Automobiles have been a driving force in twentieth-century American life. They have brought people together, opened new opportunities for family vacations, and enabled urban dwellers to rediscover pristine countryside. In many homes, a car has become the principal mode of transportation and an important source of income. Ownership of a car also provides a valuable asset that can be used to help secure other major financial transactions, such as the purchase of a home.
The automobile is a complex machine made up of numerous parts, each of which must work together to function properly. The basic systems include the engine, fuel system, electrical system, braking system, wheels and tires, and the chassis. The chassis, which is analogous to the skeletal structure of a human body, supports all of these other systems and is designed to provide safety, comfort, and protection from the elements for passengers.
While the automobile is an American invention, its technical and social evolution was influenced by other countries. The first modern motorcars were developed in Germany and France toward the end of the nineteenth century by such inventors as Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, and Nicolaus Otto. The 1901 Mercedes, designed by Wilhelm Maybach for the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, was widely regarded as the first true modern automobile. Its thirty-five-horsepower engine weighed only fourteen pounds per horsepower, and its top speed was fifty-three miles an hour.
In the United States, manufacturers could quickly build cars in large numbers because of the nation’s vast land area and a more equitable distribution of wealth than in Europe. Cheap raw materials and the lack of tariff barriers encouraged domestic production. In addition, the great tradition of American manufacturing meant that cars were more affordable than in Europe.
By the 1920s, Americans had become truly auto-dependent and the automobile was the backbone of a new consumer goods oriented society. It ranked as the country’s number one export, provided a large percentage of the jobs in the petroleum and steel industries, and was the leading purchaser of other industrial products.
As a result, automobiles were a significant influence on the growth of American industry and culture. The automobile also spawned other forces that have profoundly altered the lives of Americans, including the television, the laser, and the computer. The Age of the Automobile is now merging into a new Age of Electronics.
Anyone who has owned a car knows how much simpler it is to get from point A to point B than it was in the past, when you had to wait for a bus or take a long walk. Having a car means that you can go wherever and whenever you want without having to rely on others or public transport, especially if you have an appointment you cannot miss. This can be a huge relief when it comes to getting to work on time or having a meeting with a client that you can’t afford to be late for.