Cars in the Early 20th Century

Updated April 17, 2017

Cars in the early 20th century were part of a revolution in the personal transportation habits of millions of consumers. Cars of the 1900s and 1910s were luxury items, built for wealthy buyers. By the 1920s, Henry Ford and other automakers transformed the industry by mass-producing affordable vehicles for the average working man and woman. Technologically advanced cars from the 1930s ushered in the age of modern automobiles.

The 1900s

Cars from the 1900s were designed to end the horse and buggy era with reliable, efficient vehicles. The first cars' bodywork, suspension and wheels were based on modified horse buggies. The cars' track or tread was the same as wagons and buggies, so the automobiles' tall, narrow wheels would fit the road ruts. Early cars featured chain drives, single-cylinder engines, open passenger compartments and tiller steering gears. Differential band brakes stopped the rear wheels. Steam and electric cars outnumbered gas-powered cars in the 1900s.

The 1910s

As the Industrial Revolution geared up, Henry Ford used the assembly line method of manufacturing to meet the growing demand for cars. Starting with the 1909 Model T, Ford cars were built quickly and efficiently on a massive scale. By 1914, there were around 300 American car manufacturers, mostly small companies producing a few dozen to a few hundred units annually. Cars featured enclosed cabs with more comfortable amenities such as electric starters and heaters.

The 1920s

During this decade, Ford dominated the car market, with 15 million Model Ts built by 1927. In the same year, Ford released the Model A. The affordable Ford vehicles changed American society, providing mobility on an unprecedented scale. Cars allowed commuters to live outside cities. In addition to the economical Fords, luxury Packards, Cadillacs, Duesenbergs, Pierce Arrows and Auburns became status symbols for the wealthy. Technical innovations popularised during the 1920s included four-wheel hydraulic brakes, four-wheel and front-wheel drive.

The 1930s

Despite the Great Depression, this decade featured cars with sophisticated and artistic body designs. The Art Deco-inspired aerodynamic body styles lowered wind resistance and gave cars a sleek, modern look. Manufacturers offered a diverse array of engines, including V-8s, V-12s and the Cadillac V-16. During the 1930s, cars featured radios, automatic transmissions and built-in trunks. By the end of the decade, the competitive automotive market was taken over by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

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