The first gas powered cars appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were literally motorized carriages. Carriages like the 1890 Studebaker below were the predecessors of cars. The Brockway looks a lot like the carriage, but it has a motor.
Ford produced its first car in 1903. The Model A Runabout shown below listed for $750.
Much of the growth of car ownership in the early part of the 20th century is attributed to Henry Ford and the Model T. Ford’s signature car was the first to be mass produced and the first to go to market at a rate that was affordable to a larger class of Americans.
The growth of cars created a whole new segment of the transportation industry. Whether it was taxis, limos or car services, automobiles provided a new and more personal form of public transportation.
The 1920’s were a time of prosperity for America. And what better way to tell the world about your participation in that prosperity than to drive a luxury automobile. While the prosperous 20’s came to an abrupt end, luxury models like the ones below continued to be a status symbol for their owners.
As more Americans owned cars it gave rise to a new type of vacation, the camping vacation. With the more affordable cars, this represented a more affordable vacation as travelers could bring their own food and set up camp roadside. Below is a 1930 Model A Ford hooked up with a trailer.
The 1940s and 50s were the golden age of road trips for American families. They headed west, maybe visiting the national parks. They camped. They visited relatives. They headed to the shores and beaches. And they headed south in the winter. Roadsters like this one were ideal for mid-century road trips.
By the late 1940’s a new medium was taking over the living rooms of American homes, the television. Many thought that spelled the end for radio. But what the doomsayers of radio failed to take into consideration was that at this time and for several decades into the future you couldn’t take your TV with you. There were 5 million cars sold in the U.S. in 1951. By 1971, that number of 10 million. And almost all of them had a radio embedded in their dashboard.
The emergence of a distinct teen culture in the 1950’s is often associated with the birth and growth of rock and roll and the fashions and lifestyles it accompanied. The automobile also played an important part. Not only was it the means for socializing, whether it be at the car hop or the drive in, but it also gave teens a private space to do any number of things their parents would probably not have approved of. There was another wave of prosperity after World War II and another wave of growth in car ownership. There probably weren’t many teens fortunate enough to cruise in a 1954 Corvette like the two below, but this car was a product of the youth-inspired style of the 50’s.
Few Americans gave much thought to gas mileage and economy prior to the oil embargo in 1973. So throughout the sixties car manufacturers made their pitch to buyers based on muscle and comfort. Wide-bodied low riders like this 1960 Chrysler likely didn’t break double digits in miles per gallon, but at the time nobody was counting (and we weren’t wearing seat belts either).
(All photos are from the America on Wheels Museum in Allentown, Pa.)