A Brief History of Automobiles

The Automobile industry has a very profound impact on the way we live our lives. Andrew Chesterton, a contributing journalist on Cars Guide estimates that in 2016, there are around 1.32 billion vehicles—cars, trucks, and buses—all over the world. He adds that this figure will only continue to grow at a staggering rate, perhaps hitting the 2.8 billion mark by 2036.

It is truly fascinating to fathom how these numbers came about, that sometimes, we cannot help but think: “How did such humble invention change the face of global transportation?”

To—at the very least—have a semblance of when and how everything started, let us take a trip down memory lane and look at the brief history of the automobile.

The Rise of Steam-Powered Cars

Steam vehicles rose to fame during the mid to late 1800s

The first attempts to develop an automobile focused on building a reliable power source. For much of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, steam power was the area of interest. By the mid to late 1800s, several steam vehicles enjoyed sufficient success and practicality to provide mass transit in the United Kingdom. This era also saw the successful development of electric motors by the invention of the lead-acid battery.

In 1870, Siegfried Marcus became the first person to propel himself via a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.  A decade and a half later, in 1885 to be specific, Karl Benz built his first automobile and probably the first practical vehicle propelled by gasoline. 

The Increase in Popularity of Automobiles Thanks to the Industrial Revolution

Automobile production exploded during the 1920s

For the next three decades, the steam engine, the electric motor, and the internal combustion engine competed to become the dominant automobile propulsion form. France and the United States began mass-producing vehicles by the year 1900. In 1908, during the late period of the Industrial Revolution, Henry Ford began producing the Model T, the first affordable and reliable car for the emerging American middle class. 

Development in petroleum fields and widespread drilling ensured that by 1915, the internal combustion engine began to dominate its electric and steam competition. World War I’s conclusion in 1918 and the subsequent economic boom welcomed the automobile production explosion of the 1920s.

The Effects of the Great Depression

The Great Depression with its implications on the economy.

An increasingly competitive industry meant that the number of car manufacturers shrunk from 175 to 70 between 1922 and 1925. The now widely available automobile began to change the way that society behaved, especially in the US. Modern concepts such as suburban, classy living, and road trips became possible for many populations. 

This era of prosperity came to an almost sudden halt with the start of the Great Depression in 1929. This economic upheaval further consolidated the automobile industry, with many companies going out of business in the 1930s. However, automobiles in the 30s bore a much more striking resemblance to modern cars and possess similar mechanical features as of today’s vehicles.

Furthermore, this period saw many manufacturers offer V12 engines—or those twelve-cylinder piston engines where two sets of six cylinders form a V configuration around a common crankshaft, which was an option that would not reappear for several more decades.

The Impact of WWII

World War II led the automobile industry to producing military vehicles

The start of World War II led most automobile manufacturers to shift over a significant portion of their industrial capacity to producing military vehicles. This was exacerbated by increased governmental regulation, greater individual taxation, and shortages of materials such as gasoline and rubber. 

The end of World War II led to a time of unbounded prosperity and optimism in both the US and Western Europe. The 1950s saw faster vehicles with elegant styling inspired by the space age and the new interstate highway system. Chrome trim was commonplace, while automatic transmissions and air conditioning became standard features. 

The Emergence of 60s Muscle Cars

The Emergence of 60s Muscle Cars

The 1960s saw the emergence of foreign competitors to the American Big Three automakers. German and Japanese firms built smaller fuel-efficient cars that attracted many cost-conscious consumers. This led US manufacturers to emphasize performance by developing the muscle car. The Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro, both affordable, speedy vehicles with VA engines, were introduced in 1964 and 1966. By the end of the decade, automobiles were large, low, powerful, and above all fuel-hungry. 

The Upsurge of Fuel Prices in the 70s

The 1970s signaled the end of cheap fuel due to the oil crisis of 1973 and 1979. These led to a temporary quadrupling and doubling of oil prices. Combined with the passage of automobile safety laws and environmental regulations, consumers chose smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles. This led to a depletion of market share for American firms as their Japanese and German competitors gained ground.

The Concerted Effort to Focus on Safety in the 80s and the 90s 

The 80s and 90s witnessed the emergence of computer simulations and digital EC, leading to more aerodynamic and fuel-efficient automobiles. Both manufacturers and third-party organizations began to use crash tests to analyze the effectiveness of airbags.

Embracing Today and Anticipating What Lies Ahead in the Automobile Industry

Electric cars- decreasing amounts of human interaction to drive

Today’s automobile market is dominated by machines that have undergone a century of continuous refinement. Advancing technology has allowed for fuel efficiency, engine power output, and car handling to improve simultaneously. In combination with modern safety measures, vehicles today are faster, more agile, more fuel-efficient, more comfortable, more reliable, and safer than their historical counterparts.

Electric cars have made a comeback as the world seeks to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Every year larger numbers of vehicles require decreasing amounts of human interaction to drive. The automobile’s future is bright as autonomous vehicles that can efficiently navigate roadways continue to shape how humanity travels and lifts.

Author Profile

Amanda Thomas
Amanda Thomas
A professional auto-engineer woman, Amanda has worked with the development and design team of automotive companies to employ sophisticated technology in a reliable and user-friendly method in the vehicle’s navigation, alarm, control, and fuel usages.
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