Starting in the late 1700's, European engineers began tinkering with motor powered vehicles. Steam, combustion, and electrical motors had all been attempted by the mid 1800's. By the 1900's, it was uncertain which type of engine would power the automobile. At first, the electric car was the most popular, but at the time a battery did not exist that would allow a car to move with much speed or over a long distance. Even though some of the earlier speed records were set by electric cars, they did not stay in production past the first decade of the 20th century. The steam-driven automobile lasted into 1920's. However, the price on steam powered engines, either to build or maintain was incomparable to the gas powered engines. Not only was the price a problem, but the risk of a boiler explosion also kept the steam engine from becoming popular. The combustion engine continually beat out the competition, and the early American automobile pioneers like Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford built reliable combustion engines, rejecting the ideas of steam or electrical power from the start.
Automotive production on a commercial scale started in France in 1890. Commercial production in the United States began at the beginning of the 1900's and was equal to that of Europe's. In those days, the European industry consisted of small independent firms that would turn out a few cars by means of precise engineering and handicraft methods. The American automobile plants were assembly line operations, which meant using parts made by independent suppliers and putting them together at the plant. In the early 1900's, the United States had about 2,000 firms producing one or more cars. By 1920 the number of firms had decreased to about 100 and by 1929 to 44. In 1976 the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association had only 11 members. The same situation occurred in Europe and Japan.
The first automobile produced for the masses in the US was the three-horsepower, curved-dash Oldsmobile; 425 of them were sold in 1901 and 5,000 in 1904--this model is still prized by collectors. The firm prospered, and it was noted by others, and, from 1904 to 1908, 241 automobile-manufacturing firms went into business in the United States. One of these was the Ford Motor Company which was organized in June 1903, and sold its first car on the following July 23. The company produced 1,700 cars during its first full year of business. Henry Ford produced the Model T to be an economical car for the average American. By 1920 Ford sold over a million cars.
At the beginning of the century the automobile entered the transportation market as a toy for the rich. However, it became increasingly popular among the general population because it gave travelers the freedom to travel when they wanted to and where they wanted. As a result, in North America and Europe the automobile became cheaper and more accessible to the middle class. This was facilitated by Henry Ford who did two important things. First he...