Automotive History


Early inventors

Michigan automotive history starts in the 1890s, when inventors tinkered the idea of self-propelled vehicles. The bicycle, which had acquired wide-spread popularity in the 1880s, inspired auto inventors to explore the concept of self-conveying vehicles. As a result, the earliest, successful auto parts companies had previous experience with bicycle components, rather than wagon and carriage parts.

Henry Coffin, Steamer Car

Verso: "1899-1900--Steam car built by Howard
Coffin while in College at U. of M. (Ann Arbor)
modeled on lines of Locomotive steamer but
with larger boiler and Engines (2 cyl)." Folder
"Photo of Howard Coffin with steamer car."
Box 30, Roy Dikeman Chapin papers.
Click to enlarge.

The desire for mobility led to two early successes. In 1891, a man named William Morrison, constructed an electric carriage that he drove through Des Moines, Iowa. Two years later, 1893, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Frank Duryea exhibited a motorized truck, using an internal combustion engine. Duryea would later manufacture internal combustion vehicles--13 in his first year of operation. 1893 was also the year in which the U.S. Office of Road Inquiry was established (due to pressure from bicyclists) to study the condition of American roads and make recommendations for improvement. Americans were feeling exploratory, fascinated with the idea of traveling about the country on independent schedules. The climate was ripe for inventors and tinkerers; it was a matter of "who" and "when" would build a horseless carriage, not "if."


The first companies to produce automobiles for the public market emerged in 1896. Surprisingly, these early auto manufucturers built more electric than gas-powered vehicles.


1912 self-starting Cadillac. Folder "General Motors
Corporation, misc." Box 1, Jack Kausch papers.

However, when gas-powered internal combustion engines no longer needed the help of a hand crank to start, then the electric automobile lost ground. The 1912 Cadillac was the first vehicle to have an effective self-starting engine.

Consumers materialized and marketing attempts began almost as soon as manufacturers knew that they had a product to sell. In 1898, William Metzger became the country's first automobile dealer not in the direct employ of a manufacturer with the establishment of his Detroit dealership. Two years later, in 1900, the first National Autombile Show was held in New York City at Madison Square Garden. Approximately 48,000 people visited the 51 exhibitors, consisting of automobile manufacturers and parts supply companies, and saw 300 different models.

Motor City, Michigan

Though Detroit built its wealth and reputation on the automotive industry, Michigan didn't start out as the auto industry capital of the world. Rather, New England was the birthplace of many of the early auto companies. However, by 1905, Michigan had solidified its claim as the central location of the industry. Circumstantial coincidences tied Michigan to the emerging auto industry. The state's plentiful natural resources (timber, copper, and iron) had been harvested and depleted, but not before creating fortunes for timber and mining interests.

Oldsmobile Test Drive

Ca. 1904 Oldmobile out on a test drive. Folder
"Hudson cars: Automobile testing; Auto workers"
Box 30, Roy Dikeman Chapin papers.
Click to enlarge.

These capitalists had excess funds for which they were looking for more profitable investment opportunities at the time that Ransom E. Olds needed capital for his fledgling automobile company. Two of these wealthy Michiganders, Edward W. Sparrow and Samuel L. Smith, forged a partnership with Ransom Olds, creating the Olds Motor Works. Another Michigan resident also helped to make Detroit the Motor City: Henry Ford. His tenacity and innovation in the new industry ensured the success of his product. If Olds and Ford had been less successful, the title of Motor City may well have gone to some other city. Ransom Olds and Henry Ford were able to capture the auto market and secure Michigan's central role because of their profitable business philosophy of "low cost, high volume."

In other to maintain low production costs, both Olds and Ford introduced the production line. Henry Ford took the concept of the production line further, refining the actual process used to assemble vehicles. The moving assembly line is one example of his innovations. These improvements were able to increase the cost-effectiveness of vehicle assembly so that the company could reduce the actual retail cost of the car.

Experimental models

Lansing, MI, 1906. From L to R: experimental,
curved dash, 2 cylinder, and 4 cylinder models.
Scrapbook, Vol. 1, 1886-1911. Roy Dikeman
Chapin papers. Click to enlarge.

Since 1896, it is estimated that over 1,500 automobile makers have operated in the U.S. The sheer number of competitors has resulted in power struggles. Consequently, larger, more powerful companies bought up smaller companies with little market share.

World War I and the 1920s

World War I forced the auto industry to slow its production; it was cut in half in order to devote factories to war production. When WW I ended, anticipating a sudden increase in demand, automakers flooded the market with new cars. While the surge in demand remained high for two years, an economic slump in 1920 distressed the industry because of the excess supply and low demand. As history demonstrates, the automobile industry has always been sensitive to economic conditions, like a canary in the coal mine.

Regardless of a slow market, 1920 was a pivotal year for U.S. auto companies. By 1920, automakers were no longer experimenting with design; placing the engine under the hood became standard, as did cable brake systems, steering wheels (as opposed to steering rudders), and combustion engines. At this point in history, most people had at least seen an automobile, even if they did not own one themselves. Cars had become culturally accepted and morever, American culture began to change to accomodate these new machines.


Autoworkers inside Buick Motor Company, Plant 1.
Vertical File, Flint, MI photograph collection.
Click to enlarge.

In 1923, Alfred P. Sloan was appointed president of General Motors, after serving as the company's vice president. Sloan's leadership was largely responsible for GM's decades of success; he introduced marketing techniques that auto companies continue to use. Sloan realized that because more Americans were becoming car owners, the market for first-time buyers was shrinking; cars were no longer novelty items. Dealers needed to persuade buyers that they needed another car. The annual model was one of Sloan's marketing techniques--by changing the cosmetic appearance of the car (and sometimes the technical features), consumers had incentives to buy newer models, to trade up, or add a second car to the family's garage. He expressed his strategy with the catch phrase "a car for every purse and purpose."


The first Chevrolet automobile produced in Detroit, 1912.
Louis Chevrolet, standing w/o hat. W.C. Durant, standing,
with derby hat at the right end of the group. Cliff Durant
(W.C.'s son) at the wheel, his wife in the passenger seat.
Folder "Photographs, Automobiles and related." Box 15,
Frank Angelo papers. Click to enlarge.

Price structure was another of Sloan's innovations; Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldmobile, Buick, and Cadillac are the various GM brands, from least to most expensive. In each brand, the top of the line of one brand costs just a little bit less than the lowest priced model of the next expensive line. With this pricing structure, consumers could be convinced to spend a little more to purchase a more prestigous brand of vehicle.

In the mid-twenties, Ford dropped from the nation's top automaker to second place behind General Motors. Ford Motor Company continued to hold its second place ranking until Henry Ford retired in 1945. In 1927, Ford's Model A was introduced to consumers. In 1928, Chrysler acquired Dodge. By 1929, GM, Ford, and Chrysler comprised 75% of annual auto sales in the United States.

American culture experienced extreme and irrevocable change as a result of the automobile's entrance into modern life, beginning in the 1920s. Rural familes were no longer isolated from larger communities, which had implications on education, commerce, and agriculture. Urban Americans used their newfound mobility to escape the dirt, noise, and congestion of city life, at least temporarily. Outdoor pursuits, such as camping, hunting, and fishing gained popularity as leisure activities. Indebtedness became an acceptable part of life, both due to the installment buying that had been introduced during the early days of the industry and later through the credit cards issued by gasoline companies.

AA Streetcar

Packard-Huron street railway car, ca. 1912. Folder
"AASR-AG." Box 1, Claude Thomas Stoner papers.

The growth of suburban communities was another change that American culture experienced; as the suburbs grew and Americans began to commute by car, the electric railways and interurban trains became obsolete. As more Americans began to commute, city congestion and scarce downtown parking meant that businesses moved to city outskirts, where parking lots could be built and congestion was not a concern. Road repairs and improvements became a larger responsiblity for local governments; ultimately, a gas tax was levied in order to raise the necessary funds to maintain roads. Tourism developed as a result of the auto industry--camp sites and motor lodges, restaurants, and tourist attractions all waited to feed, clothe, and entertain the passing motorist.

The auto industry and organized labor

The Great Depression devasted the automobile industry; the many Detroit-area workers employed by the Big Three lost their job security and stability. During the Depression, the city of Detroit added 300 families to the relief rolls each day; a significant number of these families had previously been supported by the relatively high auto industry wages. The auto industry's response to the Depression varied by company, but typically involved wage cuts, layoffs, and increased production speed. In response to these Depression-era measures that many auto parts suppliers instituted, strikes and walk-outs grew more frequent.

The automotive industry and the labor movement share an intertwined history. Small tradesmens' unions were involved in the industry from its inception, but for unskilled auto workers, it would not be until the mid-thirties that a widespread industrial union would take hold. The industrial labor union movement in Detroit owes much of its later success to the earlier presence of the Carriage, Wagon and Automobile Workers and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). These two union pioneers tried a new approach with automotive workers. While the trade unions already operating united skilled craftsmen, the IWW and the Carriage, Wagon and Automobile Workers were the first to attempt to organize the industry, creating a union that was open to all workers, regardless of trade or skill level. In 1936, the newly organized United Automobile Workers with the Congress of Industrial Organizations enforced a sit-down strike at GM plants in Flint, MI.

Strike resoultion

April 1937, Chrysler strike resolved. Seated left
to right: John L. Lewis, Murphy, Walter Chrysler,
Dewey. Standing left to right: Homer Martin,
Richard Frankensteen, Lee Pressman, K. T. Keller,
Herman Weckler. Scrapbook 25, Frank Murphy
papers. Click to enlarge.

By February 1937, GM recognized the UAW as the bargaining agent for its workers. Chrysler recognized UAW shortly after GM did. However, at Ford, the UAW and other unions were not able to organize until 1941.


World War II affected the auto industry much like the first World War; auto production slowed and stopped in order to provide factory space and ensure adequate materials for war production. But after the war, from 1945 to 1950, the industry enjoyed a healthy period. Models moved quickly out of showrooms. Even until the 1980s, the Big Three experienced steady growth and healthy profits. Starting in the 1950s, environmental concerns developed a more forceful voice, and vehicle emissions legislation was passed by Congress. Safety concerns also led to the passage of seatbelt laws.

1966 witnessed the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the Highway Safety Act, as well as the creation of the Department of Transportation. During the 1960s, the industry rediscovered its electric origins, toying with the idea of electric vehicles. General Motors developed protypes of two electric vehicles, the Electrovan and the Electrovair II, an electric version of the Corvair. American Motors Company, a decade later, would market electric Jeep vehicles, the Electruck, to the U.S. Postal Service.

During the 1975 fuel crisis, Congress passed the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) bill which required automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of their passenger car fleet. Consequently, the Big Three began to make smaller cars for sale in the U.S. during the 1980s. The 1980s also saw the growth of the import market; instead of merely competing against each other, the Big Three now had to contend with fuel-efficient vehicles from Germany and Japan. Imports sold surprisingly well. Toyota emerged as the foreign leader, harnessing the majority of the import market share.

As more and more members of the American public purchased vehicles, second-car ownership became common. Increasingly, each individual owned a car, in contrast to the earlier trend of the "family car." In some homes, there could be as many cars as there were licensed drivers.

The invention and re-invention of the automobile industry has impacted American society like nothing else. As the industry continues to evolve during dark economic times, research into the origins and past directions of the auto industry takes on an added significance.

About this guide

Arranged topically, this subject guide aims to help researchers identify collections useful for their research interests. The topical categories contain a combination of manuscript collections and organizational records. This subject guide represents the bulk of the Bentley Historical Library's automotive history holdings and includes the most content-heavy collections. Additional materials with small portions of relevant items may be discovered with a MIRLYN search.

Executives and Management includes collections from automobile industry executives, management personnel, as well as several motor companies' administrative records.

Workers and Labor Relations directs researchers to collections that document the auto worker's experience, labor regulatory bodies, and individuals and organizations that studied and/or supported auto industry workers.

Caddy Factory

Cadillac Motor Company. Folder "General Motors
Corporation, misc." Box 1, Jack Kausch papers.

Consumers and Marketing contains collections that document the buying and selling of automobiles, with trade catalogs and the personal papers of Michigan auto dealers.

Research and Development identifies collections that pertain to auto industry research and analysis activities, as well as the development of new technologies.

Automobile Travel and Hobbyists includes manuscript documentation of cross-country auto travel, as well as Michigan automobile clubs.

Other Relevant Collections consists of collections that contain related material, but are not strictly within to the automobile industry. The papers of politicians who worked to pass vehicle emissions and safety standards, journalists, as well as architects and city planners who designed parking lots and structures are among the collections represented in this area of the subject guide.

Published Primary Sources includes a selection of books, serials, and audio recordings that date from the first few decades of the industry. For additional published materials, please conduct a MIRLYN search.

Visual materials contains photo collections and motion picture films that document some aspect of the auto industry, including gas stations, auto accidents, and early automobile models.

Return to the top

Automobile Manufacturers Association. Automobiles of America, 2nd ed. 1968. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

May, Geoge S., Ed. The Automobile industry, 1896-1920. 1990. New York: Facts on File.

May, Geoge S., Ed. The Automobile industry, 1920-1980. 1989. New York: Facts on File.

Peterson, Joyce Shaw. American automobile workers, 1900-1933. 1987. Albany: SUNY Press.

Developed by Rachael Dreyer, Graduate Reference Assistant, July 2009.