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A Short History of US Autos

It didn’t start with Henry Ford or Ransome Olds.  The modern age of the automobile didn’t really begin until after World War II.  Prior to that time, the automobile was a convenience and a luxury item, not a necessity.  After WW II, in the mid and late forties, automobile production ramped up after the auto plants were converted back to car manufacture from their war time production of tanks, military trucks, airplanes and other war material.  The assembly lines were running fast and smooth from all the military efforts.  There was a huge demand for new cars, generated by returning veterans and the need to replace all the cars worn out during the war years when no new cars were built.  Americans had always loved the automobile, but now the designers and manufacturers were giving them a lot to love.

In 1948, Cadillac gave the industry the first tailfins on the rear fenders.  The look caught on and soon every manufacturer had fins on some or all of their models, culminating in the huge, soaring fins of the 1959 Cadillac with the integrated torpedo-like tail lights.  General Motors also heralded the modern era of overhead valve V-8 engines in 1949 with the “Kettering” engines in both Cadillac and Oldsmobile.  Ford continued with their flat-head V-8 until 1954 and then introduced their OHV eights.  Chevrolet introduced their first V-8 in 1955, the same year as the Plymouth installed the “hemi” V-8 from their sister company, Dodge.  Chrysler had switched from straight-eights to a hemi-head V-8 in 1951 in both Chrysler and DeSoto models.

Chevrolet brought out an American “sports car” in 1953, the Corvette, powered by an anemic OHV “Blue Flame” six and a Powerglide automatic.  The Corvette became a true sports car in 1955 with the installation of the 265 CID V-8.  Also in 1955, Ford introduced the Thunderbird, a two-seater aimed at competing with the Corvette.  The Corvette got sportier over the next few years and incorporated greater performance, while the Thunderbird morphed into a bigger four-seat personal-luxury-sporty car.

The Muscle Car wars began in the early sixties when every manufacturer in the USA began to cram bigger and hotter engines into their sporty coupes.  John Z. DeLorean who headed GM’s Pontiac Division, created a whole new market segment by putting a V-8 into their Tempest compact coupe.  What started as an accessory package, the GTO became a whole separate model in 1964.  Also, in 1964 Pontiac sourced the Bonneville model 389 CID V-8 for a Catalina model coupe and called it the Grand Prix, competing with the hot, personal sporty coupe class with the Thunderbird.

The movement of the population from the cities to the suburbs brought about more need for the car as personal transportation.  The subsequent lack of public transportation to serve commuters need to get to and from work, brought on the real automobile boom that continues to this day.  Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System linked the nation’s cities with a high-speed network that surpassed any other system in the world.  Cars, not buses and trains, became the common mode of transportation.  Europe has the Autobahn in Germany the Autostrada in Italy and other super highway systems, but they still have vast public transportation systems used by most people.  It is only in the USA that the automobile is king.

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