For many years after the introduction of automobiles, three kinds of power sources were in common use: steam engines, gasoline engines, and electric motors. In 1900 more than 2,300 automobiles were registered in New York City; Boston, Massachusetts; and Chicago, Illinois. Of these, 1,170 were steam cars, 800 were electric cars, and only 400 were gasoline cars. Gasoline-powered engines eventually became the nearly universal choice for automobiles because they allowed longer trips and faster speeds than engines powered by steam or electricity.
But development of gasoline cars in the early 1900s was hindered in the United States by legal battles over a patent obtained by New York lawyer George B. Selden. Selden saw a gasoline engine at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. He then designed a similar one and obtained a broad patent that for many years was interpreted to apply to all gasoline engines for automobiles. Although Selden did not manufacture engines or automobiles, he collected royalties from those who did.
Henry Ford believed Seldenís patent was invalid. Selden sued when Ford refused to pay royalties for Ford-manufactured engines. After eight years of court battles, the courts ruled in 1911 that Seldenís patent applied only to two-stroke engines. Ford and most other manufacturers were using four-stroke engines, so Selden could not charge them royalties.
Improvements in the operating and riding qualities of gasoline automobiles developed quickly after 1900. The 1902 Locomobile was the first American car with a four-cylinder, water-cooled, front-mounted gasoline engine, very similar in design to most cars today. Built-in baggage compartments appeared in 1906, along with weather resistant tops and side curtains. An electric self-starter was introduced in 1911 to replace the hand crank used to start the engine turning. Electric headlights were introduced at about the same time.
Most automobiles at the turn of the 20th century appeared more or less like horseless carriages. In 1906 gasoline-powered cars were produced that had a style all their own. In these new models, a hood covered the front-mounted engine. Two kerosene or acetylene lamps mounted to the front served as headlights. Cars had fenders that covered the wheels and step-up platforms called running boards, which helped passengers get in and out of the vehicle. The passenger compartment was behind the engine. Although drivers of horse-drawn vehicles usually sat on the right, automotive steering wheels were on the left in the United States.
In 1903 Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company, which introduced its first automobile, the Model A, in that same year. It closely resembled the 1903 Cadillac, which was hardly surprising since Ford had designed cars the previous year for the Cadillac Motor Car Company. Fordís company rolled out new car models each year, and each model was named with a letter of the alphabet. By 1907, when models R and S appeared, Fordís share of the domestic automobile market had soared to 35 percent.
Fordís famous Model T debuted in 1908 but was called a 1909 Ford. Ford built 17,771 Model Tís and offered nine body styles. Popularly known as the Tin Lizzy, the Model T became one of the biggest-selling automobiles of all time. Ford sold more than 15 million before stopping production of the model in 1927. The companyís innovative assembly-line method of building the cars was widely adopted in the automobile industry.
By 1920 more than 8 million Americans owned cars. Major reasons for the surge in automobile ownership were Fordís Model T, the assembly-line method of building it, and the affordability of cars for the ordinary wage earner.
Improvements in engine-powered cars during the 1920s contributed to their popularity: synchromesh transmissions for easier gear shifting; four-wheel hydraulic brake systems; improved carburetors; shatterproof glass; balloon tires; heaters; and mechanically operated windshield wipers.
From 1930 to 1937, automobile engines and bodies became large and luxurious. Many 12- and 16-cylinder cars were built. Independent front suspension, which made the big cars more comfortable, appeared in 1933. Also introduced during the 1930s were stronger, more reliable braking systems, and higher-compression engines, which developed more horsepower. Mercedes introduced the worldís first diesel car in 1936. Automobiles on both sides of the Atlantic were styled with gracious proportions, long hoods, and pontoon-shaped fenders. Creative artistry merged with industrial design to produce appealing, aerodynamic automobiles.
Some of the first vehicles to fully incorporate the fender into the bodywork came along just after World War II, but the majority of designs still had separate fenders with pontoon shapes holding headlight assemblies. Three companies, Ford, Nash, and Hudson Motor Car Company, offered postwar designs that merged fenders into the bodywork. The 1949 Ford was a landmark in this respect, and its new styling was so well accepted the car continued in production virtually unchanged for three years, selling more than 3 million. During the 1940s, sealed-beam headlights, tubeless tires, and the automatic transmission were introduced.
Two schools of styling emerged in the 1950s, one on each side of the Atlantic. The Europeans continued to produce small, light cars weighing less than 1,300 kg (2,800 lb). European sports cars of that era featured hand-fashioned aluminum bodies over a steel chassis and framework.
In America, automobile designers borrowed features for their cars that were normally found on aircraft and ships, including tailfins and portholes. Automobiles were produced that had more space, more power, and smoother riding capability. Introduction of power steering and power brakes made bigger cars easier to handle. The Buick Motor Car Company, Olds Motor Vehicle Company (Oldsmobile), Cadillac Automobile Company, and Ford all built enormous cars, some weighing as much as 2,495 kg (5,500 lb).
The first import by German manufacturer Volkswagen AG, advertised as the Beetle, arrived in the United States in 1949. Only two were sold that year, but American consumers soon began buying the Beetle and other small imports by the thousands. That prompted a downsizing of some American-made vehicles. The first American car called a compact was the Nash Rambler. Introduced in 1950, it did not attract buyers on a large scale until 1958. More compacts, smaller in overall size than a standard car but with virtually the same interior body dimensions, emerged from the factories of many major manufacturers. The first Japanese imports, 16 compact trucks, arrived in the United States in 1956.
In the 1950s new automotive features were introduced, including air conditioning and electrically operated car windows and seat adjusters. Manufacturers changed from the 6-volt to the 12-volt ignition system, which gave better engine performance and more reliable operation of the growing number of electrical accessories.
By 1960 sales of foreign and domestic compacts accounted for about one-third of all passenger cars sold in the United States. American cars were built smaller, but with increased engine size and horsepower. Heating and ventilating systems became standard equipment on even the least expensive models. Automatic transmissions, power brakes, and power steering became widespread. Styling sometimes prevailed over practicalityósome cars were built in which the engines had to be lifted to allow simple service operations, like changing the spark plugs. Back seats were designed with no legroom.
In the 1970s American manufacturers continued to offer smaller, lighter models in addition to the bigger sedans that led their product lines, but Japanese and European compacts continued to sell well. Catalytic converters were introduced to help reduce exhaust emissions.
During this period, the auto industry was hurt by the energy crisis, created when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a cartel of oil-producing countries, cut back on sales to other countries. The price of crude oil skyrocketed, driving up the price of gasoline. Large cars were getting as little as 8 miles per gallon (mpg), while imported compacts were getting as much as 35 mpg. More buyers chose the smaller, more fuel-efficient imports.
Digital speedometers and electronic prompts to service parts of the vehicle appeared in the 1980s. Japanese manufacturers opened plants in the United States. At the same time, sporty cars and family minivans surged in popularity.
Advances in automobile technology in the 1980s included better engine control and the use of innovative types of fuel. In 1981 Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) introduced an on-board computer to monitor engine performance. A solar-powered vehicle, SunRaycer, traveled 3,000 km (1,864 mi) in Australia in six days.