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THE AMERICAN AUTO business began some 120 years ago. What was originally small-shop, hand-made, one-off fabrication evolved into a highly automated, complex, internationally integrated industry. Olsen and Cabadas’s fine 2002 book The American Auto Factory provides pictorial and historical tidbits that follow here.
From the Craft Method to Birth of Giants. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company, Springfield, Massachusetts, built 13 cars in 1896. Karl Benz had been selling his Patent Motorwagen in Germany since 1885; his wife Bertha’s automotive adventure cited here at SimanaitisSays.
These and other early automobiles were fabricated in the small tool shop tradition of artisans making and assembling components by hand.
A factory in the early 1900s would have depended on power from a central steam engine or electric motor. Traditional waterwheels were not unknown.
Standardization of parts evolved from New England’s small-arms manufacturing. However it was big news in 1908 when Cadillac earned a Dewar Trophy for demonstrating disassembly, intermixing of parts, and successful reassembly of three of its Model Ks.
Working the Assembly Line. Ransom Olds patented an automotive assembly line in 1901; Ford enhanced the concept with Model T production in 1913.
The idea of bringing the work to the worker made sense in other manufacturing as well.
Long before World War II’s “operations research” optimized complex organizations, early industrial engineering accelerated the pace of U.S. assembly lines.
This and other societal aspects (see Middletown) gave rise to unions in the auto industry, a practice not welcomed by all.
World War II dissolved any traces of the Great Depression. The auto industry played a key roll in converting assembly lines designed for civilian products into those required for war.
Post-war Abundance, Opulence, and Consolidation. A post-war boom evolved from automobile abundance to one of automotive opulence. Many traditional marques, among them Packard and Studebaker, disappeared. Others, like Hudson and Nash, consolidated. In time, the remaining domestic automakers felt the impact of imports.
A World Auto Industry. This Brave New World of auto manufacturing combined the engineering expertise of America, Europe, Japan—and their accompanying robotics—to enhance production efficiencies and automotive quality.
Today’s international auto industry is a far cry from a few guys working to fit hand-made bits into something that ran. The American Auto Factory is a fine book detailing this evolution. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018