A Brief History of the Automobile

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A Brief History of the Automobile


It Started With Cugnot's Fardier

To begin talking about our forefathers search for a mode of transport to replace the horse would necessitate traveling back in time over 300 years. Inventions (or what perhaps could be better described as contraptions) utilizing wind power and even elaborate clockwork gearing were all tried, up to the advent of steam power.

The oldest surviving self-propelled vehicle, Cugnot's 1770 “Fardier” owes its preservation to the fact that on its trial runs it ran amok and knocked down a wall! Put into store, it survived the French Revolution, was acquired by the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris in 1799, and has been a major exhibit there ever since.

It was followed by a number of even less practical designs from optimistic French, English and American engineers, and it was not until 1801 that the first successful road carriage appeared. The brainchild of Cornish mining engineer Richard Trevithick, the road carriage would in-turn lead to the development of his London Carriage of 1803, which made a number of successful runs before being dismantled to power a hoop rolling mill.

Trevithick lost faith in the practicability of his own inventions, and although they came very close none were perfected. Other inventors of the day could see his vision, and so began developing a range of supposed “vehicles”, although they were all ill-founded and better suited to science fiction. The ideas ranged from machines driven by articulated legs, tiny railway engines running inside a drum like squirrels, the use of compressed air and, alarmingly, gunpowder!

The Advent Of The Steam Engine

Then, between 1820 and 1840, came a golden age of steam, with skilled engineers devising and operating steam carriages of advanced and ingenious design; men like Gurney, Hancock and Macerone all produced designs which were practicable, capable of achieving quite lengthy journeys and operating with a relatively high degree of reliability.

Walter Hancock, a better mechanic than businessman, operated his steam coaches on regular scheduled services in London in the 1830s, but his finances were quickly depleted by unscrupulous associates. Hancock eventually called it a day after 12 years of experimentation had brought him little more than unpaid debts with the associated hostility of his creditors.

And as you would expect, the politicians of the day displayed a total lack of vision. Many were convinced that the “Steam Carriage” would prove a threat to the thousands whose livelihood depended on the horse, and so they implemented tolls on the turnpike roads.

An 1831 Parliamentary Commission, though largely favorable to the steam carriage, failed to prevent the introduction of the road tolls – thus delivering a near fatal blow to the builders of steam carriages. It would be a few years later, with the advent of the railway age, that would finally put to rest the “Steam Carriage” industry.

Railway engines had the advantage of running on smooth, level rails, while the Steam Carriages were forced to use uneven, badly maintained roads. The Railway was big business, providing huge profits and returns for the railway owners. As you can imagine, big business had the ear of the local politicians of the day.

They were quick to point out that the Railways major competitor, the Steam Carriage, could be considered unsafe given they were using “public” roads filled with half-witted pedestrians, and so in 1863 legislation was passed requiring every Steam Carriage to have a man with a red flag must walk ahead. It was only the development of the bicycle in the 1860s which would allow the hapless public to again tour by road.

The Internal Combustion Engine

While the internal combustion engine appeared early on in the history of the motor vehicle, it would take over three-quarters of a century for it to be perfected to the level where it could be used in a vehicle capable of running on the roads. The 1805 powered cart of the Swiss Isaac de Rivaz was little more than an elaborate toy, capable of crawling from one side of a room to another, while the 1863 car built in Paris by JJ. Etienne Lenoir took three hours to cover six miles. It was not until the mid-1880s that the first successful petrol cars appeared, developed independently by two German engineers, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz.

It was Karl Benz’s vehicle that was incontestably superior. While Daimler had “adapted” a horse drawn vehicle, Benz had designed a vehicle from the ground up, utilizing new technologies from the cycle industry for his inspiration. The three-wheeled vehicle that Benz developed would go into limited production – it being described in his catalogue as “an agreeable vehicle, as well as a mountain-climbing apparatus”. By 1888 Daimler had decided to concentrate on selling his engines as a universal power source, but interestingly neither would find immediate success.

The Steam Engine's Last Gasp

Instead the Steam Carriage made a final comeback, particularly with some of the advanced designs of the Boll family of Le Mans. These carriages, built between 1873 and the mid-1880’s, were to pioneer such advancements as independent front suspension. Meanwhile one Léon Serpollet , a blacksmith's son, conceived a 'flash boiler' capable of the instantaneous generation of steam.

Serpollet would soon be the proud bearer of the very first driving licence to be issued in Paris. And while the Comte De Dion and his engineers Bouton and Trépardoux built some excellent steam vehicles during the 1880’s and early 1890’s, they were to achieve their greatest fame as manufacturers of light petrol vehicles, from 1895 onward.

Cugnot's 1770 Fardier
Cugnot's 1770 “Fardier” survives to this day because it crashed on its trial run...

Bollée Mancelle Steam Carriage
The Bollée Mancelle Steam Carriage of 1873 would require a man to lead it waving a red flag should it contemplate using London roads...

1895 Tri-Car
This 1895 Tri-Car used a Leyland steam lawnmower engine, and its mid-mounted location had absolutely nothing to do with improving handling...

Curved Dash Oldsmobile
In the early 1900's the most famous of the "Gas Buggies” was the Curved-Dash Oldsmobile...

Ford Model T Arguably Ford's greatest achievement was to introduce the 1908 Model T, a car that would became so popular that he was forced to introduce the car industry's first moving production line...

Renault AX
The Twin Cylinder Renault AX helped ferry troops to the battle of Marne and save Paris in 1914 at the hight of World War 1...

Hispano-Suiza 32CV
Hispano-Suiza put their aero engine expertise to full account in the 1919 32CV of 6.6 litres, a splendid automobile featuring servo-assisted four-wheel brakes and delightful handling characteristics...

Austin 7 After the war it would take until 1922 for the motor industry to get back on course with a second generation of post-war popular cars - most notable was the Austin Seven...

Ford Model A During the 1920's features were introduced to make motoring more comfortable and safer. Windscreen wipers, electric starters, low-pressure tyres and, first standardized on the 1928 Model A Ford, safety glass...

Delaunay-Belleville The Delaunay-Belleville may have been the very best of French cars and and favourite marque of the Tsar of Russia, but that wasn't enough to save it during the 1920's...

Chrysler Airflow
During the 1930-35 period streamlining became the vogue, as evidenced in such classics as the Chrysler Airflow...

Singer Airstream
Though most cars still retained running boards, lower door edges gave a lower, more bulbous look, accentuated by the adoption of wings with side panels, often blended into the radiator and bonnet, as seen here on with the Singer Airstream...

Volkswagen Beetle Volkswagen went from strength to strength after WWII, despite opinions from British experts - and from Henry Ford II - that the VW was too noisy and uncomfortable to be competitive...

Companies like Crosley stood little chance against the "Big Three" during the 1950's...

The 1889 Paris World Exhibition

The biggest turning point for the automobile, and the internal combustion engine, was arguably the 1889 Paris World Exhibition. It was at this exhibition that French engineers Panhard and Levassor saw the Daimler 'Steelwheeler' car powered by the Daimler vee-twin engine. Levassor's lady friend, an astute widow named Louise Sarazin, held the French rights to the Daimler engine in succession to her late husband, and Panhard and Levassor began manufacturing these power units in 1890.

They could, however, see no future for the motor car, and so granted the right to use Daimler engines in self-propelled vehicles to Peugeot (then an ironmongery and cycle firm) who, as luck would have it, had just made the decision not to proceed with the production of the “Serpollet Steamers”.

Around the same time, and also in France, Emile Roger managed to sell a handful of Benz cars. Ironically Roger would garage his first Benz in Panhard and Levassor's workshop. But things were about to change, particularly with Benz’s first four-wheeler, the 1893 Viktoria. Peugeot were already established as motor manufacturers by that date, for in 1891 they had actually sold 5 cars, boosting production to a dizzy 29 the following year.

The success of the Peugeot cars forced Panhard and Levassor to reconsider their early opinion of the horseless carriage, and, after building a couple of crude dogcarts with the engine at the rear, Levassor devised the famous Systéme Panhard, with the engine at the front driving the rear wheels via a sliding pinion gearbox inspired by the mechanism of a lathe, a layout which endures on to this day.

Development in America

In America, the motor car was evolving quite independently of the goings on in Europe. During the first part of 1891 a petrol powered friction-driven three-wheeler built by John W. Lambert of Ohio City made its first tentative runs. In 1895, America's first motor manufacturing company was founded by the Duryea brothers, Charles and Frank (whose prototype dated from 1893); the following year they exported a couple of vehicles to Britain.

Perhaps the railroads of the day considered the emerging automobile technologies as impinging upon their turf, or a general population lacking in vision, for whatever the reason there was little interest in the new motor vehicles (be they home-grown or imported), although the so-called “father of the British motor industry”, H. J. Lawson, succeeded in parting a good many credulous investors from large sums of money.

Lawson knew that, for the automobile to become successful, the ridiculous legislation requiring a red flag waver to walk in front of any vehicle would have to be repealed. Fortunately for Lawson he had friends in high places, and on November 14 1896 he organized a commemorative run to Brighton to celebrate the raising of the speed limit to 12 mph.

Ironically many of the participating automobiles would travel much of the distance by train, while the first car home, a Duryea, was not one of the marques under Lawson's control, he having purchased at great expense most of the motor car patents in an ill-founded attempt to monopolize the British car industry.

Demand for motor cars continue to grow steadily during the latter part of the 1890s, and by now the Benz had become the world's most popular car, with the 2000th production vehicle being delivered in 1899. Motoring was still the sport of a few rich eccentrics, however, and many people, particularly those in country areas, were yet to even see a car!

The 1000 Miles Trial

In an effort to “showcase” the new technology to the masses, the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland held its famous 1000 Miles Trial, taking in most of the major cities of England and Scotland. A total of 65 cars, many English Daimler and MMC models built by Lawson's empire, set out from Hyde Park Corner, London, in April; the majority finishing the run without major mishap, proving that the car had at last become a reliable mode of transportation and offered a clear alternative to horse and buggy.

The Turn of the Century was ushered in by 'the car of the day after tomorrow', the Mercedes, designed by Daimler's engineer, Wilhelm Maybach. The contract to produce the first batch of 30 cars had been signed within a month of Gottlieb Daimler's death in March 1900.

They had been ordered by the wealthy Austro-Hungarian Consul at Nice, Emil Jellinek, who insisted that they be christened after his daughter Mercedes, a name which found such favour with the wealthy car-buying public that all German Daimler cars were soon known by that name.

The advanced design of the Mercedes, which combined in one harmonious whole elements such as the honeycomb radiator, pressed steel chassis and gear-lever moving in a gate rather than a quadrant, 'set the fashion to the world' and soon many high-priced cars were copying its layout; even comparatively small cars like the Peugeot were built on Mercedes lines.

These cars did not, however, represent the popular motoring of the early 1900s; this was the province of single-cylinder runabouts like the De Dion and the Renault. In the US the designers favoured the light, but considerably more temperamental, steam cars such as the Locomobile; these were soon followed by “Gas Buggies”, of which the most famous was the Curved-Dash Oldsmobile.

Ford vs The Association of Licenced Automobile Manufacturers

That the US automobile industry was taking some time to advance can be found in the monopolistic attitude of the time. A patent lawyer named George Baldwin Selden had drawn up a 'master patent' for the motor vehicle in 1879, published it in 1895 and claimed that all gasoline-driven vehicles were infringements of that patent. His claims were eventually given commercial teeth by the Association of Licenced Automobile Manufacturers, established to administer the Selden Patent in 1902, to which most major American car firms were persuaded to belong.

It was Henry Ford, who had founded his Ford Motor Company in June 1903, that decided to take the fight up to Selden and the ALAM. Proceedings were initiated in 1904 and, after lengthy litigation, the ALAM built a car to Selden's 1879 design while Ford built a car with an engine based on that of the 1863 Lenoir. Ford won the day in 1911 - not long before the Selden Patent would have expired anyway - but the victory established him as a folk hero.

The Model T

Ford's great achievement, after five years' work, was to introduce in October 1908 the immortal Model T, which became so popular that he was forced to introduce the car industry's first moving production line in order to build enough cars to satisfy demand. His 'Universal Car' changed the face of. motoring; over 16.5 million were built before production ended in 1927, truly 'putting the world on wheels.

Though the Edwardian era saw motoring become more popular, on the other hand it also saw the finest and most elegant cars of all time, built to a standard of craftsmanship which could never be repeated. After World War One, many of the great marques faded away in a genteel decline: Delaunay-Belleville, 'the Car Magnificent', the favourite marque of the Tsar of Russia and one of the very best of the French cars of the pre-1914 era, became just a petit bourgeois in the 1920s.

Napier, the British company which popularized the six-cylinder engine, enjoyed perhaps even greater acclaim than its rival, Rolls-Royce, while its sales were controlled by the overly pompous Selwyn Francis Edge; when Napier gave him a £160,000 “Golden Handshake” after a dispute over policy in 1912, however, the company's fortunes seemed to leave with him. Edge, having agreed to leave the motor industry for seven years, became a successful Sussex pig farmer; Napier built very few cars after the war, concentrating instead on its aero engines.

The Growth In Popularity Of The Cycle Car

The European car industry was under considerable economic pressure from that in the US. The latter was manufacturing automobiles using predominantly unskilled labour on their new production lines, while the former relied heavily on a pool of highly skilled, lowly paid craftsmen, all of whom were expected to take pride in their work and consider the automobile a piece of craftsmanship rather than an object of mass production.

Inevitably it was the big luxury cars that stood little chance – for they represented only a tiny fraction of the potential market for the motor vehicle and, even if their production had not been decimated by the drying up of the car market as a result of the war, they would inevitably have died out as a result of the social changes in the post-war world.

Europe, indeed, experienced an outburst popular motoring in the 1910-14 period which owed nothing to American concepts of mass production; instead, it grew out of the motorcycle industry, whose engines, single-cylinder or Vee-Twin, offered lightness and power

Optimistic enthusiasts installed these engines in chassis of often suicidal crudeness, with cart-type centre-pivot steering in many cases, as well as other un-mechanical devices such as wire cables coiled round the steering column instead of a conventional steering box and drag link, belt and pulley transmission and tandem-seat layouts with the driver in the second row.

These crude devices, known as cycle-cars, flourished predominantly in England and France; attempts to mimic their success in America failed because they were simply unsuited to the very different motoring environment.

While the cycle-cars were short-lived, it was during this period that the future direction of the automobile industry could be seen, in new “light” cars such as the Morris Oxford, the Standard and the Hillman.

These cars were all built on the one principle, to afford large vehicle characteristics on a smaller scale, using cheap, economical and easy to manufacture engines with capacities around the 1000cc mark. These admirable machines were to be the pattern for the popular family cars of the 1920s.

The Combustion Engine's Role In World War 1

During the first war it was the internal combustion engine that afforded new mobility to the infantry who, before hostilities in Europe came to a standstill in the trenches, could be rushed to reinforce weak points in the front line - most notably when the French General Gallieni sent 6000 reinforcements to repel Von Kluck's attack on Paris in 1914.

Motorcycles were used to issue military dispatches, while armoured cars and tanks would become an increasingly familiar sight on the front lines. But perhaps the biggest advance of the internal combustion engine was in the air, aerial combat adding a new and deadly dimension to modern day warfare.

Post War Boom, and Bust

In the post war period there was an automotive boom time, especially in Britain and France. The established manufacturers had little hope of meeting the new demand, and so a new cottage industry of companies manufacturing light cars and cycle-cars from proprietary components soon developed. Most however were to only find commercial failure.

If the European car industry had any chance against the US giants, the notion of mass-production needed to be embraced. André Citroén, a former gear manufacturer, decided to bring Ford-style mass-production to France. We would enjoy an immediate success with his 10bhp launched in 1919. However, the rise of Citroén spelt doom for the dozens of hand-assemblers who clustered most thickly in the north-western suburbs of Paris.

The boom collapsed in 1920-21, speeded on its way by strikes, hold-ups, shortages, loss of stock market confidence in the car industry, restrictions on hire-purchase sales, costlier raw materials, and the introduction of a “horsepower” tax in Britain. Only the fittest survived: Ford, whose example was followed by a number of American and European makers, cut prices in order to boost falling sales.

In Ford’s case, he was able to compensate for the loss on the cars by compelling every dealer to take $40 worth of spare parts per car – the spare parts affording no price reduction. Even the mighty Ford was, however, forced to close down for some months to clear unsold stocks. It was not until 1922 that the motor industry was back on course and a second generation of post-war popular cars began to emerge, most notably the Austin Seven.

Many of the cars of the 1920’s profited from the technology of the aero engines developed during the war, cars such as the overhead camshaft Hispano-Suiza V8. Wolseley built this engine under licence and used an overhead camshaft on their post-war cars, but it was not until after the 1927 takeover by Morris that this Wolseley design realized its full potential, especially in MG sports cars.

The Automobile Matures

Hispano-Suiza put their aero engine expertise to full account in the 1919 32CV of 6.6 litres, a splendid automobile featuring servo-assisted four-wheel brakes and delightful handling characteristics, whose overall conception was several years ahead of any of its rivals. Meanwhile Bentley, who had built rotary aero engines during the war, brought out an in-line four with an overhead camshaft in 1919 (though it was not put into production until 1921); this 3-litre was to form the basis of one of the worlds most immortal sporting cars.

Many leading manufacturers adopted the overhead camshaft layout during this period, but Rolls-Royce, whose aero engines had used this layout, stuck resolutely to side valves on their cars until the advent of the 20 in 1922; this had a pushrod OHV configuration, although the Silver Ghost would retain side valves till the end.

Oddly enough, apart from honourable exceptions like the Hispano, it was the cheaper cars which pioneered the use of brakes on all four wheels, one of the most positive advances in car equipment in the early 1920s. Possibly it was felt that luxury cars would be handled by professional drivers, who would be less likely to indulge in the kind of reckless driving that would require powerful brakes! Moreover, some American popular car makers, appalled at the cost of retooling their cars to accept brakes on the front wheels, actually campaigned against their introduction on the grounds that they were dangerous. Ralph Nader would have had a field day!

As the decade wore on, more features designed to make motoring more comfortable and safer became commonplace-windscreen wipers, electric starters, safety glass (first standardized on the 1928 Model A Ford), all-steel coachwork, saloon bodies, low-pressure tyres, cellulose paint and chromium plating all became available on popular cars. Styling and the annual model changes became an accepted part of the selling of motor cars, bringing with them huge tooling costs which could only be borne by the biggest companies. Many old-established firms were simply unable to keep up, being swept away by the onslaught of the depression in 1929.

The Depression

Was it the depression that made people less inclined to enjoy the concept of open-air motoring, or was it the practicalities of fending off the elements. Whatever the case, the switch from open-tourer to saloon bodies was well under-way by 1931; by this time some 90% of all cars being “Tin Tops”, a complete reversal on the number produced only 2 years earlier.

In a concession to the difficult economic times, manufacturers were also forced to develop smaller engines, and in turn lighter car bodies and lower ratio gear boxes. As a result, the cars of the day were required to rev hard to afford any pretence of performance, and naturally their bores wore alarmingly. The days when durability was a feature taken for granted on all but the shoddiest of cars seemed long past.

The design of cars now began to change radically as well. The demand for more capacious bodywork on small chassis led to the engine being pushed forward over the front axle. The radiator became a functional unit concealed behind a decorative grille which became more elaborate and exaggerated as the decade wore on.

During the 1930-35 period streamlining became the vogue, as evidenced in such classics as the Chrysler Airflow, the Singer Airstream and the Fitzmaurice-bodied Ford V8. Even on more staid cars, the angularity of line that had characterized the models of the late 1920s gave way to more flowing contours. Though most cars still retained running boards, the separate side valances were eliminated by bringing the lower door edges down to give a lower, more bulbous look, accentuated by the adoption of wings with side panels, often blended into the radiator and bonnet.

The swept tails of the new-style coachwork now concealed a usually well laid out luggage compartment, a feature sadly lacking on most 1920s models, which usually boasted a luggage grid and nothing more. By contrast with the cars of the 1920’s, those of the 1930’s offered considerably greater comfort and convenience. One problem, however, was that the stylist had taken over from the engineer and designer; thus little thought was given to their aerodynamics or road holding ability. While there was no going back to the old-fashioned designs, many wished they could!

New suspension systems, especially independent front springing, also brought their own handling problems. In fact, some cars had to be fitted with bumpers incorporating a harmonic damping device to prevent them from simply shimmying right off the road on their super-soft springing.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, with some manufacturers producing some excellent cars. Morris and Austin would continue to build soundly engineered small cars (though Herbert Austin was distinctly upset when his designers insisted on moving the radiator behind a dummy grille. Henry Ford was personally involved in the development of two new models, the 8hp Model 19Y and the V. Both cars were released in 1932, and were instantly and deservedly successful.

In France the famous front wheel drive Citroén would make its debut in 1934. Unfortunately the development costs had all but bankrupted André Citroén, and he was forced to sell out to Michelin. Of the cars with more sporting pretentions, the SS marque were producing beautiful looking, beautiful handling and beautifully built cars, and for a very reasonable price.

The same year that the SS Jaguar was launched (1936) Dr Ferdinand Porsche built the prototype Volkswagens, the 'Strength through Joy' cars sponsored by the Nazi Party and intended to be sold to the German public. Was the argument to bring cars to the German masses, or was it to prevent them purchasing foreign manufactured cars? Whatever the reason, this most popular of designs would go on to sell over 20 million and establish itself as the most popular car of all time (and we will not be drawn into comparisons with the Toyota Corolla). Few Volkswagens, however, were built before the war (though the design was readily adapted for military purposes).

In many ways the 1930s were a watershed - they saw the last of the big luxury cars from makers such as Hispano-Suiza, Duesenberg and Minerva, as well as the end of many small, independent manufacturers and coachbuilders (victims of the swing to mass-produced cars with pressed-steel bodies). The motor industry had reached the point where it had become vital to the economic well-being of the major industrialized countries. Now it was to prove just as vital in providing weapons of war.

Europe Braces For War...Again

In Britain, five of the largest motor manufacturers set up “shadow factories” in the late 1930s - used in the production of aero-engine and parts in the event of war. This foresight would see them manufacturing many thousands of aero engines and complete aircraft during the hostilities. Ford joined the fold soon after the outbreak of war, building Rolls-Royce Merlin engines on a moving production line in Manchester, while in the USA Ford mass production expertise was given its greatest test in manufacturing Liberator bombers on a gigantic production line at Willow Run, Michigan.

From the ubiquitous Jeep, through staff cars, trucks, tanks and powerboats to the biggest bomber aircraft, the motor industry played a crucial role in World War Two. Re-adapting to peacetime production was, however ' to prove almost as big a test of the industry's abilities. After the war there was a huge materials shortage – but despite significant government interference most car manufacturers were soon to return to production. The first examples to roll off the production lines were inevitably only slightly modernized pre-war models, although some manufacturers such as Armstrong-Siddeley were able to immediately manufacture all-new models.

Despite shortages of fuel and tyres, there was a vast demand in Europe for cars. Despite a huge shortage in Britain, the government mandated that manufacturers export half their output – you could be forgiven for thinking the best way to win a war is to loose it first, Speculators (scalpers) soon entered the fray, buying new cars and selling them at an inflated profit – soon purchasers were forced to sign a 'covenant' guaranteeing that they would not resell for initially one year, this later being extended to two years.

There was much talk of technical developments arising from wartime projects, but devices such as automatic transmission were only generally adopted in America, and reports that hydraulic suspension, or springing by rubber or torsion bars, were about to be adopted on British cars proved to be more than a little premature. Indeed, some makers seemed unready to come to terms with the future, as one report noted: 'Since wind resistance is an important factor in brake performance, streamlining may lead to braking difficulties, as was shown in experiments carried out in France'.

European manufacturers faced the daunting task of having to rebuilding their often totally destroyed manufacturing plants. The French automotive industry had sustained the biggest loss of machine tools and equipment, most being shipped to Germany under the occupation. The German industries had sustained considerable bomb damage, and having the country divided into two entities posed even bigger problems.

The Reichsmark was replaced by the Deutschmark, creating an effective devaluation of around 100%. Nevertheless, the country's most prolific manufacturer, Volkswagen, continued to make progress despite opinions from British experts - and from Henry Ford II - that the VW was too noisy and uncomfortable to be competitive. And though the BMW factory had ended up in the Russian Zone, the first-and only- 'War Reparation' design to come out of Germany became the BMW-based Bristol 400.

A shortage of sheet steel and tyres also helped to keep production to about a sixth of the 1938 level in 1946-48, though some recovery was apparent by 1949 when the first post-war car show was held in Paris – by this time production had risen to about four times the 1938 monthly level.

The 1950's, A Period Of Turmoil

By the time of the 1950’s the motor industry was entering a period of traumatic change. Those brave attempts by independent companies like Kaiser and Crosley to carve a foothold in the American market against the corporate giants of the Big Three (Ford, GM and Chrysler) were to quickly amount to nothing. Old and well established independents like Packard, Nash and Studebaker were in decline and would soon vanish, either by attrition or by merger. The American car industry had become stereotyped, offering up to the public a diet of overly large, poor road holding behemoths being driven by large 6 cylinder or even larger V8 engines.

The 50’s ushered in the era of the exaggerated tailfin and the grinning chrome grille, and the 'performance car' capable of superlative top speeds, but being unsafe around any corner. Small “compact” cars were developed in 1959, of particular importance to Australians was the Ford Falcon and Chrysler Valiant – both becoming a staple of the Australian family alongside the GM Holden. Then there was the unorthodox rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair, bringing Ralph Nader notoriety with his best selling book “Unsafe at any Speed”.

Mergers and amalgamations were not only confined to the US. In Britain, Austin and Morris would join, but this was never a happy association. Commentators predicted a decline in the British automotive industry – and they were uncharacteristically correct. BMC (British Motor Corporation), British Leyland and others, all producing small family cars, were unable to crystal ball their own demise at the hands of union trouble and the emergence of the Japanese as an automotive power house.

The Importance Of Fuel Efficient Cars

Fuel economy became even more significant after the 1956 Suez War, when petrol was rationed in many countries, and the event created a new breed of cycle-cars, which today we refer to as “Bubble Cars”, such as the Heinkel, Messerschmitt and Goggomobil. The “Bubble Cars” may have been “cute”, but they were primitive devices and not well liked at the time.

Their saving grace was their fuel economy – should someone design a comfortable AND economical car they would be doomed. That person was Alec Issigonis – and his design - the 1959 Mini Minor. Now “Cheap and Cheerful” could also mean decent engineering, comfort and handling. The Mini’s layout of front-wheel drive and transverse engine was to set the pattern for the coming 20 years and more.

But the 1950s had their glamour cars, too: Britain produced the big Healeys, the Triumph TRs and the first MG to abandon the per perpendicular lines of the 1930s, the slippery profiled MGA, even available with a temperamental twin-cam engine; Italy built big, powerful sports cars like the Ferrari America and Super America; France, which had taxed the Grand' Routiers like Delahaye out of existence, introduced the avant-garde Citroen DS; and Germany, free of any war repatriation responsibility, were to release the distinctive Mercedes 300SL Coupe – one of the most highly sought after sports cars to this day.

Also see:
The History of Australian Motoring - Looking Back On Forty Years of Motoring by W. H. Lober
The Sports Car
Great British Pre-War Sports Car
Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry
The Automotive Industry, Pre World War 1
The Automotive Industry, Between The Wars
The Automotive Industry, Post War
The Weird And Wonderful Car Inventions
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