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Home > Articles > Car History - A Vision Becomes Reality  (Part  1 2 3 4)

Car History - A Vision Becomes Reality   Part 2: The Automotive Industry Arrives in Detroit

By Carl Burgess Glasscock

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

No one, in the experimental 1890s, imagined that he was founding an aristocracy of competence and accomplishment. Neither did Detroit, basking beneath its trees and fanned by the breezes from its great river, imagine that it would become the world-famous seat of such an aristocracy. The French settlers, the fur-traders, the stove-makers, the foundry owners, the rail­road pioneers had already formed an aristocracy sufficient unto a city of some two hundred thousand population. No one imag­ined that within the generation presidents of the United States and royalty of the Old World would be exchanging honors with farmers, mechanics, photographers, miners, salesmen, immigrants, who had attained the heights in motordom. No one imagined that an older aristocracy, an aristocracy of land and wealth and the breeding of several generations would be displaced by an aris­tocracy of accomplishment climbing to power and riches and established position within one generation.

No one suspected that Edsel Ford, a child perched upon a kitchen table watching his father tinker with a sputtering contrap­tion of gas pipe and old iron in the kitchen sink, would one day be entertaining the Prince of Wales at dinner in his home. No one suspected that Roy D. Chapin, a college boy excited by his first view of an automobile, would win and hold such high place in the industry that the portfolio of Secretary of Commerce in the Hoover Cabinet would be only an incidental honor. No one thought that William (christened Signius Wilhelm Poul) Knudsen would rise from a job in a Copenhagen bicycle shop to the position of executive vice-president of General Motors, and be knighted by King Christian of Denmark.

Detroit was familiar with the names of Newberry, Alger, Joy, McMillan, Cass, Beaubien, etc. They represented aristocracy to the Society-conscious Detroiters. The United States was familiar with the names of Vanderbilt, Roosevelt, Morgan, Drexel, Lodge, Cabot, Adams, etc. They represented aristocracy to all Ameri­cans. No one of note had ever heard of Walter Chrysler, an engine wiper, Charles W. Nash, a carriage trimmer, William C. Durant, a salesman, Hugh Chalmers, a salesman, John and Horace Dodge, mechanics, or a score of others who were to build up a new American aristocracy of accomplishment--the gasoline aristocracy.

Detroit did not recognize the possibilities in the 1890s any more than did the rest of the United States. There were only four gasoline-powered cars in this country in 1894. Of those, three had been built by Americans--Duryea, Ford and Haynes. The fourth, built by Carl Benz in Germany, was imported.

Detroit gave no more indication of becoming the capital of the automobile world than did Kokomo, Lansing, Springfield or Cleveland. Automobiles appeared to be the toys of wealthy men or the contraptions of experimenting mechanics. Probably a large proportion of the persons who have reached the age of fifty in the United States first saw an automobile as a feature of a circus parade. Very often, to the hilarious delight of farmers and towns­people gathered along plank sidewalks beside dusty or muddy streets the automobile could not make the mile circuit of the parade, and had to be towed into the lot behind the lion wagon with its four great, plumed horses.

Alexander Winton was the first man to turn rustic derision into good advertising by reversing the usual order of the circus parade incident, effectively putting the cart before the horse. Detroit, all unaware of the dynamic possibilities of the automobile, was moved to mirth by the passage through its streets of a Winton car drawn by a span of horses. The bucolic cry of “Get a Horse!” which had been greeting public appearances of horseless carriages through the ‘nineties was answered literally and effectively.

But this two-horsepowered automobile carried a placard an­nouncing that no one could operate it without the aid of the horses. The incident amused Detroiters and confirmed the skepti­cism of rustics gathered by the way, but it hurt the pride and menaced the budding sales record of the Winton representative, whose factory was in Cleveland. A few hours later, therefore, a Winton car followed the same route under its own power, drawing a farm wagon within which rode a dejected-looking donkey. Upon the car and wagon were placards suggesting that only a donkey could find himself unable to drive a Winton.

The improvement of the automobile since those days is indi­cated by the fact that even a jackass can drive one now, and plenty of them do.

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