We have a proud car culture in the United States but, surprisingly, not many people know too much about this country’s automotive history. For this history lesson, we are focusing on the automotive “industry” rather than the history of the automobile itself.
When It All Began
In the 1890s, the American automotive industry began and, thanks to the use of mass-production and the large size of the domestic market, quickly evolved into the largest automotive industry in the world (though this title would be taken from the U.S. by Japan in the 1980s and then from Japan by China in 2008).
The U.S. motor vehicle industry actually started with hundreds of manufacturers, but by the end of the 1920s, three companies stood apart from the rest:
- General Motors
The Big Three
These three companies continued to prosper, even after the Great Depression and World War II. Henry Ford began building cars back in 1896 and started the Ford-Motor Company in 1903. Ford utilized the first conveyor belt-based assembly line in 1913, improving mass production of its Model T. The assembly line decreased costs significantly and the Model T sold so well that it propelled Ford into the largest automobile company in the U.S.
General Motors was founded by William Durant (formerly a carriage maker)n in 1908. In the first couple of years, GM acquired Buick, Oldsmobile, Oakland (later to become Pontiac), Cadillac, and a number of other car companies. Durant also wanted to acquire Ford but Henry Ford opted to keep his company independent. Having become a little to “acquisition-happy,” Durant over-extended the company and was forced out by a group of banks who took controlling interest in the company. Durant then teamed up with Louis Chevrolet and founded Chevrolet in 1913, which became a quick success. Durant retook majority control in GM after acquiring enough stock and GM acquired Chevrolet in 1917. This did not last long, however. Durant was forced out again in 1921. In the late 1920s, GM overtook Ford as the largest automaker.
The former president of Buick and a former executive of GM, Walter Chrysler took control of the Maxwell Motor Company in 1920, revamped it, and reorganized it into Chrysler Corporation in 1925. Chrysler acquired Dodge Brothers in 1927 and, in 1928, introduced the DeSoto and Plymouth brands thanks to the dealer network and manufacturing facilities that came with the Dodge acquisition. By the 1930s, Chrysler overtook Ford and became the second largest automaker.
1950s and Beyond
By 1950, America produced almost 75 percent of all automobiles in the world. At the start of the 1970s, however, U.S. auto companies (especially the Big Three) were severely affected by increased competition from foreign auto manufacturers and high oil prices. In subsequent years, companies bounced back occasionally but the crisis reached its pinnacle in 2008, prompting Chrysler and General Motors to file for bankruptcy reorganization and be bailed out by the federal government. While Ford was also affected by the crisis, it decided to power through on its own and did not take the bail out. We actually have a lot of respect for Ford as a result of this. They did not take the easy way out.