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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction Licensing Cars and Drivers Better Roads The Human Cost of Roads Fill 'er Up! Building and Selling Cars Fixing Cars Technological Choices Creating a Nation of Drivers
8: Americans Adopt the Auto

Fixing Cars

Early cars required frequent maintenance and repairs. Many machinists, blacksmiths, bicycle mechanics, and others started auto repair shops. New-car dealers and gasoline stations also offered repairs, and most cities had garages that stored, cleaned, fueled, and serviced automobiles.

Even though cars became more reliable, the auto repair business remained a necessity. By the 1920s there were more than 60,000 service shops. In the 1930s, oil companies also provided repairs. They used brand identity and the promise of uniform quality to attract customers.

Ford Model T Roadster, 1926
Ford Model T Roadster, 1926

Between 1908 and 1927, The Ford Model T’s relatively low price and reliability enticed more than 15 million Americans to buy an automobile. In many of those years, the Ford Motor Company produced over half of all autos sold. The mass-produced Model T helped make America a nation of drivers.

Turn-Auto, 1920s
Turn-Autos provided professional mechanics easy access to an automobile’s chassis. This example was used in Brozek’s Garage, Brooklyn, New York.
Turn-Auto, 1920s

Automobile Shop Tools

Hubcap wrench, about 1915
Hubcap wrench, about 1915
Piston vise, about 1920
Piston vise, about 1920
Valve-spring lifter for a Ford automobile, 1934
Valve-spring lifter for a Ford automobile, 1934
Valve-seat facing tool, about 1935
Valve-seat facing tool, about 1935
Dolly jack, 1917
Dolly jack, 1917
City Garage Sign, hung in America on the Move
City Garage Sign, hung in America on the Move
United Motors Service sign
United Motors Service sign

Home Repair

Every driver learned to change and repair tires, which blew out frequently. Many owners also performed minor repairs for pleasure, convenience, and savings. Some got their skills from dealing with farm machinery. Others learned from repair manuals. The simplicity of the Ford Model T especially endeared it to millions of owners, many of whom claimed to fix their cars with twine, baling wire, or clothespins. Usually a screwdriver, wrench, hammer, and pliers were all the tools they needed.

Combination wheel wrench and starting crank for a Ford Model A, about 1928
Combination wheel wrench and starting crank for a Ford Model A, about 1928
Automobile jack, about 1919
Automobile jack, about 1919
Nesthill tire pump
Nesthill tire pump
Spitler Puncture Plug for tire repair, about 1915
Spitler Puncture Plug for tire repair, about 1915

Contents of a Model T toolbox

These objects were stored in the toolbox on a 1913 Ford Model T touring car donated to the Smithsonian in 1935: leather gauntlets, gasoline measuring stick, jack, tire iron, and tire repair kit.

Model T toolbox
Model T toolbox
Tire repair kit
Tire repair kit
Tire jack
Tire jack
Gasoline measuring stick
Gasoline measuring stick

Inventing a Better Car

Many people thought that cars, as the dealer sold them, were inefficient or lacked much-needed accessories. Model T owners sent the Ford Motor Company ideas for improvements, and hundreds of mail-order gadgets and attachments allowed owners to upgrade the Model T or make it work better. Inventors fashioned devices that claimed to make cars safer, more fuel-efficient, or easier to use. Some of these devices later became standard features on cars. Others remained popular add-on items, and still others failed to catch on.

Homemade turn signal, 1929
Homemade turn signal, 1929

Oscar J. Simler of Sebring, Ohio, patented this combination stop, slow, left turn, and right turn signal in 1929. Turn signals became a standard feature on cars a decade later.

Bell gasoline saver
The Bell Gasoline Saver claimed to increase gasoline mileage when attached to the manifold of a Ford Model T.
Bell gasoline saver
Early defroster, about 1930
Early defroster, about 1930
The Sinko electric windshield heater attached to the windshield with suction cups.
Brake control, 1934
William Fetter of Baltimore patented this safety device in 1934. It allowed a driver to work the brake and clutch with the left foot and operate the accelerator with the right foot. It was useful when the car stopped on a hill.
Brake control, 1934
Safety reflector, 1930s
Safety reflector, 1930s
Jonathan Cass Stimson invented and marketed safety reflectors for vehicles and road signs. The cube-shaped indentations reflected light from any direction. This reflector is custom-fitted for the inside panel of an open car door.
Theft warning device, about 1915
The Theft Warning Auto Lock attached to a spoked wheel and sounded a spring-driven horn when the parked car was moved.
Theft warning device, about 1915
Radiator cover, late 1920s
Radiator cover, late 1920s
This radiator cover, manufactured for late-1920s Packard cars, kept the engine warmer in winter.
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