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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

Technological Choices

Between the 1890s and 1920s, a standard automotive design emerged out of the competition between steam, electric, and internal-combustion cars. Manufacturers chose engines, drive trains, and accessories that they thought would attract buyers or make cars more powerful, cheaper, or easier to operate. The front-engine, shaft-driven internal-combustion car appeared by 1901 and became the overwhelming choice of motorists by 1910. Steam cars and electric cars fell out of favor and disappeared from the market in the 1920s.

White steam automobile engine, 1910
White steam automobile engine, 1910
Steam power was popular with some early motorists. Steam cars were fast and powerful, but less safe and more difficult to operate than internal combustion-powered vehicles.
Autocar internal-combustion truck engine, 1921
The internal-combustion engine succeeded because it could run a long time between refueling stops, and because of continuous refinements in carburetion, ignition, throttling, and power-to-weight ratio. New features such as the electric starter and electric lights transferred some of the advantages of electric vehicles to internal-combustion
cars and trucks.
Autocar internal-combustion truck engine, 1921
Westinghouse electric truck motor, about 1912
Westinghouse electric truck motor, about 1912

Cars powered by electric batteries—clean, quiet, and easy to start—were popular in cities but not in rural areas, which lacked electricity for recharging. But electric cars had disadvantages: they couldn’t go very far between charges, and battery maintenance was always a problem. Electric trucks were common on short, urban delivery routes with frequent stops.

Aplco starter and generator, 1911

The electric starter eliminated dangerous, laborious hand cranking and made internal-combustion automobiles much easier to operate. Self-starters were available on many makes by 1912 and were extremely popular.

Aplco starter and generator, 1911

Why did the steering wheel end up on the left?

Some early cars had the wheel on the left, some on the right. Right-hand drive allowed entrance and exit at the pavement, but road improvements ended that advantage. And having the wheel on the right side made passing a dodgy proposition. The very popular Ford Model T, introduced in 1908, had its steering wheel on the left. It set the style for later cars.

Ford Model T driver's seat view, 1917
Ford Model T driver's seat view, 1917
“The Accessible Winton of 1905” advertisement
“The Accessible Winton of 1905” advertisement

Why did the gasoline engine, and not the steam engine or electric motor, become the most common power plant for cars?

Electric cars, quiet and clean, appealed to the wealthy and to women, a smaller market at the time. Steam cars, faster but harder to start and operate, appealed to enthusiasts. The gasoline engine was almost as easy to use as an electric, and easier to start and drive than a steam engine. Its versatility, speed, range, sportiness, and ease of use appealed to people buying cars not just for getting around town, but also for longer trips, and for the pleasure of driving.

Why did the closed body become the standard type of car?

Though more expensive, heavier, hotter in the summer, and dangerous before the introduction of safety glass in the 1920s, the closed body appealed to the buyer who wanted an affordable luxury. It kept you cleaner, and out of the weather. And when metal replaced wood, it was easier to manufacture. Middle-class city and suburb dwellers especially appreciated the closed-body car.

Ford Closed Cars advertisement, 1924
Ford Closed Cars advertisement, 1924
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