US Car History
Automobiles have played a major role in US history, and are a huge part of its culture. Cars have been around for over a century now, and their importance as a form of transportation as well as an interest is only continuing to grow. Classic car shows, car collecting, and interest in vintage cars are all very culturally ingrained in the United States, and the history of the car keeps getting more expansive as time goes on!
Cars in the United States are immensely important. American car manufacturing has outpaced many other regions of the world. By the 1950s, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler produced two-thirds of all cars sold in the world. Although this is not still the case, auto manufacturing is a major part of US industry. Car sales in the United States are booming, with 17.46 million cars and trucks sold in the country in 2016.
History of the Car
Moving vehicles have been around for centuries, but cars are a much more recent invention. The first self-propelled vehicle was built in 1769 by Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot. It was a steam powered three-wheeled tractor for the French Army. Several other people built versions of cars, some powered by electricity and some by steam, over the next century. The first true car was produced in 1885 by Karl Friedrich Benz. It was powered by gasoline and had an internal combustion engine.
The car truly came into importance in 1908 when Henry Ford created the first inexpensive car, the Model T, through the use of an assembly line. No longer for the extremely wealthy or eccentric collector, cars could reach a huge portion of the American public after 1908. This made a major impact on the culture of the US as well, because the new method of transportation allowed many people to move outside the city but still work there.
- American-Historama: Henry Ford and the Model T
- United States Library of Congress: Who invented the automobile?
History of the American Truck
Cars are useful for transportation, but trucks also have a long history in the United States as well. Trucks were not as popular originally because they are heavier and early roads couldn’t hold the weight while early engines couldn’t power such a heavy vehicle, especially when it was loaded down. Early trucks were often just modified cars fitted with crates, but soon the assembly line technique was applied to trucks, roads and engines were improved, and trucks became more useful for farmers and ranchers. Trucks are now popular among people of all professions.
- Texas Transportation Museum: The trucking industry in San Antonio and South-Central Texas
In addition to cars and pickup trucks, there are many specialty cars that have evolved to find a place on America’s roadways. These cars have become collector items, conversation starters, and reminders that cars have evolved far beyond the original Model T.
- Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration: Specialty plate/placard details
- Classic Car Club of America: Our club
Collecting older cars has become a major part of the specialty car culture. There are hundreds of classic car clubs and thousands of classic car enthusiasts throughout the United States. Antique or classic cars can include older cars as well as cars that were produced in limited production or with special features. Many states allow for classic cars of a certain age to have a special license plate as well. For example, in Tennessee, a car can be considered as classic or antique if it is at least 25 years old and has no major body or engine modifications.
- Tennessee Department of Revenue: Antique auto
- Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles: Antique motor vehicles and trailers
Muscle cars are generally defined as two-door cars with high performance or powerful engines. While this can cover a wide variety of cars, muscle cars were primarily produced in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Similar to the hot rods discussed below, muscle cars are often collected and restored by classic car collectors who value them for their historical and mechanical ability.
- McPherson College: Automotive restoration
Customized cars have been in the forefront of American culture for decades, but were brought into mass popularity in the early twenty-first century by the Fast and the Furious film franchise. With cars sporting oversized spoilers and massive engines, as well as custom lights and paint, customized cars became even more popular. Although these modifications are popular, it is always a good idea to check local and state laws before customization, as some modifications may be illegal.
- FindLaw: Unlawful vehicle modifications: state laws
- National Motorists Association: 10 common illegal alterations made to cars
- State of Wisconsin Department of Transportation: Homemade or reconstructed vehicles
A hot rod is similar to a muscle car in many ways, but is generally defined as a standard car with a large engine dropped in as an after-market alteration. Hot rods are generally cars from the 1950s and often have elaborate paint designs and exposed engines.
- Specialty Equipment Market Association: What is hot rodding?
- Pennsylvania Department of Transportation: Specialty vehicle title/registration
American Auto Club History
Auto clubs in America generally fall into two categories, clubs for motorist support and clubs for car enthusiasts, although certainly someone can belong to both types! Auto clubs for car enthusiasts have a long history, and there are car clubs devoted to almost every make, model, and era of car. Some car clubs go back to the 1950s, and some even earlier!
- Volkswagen Club of America: History of the Volkswagen club of America
- Oldsmobile Club of America: History
- Antique Automobile Club of America: About
Car magazines cover a wide variety of topics including mechanics, design, racing and collecting. Car magazines often have advertisements for class cars for sale as well as articles about car history, car shows, and auto club events.
One major way car enthusiasts gather to share information is social events including car shows. These shows also sometimes raise money for a variety of charities and act almost as a mobile museum, allowing members of the public to see classic or unusual cars while increasing visibility of collections as well as offering a forum for enthusiasts.