My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, March 6, 2023

March 6, 2023: American Cars: Oldsmobile, Ford, and Dodge

[As his 16th birthday approaches, my younger son has begun the driving lessons that will soon mean I have two youthful drivers in the family. To help me deal with that stunning reflection of the passage of time, this week I’ll blog about a handful of American car histories and cars. Share your thoughts on all things American cars for a crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On one more practical and one more mythic detail to the origins of American automobiles.

As seems to be the case with many inventions and innovations, a number of distinct individuals and companies were working on automobiles around the exact same period in American history, the last few years of the 19th century (and most of them in the same place, Michigan, to boot). That group includes Ransom Eli Olds, who built his first gasoline-powered car in 1896 and founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing in 1897; Henry Ford, who actually worked with and for Thomas Edison before founding his own Detroit Automobile Company in 1899; and the brothers Horace and John Dodge, who founded their Dodge Brothers Company in Detroit in 1900, initially providing parts for these other companies before developing their own Dodge Brothers Motor Company a decade later. I’ll write later in the week about some of the ways films and pop culture have depicted the images and myths of American automobiles, but I think there could be a great prestige TV show about this very real place and time in American history.

If so, it would be one of those dramas about not only rivalries across individuals or companies, but also and especially the kinds of infighting and conflicts that can tear both companies and families apart from the inside. In 1904, Olds left the company he had founded (or rather was forced out by his own son, Frederic L. Smith) and started a new one, the R.E. Olds Motor Car Company (soon changed to REO Motor Car Company to avoid legal challenges from the antagonistic Smith). Just a year after he helped launch his Henry Ford Company in 1901, Ford was enraged by his financial backers’ hiring of an outside consultant, the famous machinist and inventor Henry M. Leland; Ford resigned in protest in 1902 and started a new company that would eventually be named the Ford Motor Company (after the original company’s name was changed by Leland to the Cadillac Automobile Company). And yes, the Dodge Brothers were an integral part of each of those moments, including serving as principal investors in that new company when Ford incorporated it in 1903. If this is starting to sound like the many name changes undergone by Sterling Cooper in the course of Mad Men, I’d say that’s a telling echo.

Don Draper notwithstanding, corporate conflicts and collapses and re-incorporations aren’t exactly the stuff of a compelling American mythos. But the early years of American cars certainly featured more genuinely mythic moments as well, and I would point in particular to the icy surface of Lake St. Clair (on the U.S.-Canadian border) on January 12th, 1904. It was there that Henry Ford and one of his chief mechanics, Ed “Spider” Huff, drove their newly designed Arrow Racer to a new world land-speed record of 91.37 miles an hour. The moment became instantly mythic, with famous racecar driver Barney Oldfield (who had started his career as a bicycle racer, just to illustrate how transitional this period truly was) christening the Arrow Racer the “999” (after a locomotive engine) and touring the country with it to show off this high-powered new vehicle. The great stories need epic and larger-than-life moments as much as they do villains and conflicts, after all, and the early history of American cars is rife with all those elements and more.

Next CarStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Car histories or stories you’d highlight?

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