Early American Cars—A Look Back in Time This Independence Day

Here’s a look back at some of the early American cars and their history just in time for Independence Day.
Written by Lisa Steuer McArdle
Reviewed by Kathleen Flear
Sep 24, 2021
Henry Ford comes to most people’s minds when they think of American
car history
. While the Ford Motor Company was one of the first car companies in the early 1900s and the one that revolutionized the assembly line to mass produce vehicles, there were other car inventors in America that emerged before that.
The very first automobile was invented and perfected in France and Germany in the early 1800s, but America had a greater need for automotive transportation, due to the new country’s vast land area and scattered settlements. This might be partly why America came to dominate the automobile industry by the late 1800s.
Cars and the
car insurance
industry have come a long way since then, so here’s a look back at some of the early American cars and their history just in time for Independence Day.
The American car industry has come a long way since its early days.

Early American car history

Some credit Oliver Evans with the first American car. He received the first U.S. car patent in 1789, and then built the first American car in 1805, according to
AutomoStory
. Interestingly, the car had wheels to travel by land, and also had paddlewheels so it could travel by water.
Others consider the Duryea automobile built by the Duryea Motor Wagon company to be the designers of the first successful American gasoline automobile.
The company was founded by bicycle mechanics Frank and Charles Duryea, and they demonstrated their first vehicle in Massachusetts in 1893. They built a Ladies Phaeton one-cylinder gasoline engine, 4-wheel, open air car, and built a second Duryea in 1894.
The next year, the car won the first American car race, driving 52.4 miles in 10 hours and 23 minutes, according to
Smithsonian Magazine
. The company soon started commercial production of the first American-made gasoline car. A Duryea vehicle is also reportedly the first one to be involved in a
car crash
.
In 1897 in Detroit, MI, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was formed, and by 1902, the company’s Oldsmobile was dominating the marketplace. The company’s large scale production line churned out about 425 cars the first year for $650 apiece (which would be about $19,700 today).
In 1899, there were 30 American manufacturers that produced 2,500 motor vehicles. Within a decade, about 485 companies entered the business, according to
History
.
Another milestone in car history occurred in 1912, when Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter. Before this, cars needed a hand crank to start up.

The Ford Motor Company

The Ford Motor Company launched in 1901. Soon, the company built its first car, the Model A.
The Ford Motor Company really stood out among its competitors for its ability to produce technologically advanced motor vehicles for the time period, at a price that more Americans could afford.
The company’s the four-cylinder, 15-horsepower, $600 Ford Model N (1906-1907) was noted as "the very first instance of a low-cost motorcar driven by a gas engine having cylinders enough to give the shaft a turning impulse in each shaft turn which is well built and offered in large numbers" by Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal.
By 1908, the Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T, which sold more than 10,000 cars in its first year in production. The four-cylinder, twenty-horsepower sold for $825 (which is about $24,105 today).
In 1913, the Ford Motor Company developed its assembly line, making each worker responsible for a certain task, instead of assigning them multiple tasks and requiring them to walk around the plant to accomplish them.
The new assembly line process really sped up production. As a result of the new system, the Highland Park, Michigan plant produced 300,000 cars in 1914.
This in turn allowed Ford to decrease the price of the Model T, which sold $575 in 1912 (about $15,638 today) and had been reduced to $290 (about $4,401 today) by the time the Model T was withdrawn from production in 1927. By this time, most of the American middle class could finally afford a car.

An evolving American auto industry

In 1913, the United States produced about 485,000 of the world's total of 606,124 motor vehicles. By the ‘20s, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler were known as the "Big Three" auto companies. Years later, the automobile industry turned out several million
military
vehicles.
Since then, cars in America have continued to adapt, change and grow with other car companies around the world—from the original hand-crank car of the early days to today’s electric vehicles. It certainly will be interesting to see where car technology will take us next.
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