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. This is the final article in a series of 5, originally published in the Norwich Evening Sun in 2006.
A carriage-making firm made a prototype in the 1800s of a classic design: engine in front, supplying power to a gearbox behind it; with the gearbox connected by a chain drive to the rear drive wheels. It had four forward speeds and a reverse. The first popular car was a roadster that sold for around $650 and had two seats and a one-cylinder, three-horsepower engine.
Tires, until the 1920s, were of narrow cross-section and ran at relatively high air pressures. As technology improved tires, they were made wider and operated at lower pressures. The tubeless tire was introduced by the Goodrich Company in 1948. Through the 1940s the main components of the car were well designed and efficient, and a variety of accessories were introduced, such as reversing lights, radios, automatic chokes, windshield wipers, and chrome-plated trim. Power brakes were gradually introduced and shock absorbers became hydraulic and telescopic, consisting of a piston inside a sealed cylinder, one attached to the chassis and the other to the axle. Many new models had powerful high compression engines, along with independent front suspension. In styling, they became much longer, lower and more elaborate. Lightweight chassis—less bodies were adopted, and the use of curved glass for the windshields and rear windows improved visibility a great deal.
Power steering, air conditioning, twin headlamps, and wrap-around windshields originated in the states during the early 1950s. Development of transistors led to the introduction of semiconductor ignition systems, which use electronic switching systems to control the ignition coil. Advances in technology allowed the use of higher compression ratios in fuel. Overhead valve and overhead camshaft designs, with improved fuel systems (including fuel injection) along with better ignition system performance contributed to engine power outputs. The results improved the acceleration, speed, road holding and braking of a car. Disc brakes, less prone to failure from overheating than drum brakes, at last became widely accepted. The introduction of new plastic materials for interior trim was a great asset for the stylists, and a wide range of color schemes became available to match the body colors.
Car design in the 1960s was greatly influenced by the new interest in safety and pollution control. Cars had to be built to comply with the strict new safety and anti-pollution laws of the United States, which were gradually adopted by many other countries. In addition to improved performance, cars became even more comfortable and easier to drive. Heating and ventilating equipment became standard on even the small cheap cars where it had previously been available, if at all, as an extra. Automatic transmission, power brakes and power steering gained widespread acceptance. The electrical system was improved by the introduction of the alternator to replace the dynamo, and the use of circuit breakers instead of fuses. One important development in engine design was the invention of the “wankel” engine, which had a single three-lobed driving rotor instead of the conventional pistons and crankshaft. This helped to develop prototypes that were light, compact, powerful and smooth running.
In the 1970s the US passed the Clean Air Act, with the immediate result of forcing cars to install positive crankcase ventilation. In 1975, the catalytic converter was adopted for most American cars and many imports as a means to fight fuel consumption. Computers began to play an important role in car construction, as in everything else and it was only natural for automobile manufacturers to install on-board computers into their vehicles. It is, after all, the only practical method of monitoring all the engine variables at once. A computer can now control the speed of the car and determine when something is wrong as well as let us know about any unacceptable feedback, from the seat belts being unfastened to the key being left in the lock.
From 1860, when the spark plug was invented, to 2006 and cars that can parallel park themselves, automobiles have emerged as a method of transportation that can be as individualized as our own personalities. The automobile has impacted every facet of our life for decades and will continue to do so as move into the future.
Article written by Audrey Robinson and Richard Ellinwood of the NECCM Education Committee. Reprinted courtesy of The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY.