While you’re stuck in traffic this Thanksgiving travel season, why not regale your captive audience with some world class car trivia?
The Electric Starter
Prior to 1911, drivers started their cars by rotating a hand crank to manually turn over the engine. This wasn’t easy and could actually be dangerous; the crank could easily ‘kick back’ and strike the operator. This happened to a personal friend of Henry Leland – the mechanical engineer behind Cadillac – and the man later died as a result of the injury.
Leland demanded a replacement for the manual hand crank. A young electrical engineer named Charles Kettering designed the first electric starter (later patented under US Patent 1,150,523) for use in the 1912 Model 30 Cadillac.
Kettering went on to found Delco (the Dayton Electric Company) and the electrical starter became a ubiquitous feature. Into the 1960s, Volkswagens could be started with a crank or strap, in the event of starter failure, but manually starting an engine was quickly a thing of the past.
The Death of the Electric Car… in the 1920s
Electric cars were originally much more popular than internal combustion models: they were safer, started without cranking, and were easier to use and repair. The first electric cars were invented sometime in the 1830s, in various workshops from Scotland to Hungary, but these were either small-scale models or early attempts, ill-suited for mass production.
Over the rest of the 19th century, electric vehicle development blossomed across Europe. Electric trains, electric mining cars, and electric carriages proliferated. Concept models for small, personal vehicles appeared in the 1880s, but the first four-wheeled mass production model wasn’t developed until 1888: The Flocken Elektrowagen, developed by German engineer and inventor Andreas Flocken.
Over the next twenty years, electric cars slowly spread to the American market. Passenger trams came first, followed by a small fleet of electric taxi cabs in New York city. Elite metropolitan consumer market segments followed shortly thereafter.
Limited range and lack of electrical infrastructure capped the spread of electrical cars through the American market until just after World War One. By that time, however, liquid fuel internal combustion engines had significantly improved; with the invention and proliferation of the electric starter, they now were easier to operate, faster, and had significantly more range than their electric counterparts.
Two engineers drove the final nails into the coffin, putting paid to the first era of the electric car: Henry Ford and Hiram Percy Maxim. Maxim – the son of the engineer who invented the infamous Maxim Gun – was a radio and electrical engineering pioneer who invented (among many other things) the first silencer for firearms, and the muffler for automobiles. (One early objection to gasoline cars was their intolerable noise.) Ford’s production techniques and stripped-down design dropped the consumer price of gasoline automobiles down to a fraction of the asking price of electric vehicles.
With that, gasoline cars rapidly pushed electric vehicles out of the market. Commercial interest in their continued development nearly halted until the 1990s and early 2000s.
How OPEC Killed Bias Ply Tires
In the early 19th century, tires were manufactured from solid, vulcanized rubber. While better shock absorbers than bare wood or iron-rimmed carriage wheels, they were incredibly hard on the roads. Early pneumatic tires – invented in 1845 by the Scottish civil engineer Robert William Thompson, also noted for developing the first electrical detonators – were leather-encased tubes of rubber and fabric. While they provided a smoother ride and improved handling, they simply weren’t durable enough to capture the market. Solid rubber remained standard on motorized vehicles for another fifty years.
Just before the turn of the century, in 1895, the Michelin brothers developed a longer-lasting pneumatic tire: the bias ply tire. Their tires consisted of an inflatable inner tube and a hard, rubber casing of vulcanized rubber, reinforced with alternating strips of fabric at a fifty-five degree angle to the rim. Michelin bias ply tires were easier on road surfaces, better shock absorbers, and improved vehicle handling as compared with solid rubber tires, quickly replacing them as standard equipment.
American and European tire manufacturers split near the end of World War Two, with American companies championing bias ply tires while their European colleagues moved towards steel belted radials. These tires were more expensive to produce and transmitted more energy to a vehicle’s shock absorbers – requiring non-trivial re-engineering – but were much more durable and increased fuel economy. The secret was in setting ply cords at ninety degrees to the rim and reinforcing the outer tire with a band of steel fabric. The harder tires wore more slowly and conformed less to the road surface, increasing gas mileage through decreased friction.
Steel-belted radial tires were superior pieces of engineering, but American manufacturers held out. The expense of re-designing their suspension and shock absorption systems to accommodate a new tire technology was unappealing, as was the cost of gradually phasing out bias ply manufacture and retooling. Much like the metric system, America wanted no part of it.
This all changed with the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.
Leveraging control over domestic oil production as an economic weapon against colonialism, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to spike the price of oil and slash production by increasing increments, over time, until their strategic aims were achieved. With US support of Israel against Syria and Egypt in the Yom Kippur War, that year oil deliveries to the United States were cancelled entirely. Western Europe and Japan were similarly targeted, along with a growing list of non-friendly countries.
Over the course of the embargo, oil prices rose by around 300%. In the US, gas was rationed and only sold on weekdays, while many European nations outlawed use of internal combustion engines on Sundays. Western economies, already reeling from a 1973 market crash, went into a tail spin.
While the crisis was resolved (and the economic map largely redrawn) within the year, a US consumer demand for more efficient vehicles followed. As American companies remained in the age of the Muscle Car, this demand was initially satisfied by imports from Europe, Japan, and Korea – all of which built their vehicles around steel-belted radial tires. That these tires improved fuel efficiency through reduced friction was a tremendous selling point, as well.
By the mid-1980s, bias ply tires were finished. Imports had captured almost a quarter of the US auto market and all new American cars shipped with steel-belted radial tires. OPEC, via an accident of geology, had accomplished what obviously superior engineering could not.