It's all in the design

Critiquing car design in 1907
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The automobile was largely a conveyance of the wealthy in 1907, a time when manufacturers were still trying to determine the ideal design for economy and utility, which included comfort.

The automobile was largely a conveyance of the wealthy in 1907, a time when manufacturers were still trying to determine the ideal design for economy and utility, which included comfort.

“From the standpoint of simple utility and economy, the pleasure car is still a very long way from the ideal state,” stated an anonymous auto expert in a 1907 New York magazine. The publication was directed to the auto business and to any readers in the public sector who might have held an interest in the automotive craze that was growing by leaps and bounds in America.

Up to 1907, the American automobile business had little to mimic along its track except what had taken place in the late 1890s in Europe. In the earliest years, there were very few automobiles in Europe or elsewhere that were meant to be owned by people in the lower economic rungs of society. These were not necessarily the poor but the less privileged in an era when installment purchasing was more a hope than a widespread reality. So, quite naturally, automobiles were geared toward those who could outright pay for them — the upper class and a rising middle class. Thus, the subject of “simple utility and economy” were not necessarily front-line thinking by car makers.

Let’s clear the air on one thing right away. A successful car maker in 1907 was able to survive on profits from a few hundred cars. This was dependant on wise fiscal management and good craftsmanship coupled with viable orders and a delivery outlet (later called dealerships). The vastly successful car maker could boast of 1000 or more cars being made and sold in a given year. Let’s also realize that the majority of the multitude of car makers that came and went up to 1907 were regional in scope and in thinking. Such was the way businesses burst forth to bloom in 1907.

Sadly, some of those blooms were pretty for a time until reality settled in. Often bills were not met by all car makers. Vehicles failed due to poor design, untested features and lack of support for repairs. Much like the burgeoning personal computer trade in its infancy, buyers had to rely on their own initiative and a scanty operator’s manual to work out their horseless carriage’s technical problems. That’s the way it was in the 1907 era when “get out and get under” to fix your automobile was widespread.

Servicing facilities were few. Most often the “mechanics” were self trained or learned their work through correspondence courses by the likes of A.L. Dyke, who invented the concept for the car business and was a resultant big-time success with it.

The astute observer who is mentioned at the beginning of this article continued his commentary: “Whatever may be said of its success mechanically, or in praise of its performance on the road, the fact remains that the ‘tonnage’ of machinery per passenger required to accomplish the happy result is still very great, while the relative amount of space given over to the mechanism and driver and the passengers is about equally out of proportion.”

Nonetheless, cars were becoming big business. In 1908, General Motors would be formed through the determination of William C. Durant as a fresh echo of earlier efforts of others to combine widespread industries under a common goal. Opposite on that spectrum of business was Henry Ford, who had become the consummate loner avoiding further connections with partners since they caused the loss of his first two serious business ventures. Back in “aught-seven,” Ford was on the verge of launching his fabulously popular Model T of 1908. But both men realized the need to improve the automobile in sale costs, profits, roadability, servicing and especially in owner satisfaction. Given the realization that owners did not fully know what they wanted in their first automobile, that target was vague to car makers.

Truly, in 1907 the automobile business was in search of its future.

Said the unnamed expert, “There is a great deal yet to be accomplished in the way of design, particularly in that portion of the problem which related to bodies and accommodation.”

Prior to World War II, designs of cars like this Marmon and Pierce-Arrow from 1931 were based on testing the desires and needs of buyers.

Prior to World War II, designs of cars like this Marmon and Pierce-Arrow from 1931 were based on testing the desires and needs of buyers.

He was not alone in that subject. A paper by W. Gilchrist was presented back then at a gathering of the Institute of Automobile Engineers of England. Titled, “The Motor Car Considered as a Carriage,” the paper stressed that “the present fashion in car design does not appear to be sufficiently influenced by what is necessary for the accommodation of the occupants when more than two are to be carried. The object of building the car is to convey passengers with speed and in comfort for considerable distances.”

Ultimately, the debate settled on size — not too large, not too small — for the purpose of a particular vehicle and its passengers. There was a vast difference implied in a car for town use and a car for long-distance touring purposes. Therefore, body design had to be dictated by usage.

This is one reason many seven-passenger touring cars up to the early 1930s were popular. Collectors today may theorize that it was due to large families. Not necessarily so! A seven passenger model allowed for sleepy overnight stops where there were no hotel beds. Especially before the 1920s, these allowed for more carrying capacity in an age when add-on rear trunks were not popular. Even when they were, they lacked large cargo capacity.

In 1907, car design was in heated discussion by car makers as the public began expressing its wants and desires by voting with their car purchases. That voting would increasingly be keenly watched and analyzed up to World War II — and beyond.

 

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