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Technology and Culture 48.3 (2007) 497-523

The Road to the Model T
Culture, Road Conditions, and Innovation at the Dawn of the American Motor Age
Christopher W. Wells

In 1920, a single vehicle dominated the American market for automobiles: Ford's famous Model T. Plain, powerful, and utilitarian, its success peaked in 1923 when Model Ts accounted for almost 55 percent of American automobile production.1 Introduced in 1908 at $850, by 1923 the efficiencies of mass production had allowed Ford to cut the price of the Model T touring car to just $298, enabling automobile ownership in the United States to move steadily down the income ladder. Few could have foreseen this result twenty years earlier, however. Then, the first American motor vehicles, owned almost exclusively by wealthy elites, represented a dizzying variety of designs that inspired spirited debate over such basic technological questions as the best type of engine to use, where to locate it in the vehicle, and how best to design the vehicle's body.

In recent years, scholars have generated a host of fresh insights into the shifting contours of the early auto industry, both before and after the advent of the Model T. Much of this work has been inspired by the observation that social context actively shapes definitions of technological merit—and thus the success and failure of different technologies. Why did the internal combustion engine triumph over steam and electric alternatives? [End Page 497] What should we make of the widespread practice of owners modifying their motor vehicles? Were urban or rural motorists more important? How did gender and class shape the early car culture? How did the development of automotive technology in the United States compare to that in Europe?2

For all the attention devoted to these questions, however, most historians have placed the Model T at the center of the American automotive revolution primarily for its dramatic price cuts and the mass-production techniques that made these possible, rather than for the technological merits of its design. In Cars and Culture, for example, Rudi Volti summarizes the prevailing wisdom on this subject when he writes that the Model T "embodied few technological innovations, but was sturdy, reliable, and easy to drive by the standards of the time."3

This conclusion is called into question when the Model T is viewed in light of recent scholarship, especially when coupled with close attention to the turn-of-the-century social context and the slow development of the American road system. As the early industry struggled to its feet, American automakers grappled with a wide range of mechanical difficulties, the infusion of new design breakthroughs from overseas, steady competition from other domestic manufacturers, and terrible road conditions. They also had to respond to fierce debates about what motor vehicles ought to do and how they ought to fit into domestic life. These disagreements exerted significant pressure on motor-vehicle design, causing the early U.S. market to divide into two distinct segments: one forged in the world of the horse, and the other guided by enthusiasm for machines. In this context, the significance of the Model T's design is that it created a new type of motor vehicle—the lightweight automobile—that transformed the U.S. market from one of disagreement and division into a broad mass market focused largely (if not [End Page 498] exclusively) on a single technology. In doing so, it reconciled two seemingly irreconcilable worldviews, and in the process transformed the evolution of U.S. motor-vehicle technology.


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Figure 1
The 1901 Locomobile, a steam-powered horseless carriage (bestseller during 1901–2). (Source: Motor Age, 9 January 1901, 791.)

Competing Visions, Specialized Designs

American inventors tackled the problems of self-propelled road vehicles in the early 1890s largely by modifying and combining technologies pioneered in Europe, and the machines they produced shared little beyond the ability to travel under their own power. By 1899...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 497-523
Launched on MUSE
2007-07-30
Open Access
No
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