We’ve toured the world in our automotive geography series, looking at exotic cars from around the world. When travelling, eventually you must return home, and so our journey now takes us to the United States. While we’ve learned that the original automobile was born elsewhere, no other country has had such an impact on the automotive world as the United States. From revolutionizing the car, to creating mass production, cars everywhere owe a bit of heritage to the United States. American cars can vary widely, with performance cars being known for their unapologetic approach to performance, trucks known for their outstanding ruggedness, and SUVs known for their size and capability. Despite the average perception of American cars, some of the biggest advancements in green technology have come from American companies in the last few years. One thing is for sure, no matter the type of car, there is an American vehicle that excels in that category.
The United States has seen nearly 850 automakers come and go since the late 1800s, but it was the big three that have had the biggest impact on the industry. In 1913, The Ford Motor Company began using the conveyor belt assembly line to create their signature Model T, a process that would forever change the face of the automotive industry. When Model Ts first appeared, they were sold for $850 US (or $20,273 in today’s prices). By 1924, the Model T was sold for $290 (or $4,005 in today’s prices). At this time, the United States was beginning to realize that wealth does have an impact on social class. Where the car had once been a toy for the elite, it was now a practical tool for the common person. The success of the affordable Model T led to the rise of GM and Chrysler, which still exist over 100 years later. While the American automotive industry has recently come under fire, the future looks bright for the big three.
The Big Three
Like the rest of the world, The major wars fought from 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 played a role in shaping the automotive landscape of The United States. One of the many factors that ultimately contributed to an Allied victory was the sheer amount of products companies like Ford and Chrysler were able to produce for the war effort. The Great Depression meant a lot of small automakers couldn’t support themselves, and when combined with competition from The Big Three, the amount of automakers dropped. Between WW1 and WW2 many technological innovations were introduced by American manufacturers, such as automatic transmissions, air conditioning, aerodynamic designs, and front wheel drive. We could spend all day looking at the individual companies that have sprung up over the years in The United States, but the big three will always be the focal point of any conversation. These brands have defined vehicles in our country and around the world.
William Durant, a carriage maker, founded General Motors in 1908. GM was formed as a group of companies (Buick, Oldsmobile, and what would become Pontiac). In 1909 GM also took control of Cadillac. Shortly after this, talks emerged between Durant and Henry Ford for GM to acquire The Ford Motor Company, but the talks eventually fell through. With all the companies Durant was acquiring, he had stretched himself thin, and Durant was eventually removed when banks took over GM. During this removal, Durant would work with a man named Louis Chevrolet to form Chevrolet in 1913. The success of Chevrolet allowed Durant to gain a majority share in GM again, and used that power to absorb Chevrolet into the GM brand. By the late 1920s, GM was the worlds largest automaker. Durant had been ousted once again, but GM continued his legacy by acquiring Vauxhall Motors in England, Holden Motors in Australia, and Opel Motors in Germany. General Motors was the first company to offer credit for people looking to purchase their vehicles, a practice could be blamed for the companies 2009 bankruptcy.
During the early 20th century, the idea of conspicuous consumption was brought forth. This idea states that people will spend money on good or services as a way of displaying their economic or social standing (think of it as buying a Ferrari to show off how rich you are). General Motors recognized this, and was one of the earliest companies to create models priced differently to display social status. Different models varied by quality and price, with the top tier products demonstrating the most wealth. This concept is still around today and has been adopted by nearly every automaker. For example, a base model Chevrolet Spark starts at under $12,000, but can be customized to cost over $20,000. A base model Corvette will cost roughly $60,000, but can be spec’d to well over $100,000. Nowadays, vehicle options aren’t so much about displaying social status as they are simply having options and getting the car you want.
Given that GM is a brand that owns multiple sub brands, it can be hard to pick out just one best known vehicle. GM currently operates as Chevrolet, GMC, Buick, and Cadillac in North America. Perhaps the most important car in GM’s history comes from a brand that no longer exists. In 1960, the now defunct Pontiac released the GTO, considered by many to be the worlds first muscle car. Up until the release of the GTO, the American Automotive industry was known for revolutionizing the automotive industry, and with the GTO they had done it again. The GTO was so important because in a time when big automakers were shying away from auto racing, the GTO took race inspired performance and put regular people behind the wheel. This would give birth to the now outlawed street racing, and the idea of a performance car as something you could actually have in your driveway. A fun fact about the GTO, the chief engineer on the project was none other than John DeLorean, who would go on to create the iconic DeLorean DMC-12.
Today, GM continues to innovate with vehicles like the The Chevrolet Bolt, an all electric compact car capable of over 300km of all electric range. Trucks from the GMC lineup regularly top many reviewer best of lists when it comes to power and performance, and the Chevrolet Colorado marks a return to the small truck segment that seems to have been abandoned by other makers. Finally, the Cadillac lineup continues to embody American luxury, while more recent models like the ATS-V and CTS-V (a Cadillac with a 640hp supercharged engine capable of 0-60 in 3.7s!) came out of nowhere to provide track-ready performance and handling much to the delight of drivers everywhere.
As a former president of Buick and a GM executive, Walter Chrysler for the back and forth and success of William Durant at GM. Chrysler would leave GM in 1920 and take control of the Maxwell Motor Company, eventually reforming it into the Chrysler Corporation. Shortly after creating the Chrysler Corporation, Walter Chrysler would acquire the Dodge brothers motor company, which exists today simply as Dodge. The third major brand under the Chrysler name, Jeep, has changed hands numerous times. Starting with Willys, then being bought by Kaiser motors, which would later be bought by AMC, who was invested in by Renault but later bought out by Chrysler, the Jeep finally has a home with Chrysler.
Chrysler was at one point the second largest automaker, after GM (with Ford rounding out the three). Their success can be credited largely to selling their vehicles in the same fashion as GM, with different prices and models available to people of different wealth. Similar to GM, Chrysler had an interest in partnering and merging with other companies. In 1998. Chrysler merged with Daimler-Benz to become Daimler Chrysler. However, this move was not well received by investors, and Chrysler was eventually sold to a private equity firm in 2007. FIAT began purchasing shares in Chrysler, and in 2014 FIAT and Chrysler became FIAT Chrysler Automobiles.
Chrysler and its sub-brands are well known for a wide range of vehicles. The Chrysler brand itself currently only offers 3 models, the 200, 300, and town and country van. The 200 is a compact sedan, something the company has specialized in for years. The 300 represents American luxury, and is a larger sedan with more lavish trim. The Dodge brand is known best for their Grand Caravan, RAM trucks, and Viper supercar. Most recently, Dodge has been making headlines for revamping their muscle car models – the Challenger and the Charger – with massive 700hp+ engines (quoted as being the most powerful muscle car ever). Finally, the Jeep brand is as iconic as it is timeless, with the signature off-roader being a major asset in WW2. Today, the classic Jeep lives on in the Wrangler, and is the go-to choice for those seeking off-road adventure.
The company that can be credited to really kicking off the American motor industry, For has its roots deeply ingrained in American culture. Founded in 1903 by Henry Ford, the company would completely revolutionize the automotive industry with the introduction of the assembly line. Ford is responsible for bringing the automobile to the masses, through making vehicles cheaper and more practical. The first company created by Ford was the Henry Ford Company in 1901. When Ford left the company in 1902, he took the rights to his name, leaving the Henry Ford Company to be re-branded as Cadillac. Ford would invest in, or even control, other companies over the years. Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, Mazda, and Aston Martin have all been associated with Ford at some point over the years. Ford’s sub-brand only current sub brand, Lincoln, was purchased by Ford in 1922. Henry Ford himself was particularly pleased with the deal, as after being forced out of the now successful luxury brand Cadillac (originally the Henry Ford Company), he was forced to compete for the luxury segment. Lincoln gave Ford the edge he needed to compete against Cadillac.
Ford is one of the largest automakers in the world, and for good reason. While GM and Chrysler were focused on producing cars that demonstrated elite levels of class, Ford was making cars for the masses. Rather than spreading resources over numerous models, Ford began by making one car and worked to drive the cost of the car as low as possible. This, combined with a $5/day wage (well above the average for the time) meant that more people could afford vehicles. This helped to counter the idea that cars were only for the social elite, and is in no doubt partially responsible for the current success of the car. Ford has also been family run for over 100 years, the current executive chairman is William Ford, great grandson to both Henry Ford and by marriage, Harvey Firestone. While Ford is the second largest automaker in the US (behind GM), the company is 8th overall on the Fortune 500 list (GM sits at 15, FIAT Chrysler is not listed).
Today, Ford vehicles are incredibly popular on the roads. From sporty hatchbacks like the Fiesta and Focus, to full size SUVs like the Expedition, Ford has a vehicle for any consumer need. Fords most successful lineup is the F-150 line of trucks. The F Series has been the United States best selling vehicle for over 30 years. The pickup truck market is very competitive and extremely loyal, so becoming the top performer is no easy feat. In addition to the F Series, Ford is also known for their Mustang muscle car, a staple of the muscle car rivalry of the big 3 (The Mustang, The Camaro, and The Charger). One of the greatest automotive stories of all time involves Ford and Ferrari. Henry Ford II had wanted to win LeMans for years, but didn’t have their own vehicle to enter. Enzo Ferrari began talks to sell his company to Ford. Once it was discovered that Ferrari wouldn’t be running the motorsports division, or be allowed to race in events under the Ferrari name that competed against Ford, Enzo Ferrari cancelled the deal to spite Ford. This angered Ford, as he had spent millions on auditing Ferrari as a company and building a plan for the future. With the deal gone, Ford essentially wrote a blank cheque to his engineers, instructing them to deliver a car to beat Ferrari at LeMans. The end result was the Ford GT40. The GT 40 would go on to shut out the podium (taking first, second, and third place finishes) at LeMans in 1966, and continued winning LeMans for 4 straight years. One of the drivers of the winning LeMans finish was Bruce McLaren, a founder of the most successful F1 team in history and designer of some early McLaren vehicles. The GT was recently announced to return as part of Fords new performance lineup, which includes an updated Shelby Cobra, GT, Raptor, and Focus RS (beginning the wave of hot hatches in North America).
The Geography At Home
After seeing cars from around the world, it’s nice to know that some of the best out there are in our own back yard. From record setting racers, to workhorse trucks, to family movers, the vehicles created in the US and Canada can hold a flame to any foreign car. The automotive industry was revolutionized here, and it continues to do so with each model year. The rest of the world each has their own strengths in vehicles, from Japan’s reliability and Italy’s design, but the vehicles from The United States Represent the whole package.
We have tons of helpful tips on our blog, be sure to give them a read!