash. And despite the introduction of unleaded gas, electronic ignition systems, and catalytic converters, automobiles remain a major source of pollution, something obvious to every resident of smog-covered cities like Los Angeles.
What will the next century bring?
"On the technical side, we're likely to see plenty of changes," says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.
Electric Vehicles may eliminate tailpipe pollutants. Night vision sensors and radar-guided braking systems could make cars as safe as airliners. And even the traditional dealership sales system could be transformed by the Internet, as more and more buyers go on-line.
Yet one thing seems certain, the experts say. The automobile is an essential part of US society, and it should continue to help define American life well into the next century.