Car Counselor: The Auto Industry – Part 1 – Where We've Been

I can hardly believe the time that has passed since I first picked up a wrench but “time flies” as they say, and here we are in 2011. I've wanted to write about our industry for quite a while – not just service tips and repair advice (my usual fare), but about our “car culture” and where it may be going. This will be the first installment in a three part series, and I hope you enjoy it.

Transportation has been vital to commerce ever since man invented the wheel. We got along for many centuries with horses, mules and wagons until the late 19th century when the industrial age gave us steam engines and inventors who saw a new opportunity for more modern modes of getting around. In the early days of the automotive age, there were many ideas and designs – some of which stuck around and are still with us. Names like Rudolf Diesel (the diesel engine), Charles Kettering (the electric starter, Freon for air conditioning, and other inventions) and Henry Ford all contributed to the vehicles that we drive today.

In the early 20th century, the race was on! As auto designers used steam engines, two-stroke engines and even electric motors (Yes, there were battery powered cars before 1910!) there was intense competition to produce the best and fastest transportation. Racing became a way to showcase what they had to offer and attract investors, and across Europe and in the U.S., cars became faster – leading to innovation in an area overlooked until then – safety.

Safety innovations, more conveniences (like electric starters and enclosed passenger areas) and increased reliability continued to progress as auto companies jockeyed for position in the emerging and growing market. Names like Buick, Oldsmobile and Chevrolet all belonged to the men who designed vehicles and all eventually merged into one company – General Motors. Likewise is true for the Dodge brothers, Chrysler and Plymouth and Gottlieb Daimler with Karl Benz, who settled on the name of an engine manufacturer's daughter, Mercedes.

Slowly, as smaller companies merged into larger companies, and with innovations like Ford's concept of streamlining the production line, cars began to be affordable to more and more people and the horse-and-buggy days were over. Styling and power took greater precedence in the following years until World War II, causing America's and Europe's efforts to be focused on the war instead of car production. After the war, and the ensuing “baby boom”, America's vehicle production kicked into high gear and led to the “golden age” of our love affair with the car.

Subdivisions, plentiful fuel and pride in the US resulted in some of the most beautiful automotive designs – long sloping fenders, curves and sleek streamlining was the fashion of the era. The development of the automatic transmission, power steering and air conditioning helped to make going for a “Sunday drive” an anticipated event.

As the 1940's and 1950's rolled into the '60's, a new kind of fashion was evident – horsepower!

Improved engineering and safety devices combined with America's “need for speed” produced some of the most memorable vehicles ever made. Thunderbird... Mustang...Corvette...GTO...these names are the cornerstones of the muscle car era and Car companies were in fierce competition to get the jump on one another, including spying. John DeLorean was responsible for the GTO (and later, the car that bears his name in Back to the Future), Lee Iaccoca produced the Mustang (and later saved Chrysler by introducing the “K” car) and designers were sought after. Also, cars like Jaguar, Fiat, Porsche and MG were making their way overseas for Americans to judge against the US models, and a few started trickling in from Japan.

The muscle car era was cut short as the 1970's dawned and gasoline shortages, new emissions regulations and economic uncertainty spawned the move towards smaller vehicles – one that the American manufacturers were unprepared for. Scrambling to retrofit existing models, develop new models and try to keep the stock price high proved difficult for the “Big 3” while Japanese models were sipping fuel and being imported in higher and higher numbers. Honda, Toyota and Datsun (later Nissan) poured a much higher percentage of company profits back into R&D (research and development) than did GM (one of the largest and most profitable companies of the time with multiple stock splits), Ford or Chrysler (nearly bankrupt in the late 1970's) and the reputation of America's car manufacturers was on a downhill slide. The Pinto, Vega and K-cars will live in infamy, while the Accord, Corolla and Z-cars improved economy and performance with excellent reliability. Through the 1980's, US makers collaborated with overseas brands to produce vehicles together, but always seemed to be playing “catch-up”.

This was the true dawn of the computer age, and cars were being controlled more and more by the “little black box”. Many technicians whom I've worked with or alongside have passed on their skills to me and I, in turn, pass those on to others but every generation of tech leaves something behind as we move on into the future. The techs of the 60's saw the innovation of alternators and disc brakes (goodbye generators and drum brakes!), in the 70's came electronic ignition and the first computers (goodbye points and condenser!), the 80's ushered in more sophisticated ignition systems, computer controls and fuel injection (though fuel injection was featured on many European and some Japanese cars dating back to the 70's) and the 90's eliminated distributors, turned to lightweight plastics and aluminum and gave us a new standard in computer controls called OBDII.

In the next installment, I will write about the issues facing us today.

Thank you for reading and drive safe!

Todd Ainsworth is one of the owners of West Seattle Autoworks and can be reached at todd400@comcast.net or 206.257.5344.

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