History: Cars - The Road We Traveled

Reformatted from www.wri.org for educational use.

  1. When first introduced, automobiles offered a flexibility and freedom that no other means of transportation could provide. Gasoline-powered vehicles soon became dominant because the price of oil was low and the supply seemed unlimited.
  2. During the first automobile boom, between 1895 and 1908, France dominated the automobile industry.
  3. The most important date of all may be 1908, the year of the introduction of the Model T Ford, which sold for $825 and was intended to be "a car for the great multitude." (Car Trouble, p. 3.) By 1913, Ford was the world's leading auto manufacturer, and by 1916, assembly line production brought the price of the Model T down to $360 so the middle class could afford it. (Revolution, p. 84.)
  4. Until World War I, more than one third of the motor vehicles in the United States were electric. The restricted driving range of electric cars was not a problem then because most driving was done in cities; the terrible condition of country roads discouraged automobile traffic.Before the electric self-starter was invented, hand-cranking a gasoline engine was difficult and dangerous. Electric cars, which were safer and easier to start, were especially favored by women drivers.
  5. The first gasoline-powered vehicle with an electric starter was the 1911Cadillac. This new electric invention ironically meant that electric cars were superseded by gasoline-powered vehicles. Cars with internal combustion engines could go farther and faster; their engines could be made in all sizes.
  6. Cars became the principal means of travel during the 1920s. By 1930,there were twice as many paved roads as there had been a decade earlier. In 1927, in the United States, there was one car for every 5.3 inhabitants; in Canada, the figure was one for every 10.5 people. (In comparison, there is now one car for every 1.7 people in the UnitedStates, and one car for every 2.1 people in Canada. The current numbers of people per car in some other countries are: Japan, 2.1; U.K., 5.3;France, 2.0; Mexico 8.4; Brazil, 12; India, 356; Uganda, 1,453.
  7. During the 1920s, Canada became the second largest producer of automobiles. The United States continued to be the leading producer; General Motors surpassed Ford as the largest manufacturer. (Revolution,pp. 91 and 101.)
  8. By the end of the 1920s, some 55 percent of American families owned acar (Revolution, p. 112.). Car buyers had begun to buy on credit on the installment plan. Car manufacturers began to change models each year and to emphasize styling changes. They became the largest advertisers, creating consumer demand for newer products that boasted increased comfort, style, and power. It was an automaker, Louis Renault, who said that "To live is to consume." (Revolution, p. 117.)
  9. In the 1920s, the automobile was changing the lifestyle in the United States and Canada. Rural areas especially benefited because they were no longer isolated. The U.S. Post Office began free rural delivery.Farm children went to larger schools by car or school bus. Automobiles changed life for city dwellers, too, encouraging the growth of suburbs.People used their cars to drive to work and to go shopping. They took Sunday drives on weekends and drove to national parks and resorts for their vacations. (Revolution, p. 114-116.)
  10. During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, automakers, tire manufacturers, oil companies, and construction industries worked to dismantle mass transportation systems and replace them with automobiles. The National City Lines, a company backed by General Motors, Standard Oil, PhillipsPetroleum, Firestone Tire and Rubber, Mack Truck, and other auto interests bought up and closed down more than 100 electric trolley lines in 45 cities. In 1949, GM and the other companies were convicted of conspiring to replace electric transportation systems with buses and to monopolize the sale of buses. (Car Trouble, p. 5.)
  11. Henry Ford encouraged Americans to abandon city slums for the suburbs.State and federal policies encouraged road-building and housing construction in outlying suburbs. Through tax laws, the Federal government has encouraged home ownership and single-family housing and has encouraged builders to create new structures rather than renovate old ones. While there were advantages--privacy, open space, quiet--there were also disadvantages. Suburbs are often "transit unfriendly; "suburbanites who must depend on the automobile encounter gridlock as they commute to jobs in the city or in other suburbs.
  12. In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act committed the federal government to build 44,000 miles of toll-free express highways. It created the Highway Trust Fund, derived mainly from taxes on cars, gas, tires, and auto parts.
  13. Beginning in the 1960s, because of the increasingly large numbers of automobiles concentrated in urban areas, the social costs of automobiles began to be recognized in the OECD countries, according to Jean-Jacques Chanaron, a French historian. In cities, automobiles created traffic, noise, and accident-related problems, and they contributed to air pollution.
  14. The Arab oil embargo, imposed by OPEC producers in 1973, restricted the supply of oil temporarily and caused prices to rise. The embargo led to new energy policies including a 55 mph speed limit, mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, the trans-Alaska oilpipeline, and a national campaign to cut energy use. President Nixon in1973 stressed the importance of developing energy independence to end reliance on imported oil. However, the United States imports an increasing percentage of its oil: 42 percent in 1990, up from 27 percent in 1985. (Car Trouble, p. 17.)
  15. The 1973 oil embargo also sparked renewed interest in electric-powered vehicles. The Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act was passed to stimulate research and testing. Subsequently, the 1978 Solar Photovoltaic Research, Development, and Demonstration Act called for the commercialization of photovoltaic technology. (Car Trouble, p. 181.)
  16. The 1970s saw the beginning of federal "clean air" legislation. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 established National Ambient Air Quality Standards and gave the federal government more power to regulate pollution sources. The 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments mandated a 96-percent reduction in hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide and a 75-percent reduction in nitrogen oxides from cars (relative to carswith no controls.) (Car Trouble, p. 181.) The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments set even stricter standards to lower emissions of hydrocarbons (by 40 percent) and oxides of nitrogen (by 60 percent) by1996; regulated emission from trains, boats, and other sources; required gas pumps to have attachments to capture vapors; and set a schedule for increasingly strict emission standards for new cars to be phased in over 10 years.


  1. Steve Nadis and James J. MacKenzie, Car Trouble, (World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C., 1993) and Jean-Pierre Bardou, et al.,
  2. The Automobile Revolution: The Impact of an Industry (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1982).


Reprinted from the Teacher's Guide to World Resources 1994-95, World Resources Institute, 1709 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20006 (202/638-6300; fax: 202/638-0036). For more information contact kathyd@wri.org.

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