The mission of the Northeast Classic Car Museum consists of educating the public on different aspects of the automobile and its history throughout the years. Much of what the Museum offers intertwines with the criteria that can be assimilated with the New York State Learning Standards. This is the first article in a series of 5 that was published in The Evening Sun in November 2006to celebrate National Education Week.
The automobile flashed onto the scene like a meteor, changing the entire economy and the national way-of-life. No one was prepared for it. Generations of horse-drawn road transportation had created a complex system of industries on which the automobile had a damaging effect. The continuing changes and reasons for them were not so obvious to automotive pioneers. It was, after all, a learn-as-you-go process with no precedents.
Automotive history is generally divided into a number of eras based on the major design and technology shifts. Although the exact boundaries of each era can be hazy, they can be defined as follows: Veteran era (1800-1900), Brass era (1903-1920), Vintage (1919-1929), Pre-War (1930-1948), Post-War (1949-1970) and Modern (1970-on). Corresponding historical periods were: The Development of Modern America (1865-1920); Modern American and the World Wars (1914-1945) and Contemporary America (1945 to the present).
By 1900 mass production of automobiles had begun in France and the United States. Throughout the veteran car era automobiles were seen as more of a novelty than a genuinely useful device. Breakdowns were frequent, fuel was difficult to obtain, and rapid innovation meant that a year-old car was nearly worthless. New York became the first state in the US to require automobile license plates in April of 1901. Automobile owners were charged a fee of $1.
Named for the widespread use of brass in the United States, the Brass or Edwardian era lasted from roughly 1905 through the beginning of World War I in 1914. 1905 was a signal year in the development of the automobile, marking the point when the majority of sales shifted from the hobbyist and enthusiast to the average user. Cars of the period include the Ford Model T, the most widely produced and available car of the era. There were, however, scores of other small, start-up manufacturers (often businesses that made buggies and carriages) that started making automobiles.
The vintage era lasted from the end of World War I (1919) through the stock market crash at the end of 1929. During this period, the front-engine car came to dominate, with closed bodies and standardized controls.
The pre-war part of the classic era began with the Great Depression in 1930 and ended with the recovery after World War II, commonly placed at 1948. By the 1930’s, most of the technology used in automobiles had been invented. After 1930, the number of auto manufacturers declined sharply as the industry consolidated and matured.
Throughout the 1950’s post-war era, engine power and vehicle speeds rose, designs became more integrated and artful, and cars spread across the world. The market changed somewhat in the 1960’s, as Detroit began to experience foreign competition, the European makers adopted ever-higher technology, and Japan appeared as a serious car-producing nation. In America, performance was the hot sell of the 1960’s, with pony cars and muscle cars propping up the domestic industry. Everything changed in the 1970’s as the oil crisis, automobile emissions control rules, Japanese and European imports, and stagnant innovation wreaked havoc on the American industry. Throughout the decade, small imported cars gained in customer favor and the sale of the larger, American-made automobiles began to decline.
The modern era is normally defined as the 25 years preceding the current year. However, there are some technical and design aspects that differentiate modern cars from antiques. Without considering the future of the car, the modern era has been one of increasing standardization, platform sharing, and computer-aided design. Three types of body styles have changed in the modern era. The hatchback, minivan, and sport utility vehicle, dominate today’s market yet are relatively recent concepts. Modern cars include the Ford Taurus, which dominated the American market in the late 1980s and the SUVs and Vans so popular today.
Change is in the air, and once again we’re faced with choices. We’ve become a nation dependent on a method of individual transportation, yet we’ve discovered the choices of the past haven’t always led to the clear, bright future we imagined. The early car makers were powered by a need to develop a safe, economical and drivable automobile. Early inventors could not have imagined the population – of people and cars – in the world today. Still, as uncomfortable as it can be, change is often good. New ideas are generated and explored. New technologies and fuels may prove more fantastic than we had ever dreamed. But, by being willing to imagine and change, we can drive into the future in style.
Article written by Audrey Robinson and Richard Ellinwood of the NECCM Education Committee. Reprinted courtesy of The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY.