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Automotive Firsts

by Victor M. Parachin

The millions who attend annual automotive shows would be surprised to learn that the first National Automobile Show took place in 1900 from Nov. 3–10. It was sponsored by the Automobile Club of America and featured 40 automakers exhibiting more than300 cars. Attendance averaged 6,000 per day and visitors viewed braking and starting contests. Admission to the "horseless horse show" was 50 cents. That same year, William McKinley became the first U.S. President to ride in an automobile. Here are other fascinating automotive firsts.

First steering wheel - The earliest automobiles were steered by tillers, much like a boat. In 1900, the first steering wheel was used on a Packard Model C, built by the Ohio Automobile Company. Visitors at the National Automobile Show looked skeptically at it, referring to the steering wheel as "that foreign thing." In defense of the new innovation, Packard officials declared: "In machines that are designed to travel in excess of 20 miles an hour," a steering wheel was an absolute necessity.

Curved Dash 1901 Oldsmobile
Gasoline powered Curved Dash 1901 Oldsmobile.

First automobile laws - It quickly became apparent that states would have to establish rules and regulations on drivers and their vehicles. On July 6, 1899, the city of Chicago authorized a Board of Examiners of Operators of Automobiles. In 1901, Connecticut became the first state to enact uniform, statewide motor vehicle laws. That year, New York issued the first state license plates for automobiles and collected a total of $954 in fees. The first vehicle stop sign was put in Detroit in 1914. Jacob German has the distinction of being the first driver arrested for speeding. That took place on May 20, 1899, when German, the operator of a taxicab for the Electric Vehicle Company, was arrested for driving at a "breakneck speed" of 12 miles per hour on Lexington Avenue, New York City. He was booked and jailed in the East 22nd Street police station.

First speedometer and speed limit - The curved dash of the 1901 Oldsmobile was the first vehicle equipped with a speedometer. England was the world's first country to establish the speed limit. That took place in 1902 and was set at 20 miles per hour.

In the United States, the first national speed limit law was enacted in 1942 and set at 35 miles per hour. The following year, 1943, a ban on driving for pleasure was put into place because gasoline was needed for the effort of World War II. The 55 mile per hour national speed limit was legislated in the US in 1974. That was the first time since World War II that the government instituted such a regulation.

1913 Model T Touring Car
1913 Model T Touring Car

First car produced for commercial sales - That was the car manufactured by Charles Edgar Duryea, regarded as American's pioneer automobile manufacturer. Duryea began building his first automobile in August 1891 in Springfield, MA, and was successfully operated on April 19, 1892. By 1895, he organized the Duryea Motor Wagon Company producing cars for commercial sale. The first was sold in 1896.

First car factory - In 1899, Ransom Eli Olds of Detroit, MI, began manufacturing Oldsmobiles at his factory. In 1901, he produced 433 cars; 2,500 in 1902; and 5,508 in 1904. Although Olds pioneered car manufacturing, it was Henry Ford who would be the first to mass produce automobiles. In 1908, he introduced the Model T with a low price because it was mass-produced. His vehicle became the first which was affordable to the general public. Ford further developed auto manufacturing in August 1913 by using a moving assembly line. At his Highland Park, MI., plant, a two-rope pulley was hooked to a Model T chassis, pulling it past the workers who added the necessary parts. By the end of that year, his assembly line was motorized. The use of an assembly line increased Model T production from seven and one-half to 146 cars per hour, making cars even more affordable. Henry Ford's assembly line effectively removed automobile ownership from the exclusive hands of the wealthy.

1901 White Steam O Touring Car
1901 White Steam O Touring Car, preferred car of President William Howard Taft, and first official White House car.

First interchangeable car parts - One reason cars were initially so expensive was that each automobile had to be hand-built. That expense dropped enormously when Cadillac cars became the first to use interchangeable parts. Three Cadillacs were shipped to England and completely disassembled. The parts were then intermixed and the cars reassembled. That interchangeability concept completely revolutionized automobile manufacturing techniques by making it possible to produce parts ahead of time. There was no longer a need to hand-build each vehicle.

First White House car - William Howard Taft ordered the first official White House car. It was a White Steamer. Taft, who was a large man, was so impressed with the roominess of the steam-powered auto that he continued to use steam vehicles throughout his term and bought others for personal use after leaving office. Other prominent individuals who preferred White Steamers included John D. Rockefeller and Buffalo Bill Cody.

First starter - The early autos could only be started by using a hand crank. This was often difficult, dangerous and almost impossible for women to do. In 1911, Charles Kettering of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) developed and installed the first self starter in a Cadillac. This, too, helped advance increased use of the automobile by making it easier for most people, especially women, to drive.

Packard Ad

First car radio - In 1929, Motorola sold the first car radios for aftermarket installation. The radios were developed by Paul Galvin and Bill Lear, who later became founder of the Lear Jet. The 1987 Lincoln Town Car was the first American car to offer a factory-installed CD player as an option.

First automatic transmission - In 1940, General Motors offered an automatic transmission on their Oldsmobile model. Called the "Hydra-Matic," the transmission used four speeds and added $57 to the price of the cars. By the late forties, the Hyrda- Matic was being used by Cadillac and Pontiac as well as independent automakers such as Nash and Hudson.

First air conditioned car - What is now standard on virtually all new vehicles created a stir when the Packard Motor Car Company, Detroit, MI, publicly exhibited an air-conditioned auto Nov. 4–12, 1939, at the 40th Automobile Show in Chicago. Air inside the car was cooled to the temperature desired, filtered and circulated. The cooling capacity of those first auto air conditioners was equivalent to 1.5 tons of ice in 24 hours when the car was driven at 60 miles per hour, or two tons at 80 miles per hour.

Victor M. Parachin is a freelance writer living in Tulsa, OK.

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