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Monday, July 27, 2009

Automotive Eras

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Vehicles that can be considered automobiles were demonstrated as early as 1769, although that date is disputed, and 1885 marked the introduction of gasoline powered internal combustion engines. Automotive history is generally divided into a number of eras based on the major design and technology shifts. Although the exact boundaries of each era can be hazy, scholarship has defined them as follows:

  • Steam Era (1700’s – 1900)
    Steam-powered self-propelled vehicles were devised in the late 17th century. A Flemish priest, Ferdinand Verbiest, was thought to have demonstrated in 1678 a small (24 inch / 61 cm long) steam 'car' to the Chinese emperor, yet there is no solid evidence for this event.

    Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot demonstrated his fardier à vapeur, an experimental steam-driven artillery tractor in 1770 and 1771. Cugnot's design proved to be impractical and his invention was not developed in his native France - the centre of innovation then passed over to the United Kingdom. By 1784 William Murdoch had built a working model of a steam carriage in Redruth, and in 1801 Richard Trevithick was running a full-sized vehicle on the road in Camborne.

    Walter Hancock the builder and operator of London steam buses, in 1838 built a four-seat steam phaeton. Also in 1838, Scotsman Robert Davidson built an electric locomotive that attained a speed of four miles (6 km) an hour. In England a patent was granted in 1840 for the use of rails as conductors of electric current, and similar American patents were issued to Lilley and Colten in 1847. Between 1832 and 1839 (the exact year is uncertain), Robert Anderson of Scotland invented the first crude electric carriage, powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.

    Such vehicles were in vogue for a time, and over the next decades such innovations as hand brakes, multi-speed transmissions, improved speed, and steering were developed. Some were commercially successful in providing mass transit, until a backlash against these large speedy vehicles resulted in passing a law, the Locomotive Act in 1865. It stated that self-propelled vehicles on public roads in the United Kingdom must be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn. This effectively killed road auto development in the UK for most of the rest of the 19th century, as inventors and engineers shifted their efforts to improvements in railway locomotives. The law was not finally repealed until 1896 although the need for the red flag was removed in 1878.

    The first automobile patent in the United States was granted to Oliver Evans in 1789. In 1805. Evans demonstrated his first successful self-propelled vehicle, which not only was the first automobile in the USA but was also the first amphibious vehicle, as his steam-powered vehicle was able to travel on wheels on land and via a paddle wheel in the water.

    There were also European efforts. In 1815, a professor at Prague Polytechnich, Josef Bozek, built an oil-fired steam car. Belgian born Etienne Lenoir made a car with an internal combustion engine around 1860, though it was driven by coal-gas. His experiment lasted for 7 miles (11 km), but it took him 3 hours. Lenoir never tried experimenting with cars again. The French claim a Deboutteville-Delamare was successful, and celebrated the 100th birthday of the car in 1984.

    About 1870, in Vienna, capital of Austria (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire), inventor Siegfried Marcus put a liquid-fuelled internal combustion engine on a simple handcart which made him the first man propelling a vehicle by means of gasoline. Today, this car is known as the “First Marcus Car”. In 1883, Marcus got a German patent for a low voltage ignition of the magneto type; this was his only automotive patent. This design was used for all further engines, and the four-seat “Second Marcus Car” of 1888 / 89. This ignition in conjunction with the rotating brush carburettor made the second cars design very innovative.

    It is generally acknowledged the first automobiles with gasoline powered internal combustion engines were completed almost simultaneously by several German inventors working independently: Karl Benz built his first automobile in 1885 in Mannheim. Benz was granted a patent for his automobile on January 29,1886 and began the first production of automobiles in 1888. Soon after, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Stuttgart in 1889 designed a vehicle from scratch to be an automobile rather than a horse carriage fitted with an engine. They also were inventors of the first motor bike in 1886. One of the first four wheel petrol-driven automobiles built in Britain came in Birmingham in 1895 by Frederick William Lanchester who also patented the disc brake.

    Veteran Era (1888 – 1904)
    The first production of automobiles was by Karl Benz in 1888 in Germany and under license to Benz, in France by Emile Roger. By 1900 mass production of automobiles had begun in France and the United States. The first company to form exclusively to build automobiles was Panhard et Levassor in France. Formed in 1889, they were quickly followed by Peugeot two years later. In the United States, brothers Charles and Frank Duryea founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1893, becoming the first American automobile manufacturing company. However, it was Ransom E. Olds, and his Olds Motor Vehicle Company (later known as Oldsmobile) who would dominate this era of automobile production. Its large scale production line was running in 1902. Within a year, Cadillac, Winton, and Ford were producing cars in the thousands (formed from the Henry Ford Company).

    Within a few years, dizzying assortments of technologies were being produced by hundreds of producers all over the western world. Steam, electricity, and gasoline-powered autos competed for decades, with gasoline internal combustion engines achieving dominance in the 1910s. Dual and even quad-engine cars were designed, and engine displacement ranged to more than a dozen liters. Many modern advances, including gas / electric hybrids, multi-valve engines, overhead camshafts, and four-wheel drive, were attempted and discarded at this time.

    Innovation was rapid and rampant, with no clear standards for basic vehicle architectures, body styles, construction materials, or controls. Many veteran cars use a tiller rather than a wheel for steering for example, and most operated at a single speed. Chain drive was dominant over the modern driveshaft, and closed bodies were extremely rare.

    On November 5th 1895, George B. Selden was granted a United States patent for a two-stroke automobile engine (U.S. Patent 549,160 ). This patent did more to hinder than encourage development of autos in the USA. Selden licensed his patent to most major American auto makers, collecting a fee on every car they produced.

    Throughout the veteran car era, however, automobiles were seen as more of a novelty than a genuinely useful device. Breakdowns were frequent, fuel was difficult to obtain, roads suitable for travelling were scarce, and rapid innovation meant that a year-old car was nearly worthless. Major breakthroughs in proving the usefulness of the automobile came with the historic long-distance drive of Bertha Benz in 1888 when she traveled more than fifty miles (80 km) from Mannheim to Pforzheim to make people aware of the potential of the vehicles her husband, Karl Benz, manufactured, and after Horatio Nelson Jackson's successful trans-continental drive across the United States in 1903.

    Of course with vehicles of this age they can present their own unique challenges for today’s collectors. Parts for repair and restoration of these early cars are notoriously hard to find and in a lot of cases have to be handmade. Estimations have been made that there were well over a thousand manufacturers in the US at this time further complicating the restoration process. Of course nearly all of these have now since gone out of business taking with them such secrets as the specification sheets, wiring diagrams etc. But despite all these challenges, there is both an active collector and restorer community of these early cars, which when completed can be extremely valuable.

    Antique or Brass Era (1905 – 1914)
    The antique or brass era lasted from roughly 1905 through to the beginning of World War I in 1914. It was in this era that first mass produced vehicles with gasoline engines, immortalized by Henry Ford's model T. The brass era was named for the widespread use of the fancy brass fittings and brass lanterns that were a natural addition to the new 'horseless carriage'.1905 was a signal year in the development of the automobile, marking the point when the majority of sales shifted from the hobbyist and enthusiast to the average user. Brass began to be phased out about 1914 in favor of nickel, which was eventually abandoned in favor of chrome.

    Within the 15 years that make up this era, the various experimental designs and alternate power systems would be marginalized. Steam power proved too cumbersome and electric motors were limited by battery technology (as they still are today), but gasoline was cheap and plentiful, encouraging both two-stroke and four-stroke development.

    Although the modern touring car had been invented earlier, it was not until the “Panhard et Levassor's Système” was widely licensed and adopted that recognizable and standardized automobiles were created. This system specified front-engined, rear-wheel drive internal combustion cars with a sliding gear transmission. Traditional coach-style vehicles were rapidly abandoned, and buckboard runabouts lost favor with the introduction of tonneaus and other less-expensive touring bodies.

    The vehicles of this time were a considerable investment that only the wealthy could afford but they were far from luxurious. There were no doors, heaters or windshield wipers and when headlights were finally added they had to be lit with a match. The engines had to be started with a crank that would often kick back sometimes resulting in a broken arm. In many cases it took two people to turn the steering wheel and gasoline was not always easy to find. A lack of roads coupled with tire technology that was in its infancy resulted in all too frequent flat tires.

    Throughout this era, development of automotive technology was rapid, due in part to hundreds of small manufacturers all competing to gain the world's attention. Key developments included electric ignition (by Robert Bosch, 1903) and the electric self-starter (by Charles Kettering, for the Cadillac Motor Company in 1910-1911), independent suspension, and four-wheel brakes (by the Arrol-Johnson Company in 1909). Leaf springs were widely used for suspension, though many other systems were still in use, with angle steel taking over from armored wood as the frame material of choice. Transmissions and throttle controls were widely adopted, allowing a variety of cruising speeds, though vehicles generally still had discrete speed settings rather than the infinitely variable system familiar in cars of later eras. Between 1907 and 1912, the high-wheel motor buggy resembling the horse buggy of before the turn of the century was in its heyday, with over seventy-five makers including Holsman and IHC both originating from Chicago and Sears which sold via catalog. Soon the high-wheeler would be killed by the Model T from Ford..

    The early Model T Ford revolutionized the automotive industry with the introduction of assembly-line production, which in turn made it possible for Ford to offer their car for sale at a much more affordable price. Prior to the introduction of the Model T, automobiles were built by hand, one at a time, and usually sold for anywhere from twice the average worker's salary to several times that amount. Although Henry Ford sold millions of black Model T’s, it was men like Alfred P. Sloan of Chevrolet who saw the value of enticing people with new and exciting options. Annual offerings of extras such as the electric starter, headlights, synchromesh transmissions etc kept the industry very much alive. However by using assembly-line production and pre-manufactured parts, it was Henry Ford who was able to bring automobiles to the masses. With a selling price of $300 a Model T was now 1/5 of an average worker’s annual salary.

    Vintage Era (1919 – 1929)

    A vintage car is commonly defined as a car built between the start of 1919 and through to the stock market crash at the end of 1929. There is some debate about the start date of the Vintage period—the end of World War I is a nicely defined marker there—but the end date is a matter of a little more debate. While some American sources prefer 1925 since it is the pre-classic car period as defined by the Classic Car Club of America, the British definition is strict about 1930 being the cut-off. Others see the Classic period as overlapping the Vintage period, especially since the Vintage designation covers all vehicles produced in the period while the official Classic definition does not, only including high-end vehicles of the period. Some consider the start of World War II to be the end date of the Vintage period.

    After the war, military plants were quick to retool for automobile production and the lack of government regulations for safety, the environment or employees gave it a sense of the wild Wild West. Industrial accidents were all too common and compensation was at the discretion of the employer. As such there were no vehicle requirements like windshields, doors, lights, turn signals or seat belts.

    The Vintage period in the automotive world was a time of transition. The car started off in 1919 as still something of a rarity, and ended up in 1930 well on the way towards ubiquity; in fact, automobile production at the end of this period was not matched again until the 1950s. During this period, the front-engine car came to dominate, with closed bodies and standardized controls becoming the norm. Development of the internal combustion engine continued at a rapid pace, with multi-valve and overhead cam engines produced at the high end, and V8, V12, and even V16 engines conceived for the ultra-rich.

    Cars became much more practical, convenient and comfortable throughout this era and the following were some of the technologies that were introduced; car heating, in-car radios, antifreeze allowing water-cooled cars to be used year-round and power steering. The braking system also improved measurably with the introduction of four-wheel braking from a common foot pedal with, if you were lucky, hydraulically actuated brakes. Towards the end of the Vintage era saw the system of octane rating of fuel allowing comparison between fuels.

    Throughout the vintage car period, most industrialized nations built a nationwide road system, with the result that towards the end of the period, the ability to negotiate unpaved roads was no longer required. Society began to adapt to the car, Drive-in restaurants were introduced, as well as suburban shopping centers, and motels began lining major roads in the United States.

    Henry Ford may have kicked off the industrial revolution with his assembly lines, but the automotive industry was truly born after World War I in this vintage era, where the likes of Ford, Chrysler, Daimler, DeSoto, Dodge, Hudson, Olds and Studebaker became household names.

    Pre-War Era (1930 – 1944)
    The pre-war part of the classic era began with the Great Depression in 1930 and ended with the recovery after World War II, commonly placed at 1948. It was in this period that integrated fenders and fully-closed bodies began to dominate sales, with the new sedan body style even incorporating a trunk at the rear for storage. The old open-top runabouts, phaetons, and touring cars were phased out as wings, running boards, and headlights were gradually integrated with the body of the car.

    By the 1930s most of the mechanical technology used in today's automobiles had been invented although some things were later "re-invented", and credited to someone else. For example, front-wheel drive was re-introduced by Andre Citroën with the launch of the Traction Avant in 1934, though it appeared several years earlier in road cars made by Alvis and Cord, and in racing cars by Miller (and may have appeared as early as 1897).

    After 1930, the number of auto manufacturers declined sharply as the industry consolidated and matured. The Great Depression of 1929 all but brought the once rapidly increasing automobile industry to its knees. In 1910 there were over 500 companies competing for industry dominance but by the time of the Great Depression only 60 had survived - a further twelve years after that (1941) there were less than 20. The build up of military plants for World War II paved the way for an all new generation of automobiles..

    Post-War Era (1949 – 1980’s)
    Automobile design finally emerged from the shadow of World War II in 1949 when men and machines were once again available and technology was at an all time high. It was a time when pollution control, economy and safety regulations had yet to become design and production issues.

    United States in 1949 saw the introduction of high-compression V8 engines and modern bodies from General Motors' Oldsmobile and Cadillac brands. The uni-body / strut-suspended 1951 Ford Consul joined the 1948 Morris Minor and 1949 Rover P4 in waking up the automobile market in the United Kingdom. In Italy, Enzo Ferrari was beginning his 250 series just as Lancia introduced their revolutionary V6-powered Aurelia.

    Throughout the 1950s, engine power and vehicle speeds rose, designs became more integrated and artful, and cars spread across the world. Alec Issigonis' Mini and Fiat's 500 mini cars swept Europe, while the similar keicar class put Japan on wheels for the first time. The legendary VW Beetle survived Hitler's Germany to shake up the small car market in the Americas. Ultra luxury, exemplified in America by the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, reappeared after a long absence, and GT cars, like the Ferrari Americas, swept across Europe.

    The market changed somewhat in the 1960s, The Cold War, the communist threat in Cuba, civil rights and Vietnam brought new strife to the American people and with it new concerns for Detroit. As foreign automakers imported a new breed of compact and more efficient cars, American automakers responded by dropping their trademark fins. Consumers eagerly accepted General Motors' all new Corvair, Fords' Falcon and Chryslers' Valiant. The smaller cars went faster and the introduction of the Big Block V8's assured Americans that the horsepower war was still on.

    The European makers adopted ever-higher technology, and Japan appeared as a serious car-producing nation. General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford tried radical small cars, like the GM A-bodies, but had little success. Captive imports and badge engineering swept through the US and UK as conglomerates like the British Motor Corporation consolidated the market. Eventually, this trend reached Italy as niche makers like Maserati, Ferrari, and Lancia were acquired by larger companies. By the end of the decade, the automobile manufacturing world was much smaller.

    In America, performance was the hot sell of the 1960s, with pony cars and muscle cars propping up the domestic industry. The Muscle Car Era featured cars and trucks built between 1964 and 1972. They evolved from the feverish consumerism that followed World War II, when bigger and faster were always better. As the national highway system grew and gasoline became plentiful, Americans wanted more power and more speed. Muscle Cars evolved by accident at a time when Detroit was trying to stop the invasion of imported cars with new, light-weight models like the Corvair, Falcon and Valiant. In 1964 Detroit bowed to consumer pressure by putting big block V8's on mid-sized chassis, and giving them names like Mustang, Camero, Firebird and Barracuda, common household names of the Muscle Car Era.

    However, despite America's love for horsepower, the Clean Air Act of 1970 called for pollution control devices that hampered performance which killed the use of high performance engines over the next few years. Followed was the oil embargo of 1973 which limited the supply of gasoline and encouraged Americans to conserve energy. By the time congress passed the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rule in 1978 the Muscle Car was gone forever.

    Japanese and European imports, and stagnant innovation wreaked havoc on the American industry. Throughout the 1970’s small imported cars outperformed large American ones and the domestic auto industry began to fail. Small performance cars from BMW, Toyota, and Nissan took the place of big-engined cars from America and Italy. The gas-guzzlers of the past were replaced by smaller, more efficient vehicles modeled after the ever-present imports and an all new race for fuel economy supremacy began.

    On the technology front, the biggest developments of the era were the widespread use of independent suspensions, wider application of fuel injection, and an increasing focus on safety in the design of automobiles. The hottest technologies of the 1960s were NSU's Wankel engine, the gas turbine, and the turbocharger. Of these, only the turbocharger, pioneered by General Motors but popularized by BMW and Saab, was to see widespread use. Little Mazda had much success with their "Rotary" engines, but was critically affected by its reputation as a polluting gas-guzzler. Other Wankel licensees, including Mercedes-Benz and General Motors, never put their designs into production. Rover and Chrysler both produced experimental turbine cars to no effect.

    Modern Era (last 25 yrs)
    The modern era is normally defined as the 25 years preceding the current year. However, there are some technical and design aspects that differentiate modern cars from other eras. Without considering the future of the car, the modern era has been one of increasing standardization, platform sharing, and computer-aided design.

    Some particularly notable advances in modern times are the wide spread of front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, the adoption of the V6 engine configuration, and the ubiquity of fuel injection. While all of these advances were first attempted in earlier eras, they so dominate the market today that it is easy to overlook their significance. Nearly all modern passenger cars are front wheel drive of a uni-body design with transversely-mounted engines, but this design was considered radical as late as the 1960s.

    Body styles have changed as well in the modern era. Three types, the hatchback, minivan, and sport utility vehicle, dominate today's market yet are relatively recent concepts. All originally emphasized practicality but have mutated into today's high-powered luxury crossover SUV and sports wagon. The rise of pickup trucks in the United States and SUVs worldwide has changed the face of motoring, with these "trucks" coming to command more than half of the world automobile market.

    The modern era has also seen rapidly rising fuel efficiency and engine output. Once the automobile emissions concerns of 1970s were conquered with computerized engine management systems, power began to rise rapidly. In the 1980s, a powerful sports car might have produced 200 hp (150 kW), just 20 years later, average passenger cars have engines that powerful, and some performance models offer three times as much power.

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