History of the American Automobile: Design and Technology

By David Amirsadri

No invention can claim to have had a greater impact on American society than the automobile. The past hundred years have witnessed nearly every facet of American life feel the influence of cars, from the rise of fast food, to the interstate highway system, to modern concerns about sustainability. The automobile is a common thread throughout the history of twentieth-century America. To understand the automobile is to understand the twists and turns of American culture. 

Though an invention of the French and Germans, America would “take the wheel” of automotive innovation in the early twentieth century. In 1893, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company became the first U.S. commercial automaker. Formed in Springfield, Massachusetts, the company’s founders — the Dureya brothers– designed the first practical gas-powered American car. The Duryea Motor Wagon would prove its prowess, beating out European competition in America’s first automobile race. Ensuing years would bring about further developments, with hundreds of automakers coming into existence between 1895 and 1900. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler would emerge as the “Big Three” automakers in the 1920’s. Marred by unreliability and poor roads, the budding American auto industry faced a major challenge– How would it convince American consumers to abandon the familiar horse in favor of the newfangled car? Aggressive promotion would prove successful, with carmakers demonstrating the superior comforts of the automobile over the sluggish horse. At the time, horses represented a significant public health concern, with equine corpses and waste littering city streets. The automobile would be the remedy. 

Particularly important to its early development was design. Throughout the history of automotive design, parallels may be “drawn between what was going on in society and the style and fashion of the automobile of that era,” notes retired automobile stylist Frank Pascoe. Prior to the 1920’s, automobiles were completely utilitarian, little more than horseless carriages. Function took precedence over form, practicality over beauty. This would soon change. The Jazz Age brought with it the idea that consumer products could be enhanced through style. This was especially necessary in the automobile industry; manufacturers needed to differentiate between their products in an age of increasing homogeneity.

General Motors would be the first major U.S. carmaker to adopt this concept in full stride, setting up its “Art and Colour” division in June of 1927. Led by the tempestuous Harley J. Earl, a designer of car-bodies from California, the practice of incorporating styling into the production of automobiles would prove greatly influential. Domestic production of automobiles for the consumer market was halted in 1942. When it resumed, the influence of modern aeronautics was unmistakable in the jet age silhouettes of 1950’s automobiles. The Lockheed P-38 fighter plane, for instance, would inspire the rise of automotive tailfins, first appearing on the 1948 Cadillac and reaching their zenith with the 1959 Cadillac.

This giddy post-war excess, like a rocket falling from the sky, would come to an end in the 1960’s. Automotive styling grew more restrained, with economic recessions and social unrest imprinted upon the American psyche. “A new class of cars was born, the compact… The youth movement promised huge profits if products were marketed to meet their desires and needs,” writes Pascoe. Later still, rising gasoline prices and tighter emissions regulations saw the American car go from being boxy and angular, to sleeker and more curvaceous. A more aerodynamic car was a more efficient car. 

Today, the visions of artists have been constrained by the demands of the C-suite. I spoke to Patrick R. Foster, an automotive historian and journalist with Hemmings Motor News about the future and past of automotive design. Elegiacally, he lamented the “conservative” nature of today’s cars. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” he noted wistfully. “There’s some [innovative designers] in there, but they don’t take too big a risk. The cars are just so blasé.” Design, he noted wistfully, doesn’t play the role it once did in enticing consumers. History repeats itself once more– practicality has thrown elegance to the wayside.

And as history repeats itself, perhaps we will once again see the re-emergence of styling and design as the selling point for automobiles. With the rise of autonomous vehicles, nobody knows what the future will bring with it. Time, as always, will be the great decision-maker.

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Special thanks to Vince Geraci, Frank Pascoe, and Patrick Foster for their assistance. They have been an invaluable source of information.

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