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automotive industry


the automotive industry, all those companies, and activities involved in the manufacture of motor vehicles, including most components, such as engines and bodies, but excluding tires, batteries, and fuel. The industry’s principal products are passenger automobiles and light trucks, including pickups, vans, and sport utility vehicles. Commercial vehicles (i.e., delivery trucks and large transport trucks, often called semis), though important to the industry, are secondary. The design of modern automotive vehicles is discussed in the articles automobile, truck, bus, and motorcycle; automotive engines are described as gasoline engines and diesel engines. The development of the automobile is covered in transportation and the history of The rise of the automobile.

The history of the automobile industry, though brief compared with that of many other industries, has exceptional interest because of its effects on history from the 20th century. Although the automobile originated in Europe in the late 19th century, the United States completely dominated the world industry for the first half of the 20th century through the invention of mass production techniques. In the second half of the century, the situation altered sharply as western European countries and Japan became major producers and exporters.

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the automotive industry

Although steam-powered road vehicles were produced earlier, the origins of the automotive industry are rooted in the development of the gasoline engine in the 1860s and ’70s, principally in France and Germany. By the beginning of the 20th century, German and French manufacturers had been joined by British, Italian, and American makers.

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Developments before World War I

Most early automobile companies were small shops, hundreds of which each produced a few handmade cars, and nearly all of which abandoned the business soon after going into it. The handful that survived into the era of large-scale production had certain characteristics in common. First, they fell into one of three well-defined categories: they were makers of bicycles, such as Opel in Germany and Morris in Great Britain; builders of horse-drawn vehicles, such as Durant and Studebaker in the United States; or, most frequently, machinery manufacturers. The kinds of machinery included stationary gas engines (Daimler of Germany, Lanchester of Britain, Olds of the United States), marine engines (Vauxhall of Britain), machine tools (Leland of the United States), sheep-shearing machinery (Wolseley of Britain), washing machines (Peerless of the United States), sewing machines (White of the United States), and woodworking and milling machinery (Panhard and Levassor of France). One American company, Pierce, made birdcages, and another, Buick, made plumbing fixtures, including the first enameled cast-iron bathtub. Two notable exceptions to the general pattern were Rolls-Royce in Britain and Ford in the United States, both of which were founded as carmakers by partners who combined engineering talent and business skills.

In the United States, almost all of the producers were assemblers who put together components and parts that were manufactured by separate firms. The assembly technique also lent itself to an advantageous method of financing. It was possible to begin building motor vehicles with a minimal investment of capital by buying parts on credit and selling the finished cars for cash; the cash sale from manufacturer to dealer has been integral in the marketing of motor vehicles in the United States ever since. European automotive firms of this period tended to be more self-sufficient.

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The pioneer automobile manufacturer not only had to solve the technical and financial problems of getting into production but also had to make a basic decision about what to produce. After the first success of the gasoline engine, there was widespread experimentation with steam and electricity. For a brief period, the electric automobile actually enjoyed the greatest acceptance because it was quiet and easy to operate, but the limitations imposed by battery capacity proved competitively fatal. Especially popular with women, electric cars remained in limited production well into the 1920s. One of the longest-surviving makers, Detroit Electric Car Company, operated on a regular basis through 1929.

Steam power, a more serious rival, was aided by the general adoption, after 1900, of the so-called flash boiler, in which steam could be raised rapidly. The steam car was easy to operate because it did not require an elaborate transmission. On the other hand, high steam pressures were needed to make the engine light enough for use in a road vehicle; suitable engines required expensive construction and were difficult to maintain. By 1910 most manufacturers of steam vehicles had turned to gasoline power. The Stanley brothers in the United States, however, continued to manufacture steam automobiles until the early 1920s.

As often happens with new technology, the automotive industry experienced patent controversies in its early years. Most notable were two long, drawn-out court cases in Britain and the United States, in each of which a promoter sought to gain control of the new industry by filing comprehensive patents. In Britain, the claim was rejected by the courts in 1901, five years after the patent application. In the United States, there was a legal battle between Ford and the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers over the Selden patent, which the association claimed as a basic patent on gasoline-powered cars. In 1911 the courts held the patent “valid but not infringed” by Ford. The main consequence of the decision was the formation of the predecessor of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers to supervise an agreement for cross-licensing patents, which was ratified in 1915.

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Mass production-the automotive industry

the automotive industry

The outstanding contribution of the automotive industry to technological advance was the introduction of full-scale mass production, a process combining precision, standardization, interchangeability, synchronization, and continuity. Mass production was an American innovation. The United States, with its large population, high standard of living, and long distances, was the natural birthplace of the technique, which had been partially explored in the 19th century. Although Europe had shared in the experimentation, the American role was emphasized in the popular description of standardization and interchangeability as “the American system of manufacture.” The fundamental techniques were known, but they had not previously been applied to the manufacture of a mechanism as complex as a motor vehicle (see work, history of the organization).

The kind of interchangeability achieved by the “American system” was dramatically demonstrated in 1908 at the British Royal Automobile Club in London: three Cadillac cars were disassembled, the parts were mixed together, 89 parts were removed at random and replaced from dealer’s stock, and the cars were reassembled and driven 800 km (500 miles) without trouble. Henry M. Leland, founder of the Cadillac Motor Car Company and the man responsible for this feat of showmanship, later enlisted the aid of a noted electrical engineer, Charles F. Kettering, in developing the electric starter, a significant innovation in promoting the acceptability of the gasoline-powered automobile.

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The mass-produced automobile is generally and correctly attributed to Henry Ford, but he was not alone in seeing the possibilities in the mass market. Ransom E. Olds made the first major bid for the mass market with a famous curved-dash Oldsmobile buggy in 1901. Although the first Oldsmobile was a popular car, it was too lightly built to withstand rough usage. The same defect applied to Olds’s imitators. Ford, more successful in realizing his dream of “a car for the great multitude,” designed his car first and then considered the problem of producing it cheaply. The car was the so-called Model T, the best-known motor vehicle in history. It was built to be durable for service on the rough American country roads of that period, economical to operate, and easy to maintain and repair. It was first put on the market in 1908, and more than 15 million were built before it was discontinued in 1927.

When the design of the Model T proved successful, Ford and his associates turned to the problem of producing the car in large volume and at a low unit cost. The solution was found in the moving assembly line, a method first tested in assembling magnetos. After more experimentation, in 1913 the Ford Motor Company displayed to the world the complete assembly-line mass production of motor vehicles. The technique consisted of two basic elements: a conveyor system and the limitation of each worker to a single repetitive task. Despite its deceptive simplicity, the technique required elaborate planning and synchronization.

The first Ford assembly line permitted only very minor variations in the basic model, a limitation that was compensated for by the low cost. The price of the Model T touring car dropped from $950 in 1909 to $360 in 1916 and still lower to an incredible $290 in 1926. By that time Ford was producing half of all the motor vehicles in the world.

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Spread of mass production

Ford’s success inspired imitation and competition, but his primacy remained unchallenged until he lost it in the mid-1920s by refusing to recognize that the Model T had become outmoded. More luxurious and better-styled cars appeared at prices not much higher than that of the Model T, and these were increasingly available to low-income purchasers through a growing used-car market. In Britain, William R. Morris (later Lord Nuffield) undertook to emulate Ford as early as 1912, but he found British engineering firms reluctant to commit themselves to the large-scale manufacture of automotive parts. Morris in fact turned to the United States for his parts, but these early efforts were cut short by World War I. In the 1920s Morris resumed the production of low-priced cars, along with his British competitor Herbert Austin and André-Gustave Citroën, and Louis Renault in France. British manufacturers had to face the problem of a tax on horsepower, calculated on a formula based on bore and the number of cylinders. The effect was to encourage the design of small engines that had cylinders with narrow bores and long strokes, in contrast to the wide-bore, short-stroke engines favored elsewhere. This design handicapped the sale of British cars abroad and kept production from growing. It was not until 1934 that Morris Motors finally felt justified in installing a moving assembly line; the Hillman Company had preceded Morris in this by a year or two.

The large-scale organization-the automotive industry

Although the appearance of mass production in the automotive industry coincided with the emergence of large-scale business organizations, the two had originated independently. They were related, however, and influenced each other as the industry expanded. Only a large firm could make the heavy investment in plant and tooling that the assembly line required, and Ford was already the largest single American producer when it introduced the technique. The mass producer in turn enjoyed a cost advantage that tended to make it increasingly difficult for smaller competitors to survive. There have been exceptions, but the trend has been consistent.

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