In the US Motoring Centenary, Speed Freaks Are Heading for Michigan

By Llewelin, Phil | The Independent (London, England), March 16, 1996 | Go to article overview
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In the US Motoring Centenary, Speed Freaks Are Heading for Michigan


Llewelin, Phil, The Independent (London, England)


America's motor industry is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, but credit for creating the biggest of the automotive world's giants does not go to the likes of Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet or Walter Chrysler. Instead, the spotlight is focused on two brothers whose name is unlikely to ring a bell. Charles and Frank Duryea were not the first Americans to build a horseless carriage, but in 1896 their Duryea Motor Wagon Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, assembled 13 identical cars. This was the USA's first instance of serial production.

One of those tiller-steered contraptions greets visitors to the mind- boggling Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where cars representing dozens of manufacturers vie for attention with everything from musical instruments to a colossal railway locomotive.

Credit for making Uncle Sam a serious contender goes to such far-sighted engineers as Ransom Eli Olds, who started his business in 1897 and became the American motor industry's first millionaire. But the man who really put the world on wheels was Henry Ford, a farmer's son who pioneered the moving production line. It succeeded to such an extent that 15,007,033 Model T Fords were built between 1908 and 1927. There were months when production topped 200,000 - a figure to compare with the 12,000 per month averaged by Britain's long-running Mini. Such economies of scale enabled the Ford's Tin Lizzie's price to be cut by almost 75 per cent. Meanwhile, Ford was paying his workers $5 a day - double the industry's average.

Factors that included excellent communications soon made Detroit the car world's capital. Today, hosting the annual North American International Auto Show epitomises the big effort that Motor City is making to improve its drab, down-market image. Among other symbols is the riverside Renaissance Centre complex whose Westin Hotel is the world's highest. Views from its revolving restaurant include such spectacular links with the golden age as the art deco Fisher and General Motors' buildings. They stand close to Woodward Avenue, where Charles Brady King became the city's first motorist on 6th March 1896. Henry Ford and his first car puttered along nearby Bagley Avenue a few weeks later - eight years before he founded the Ford Motor Company.

I recently spent a busy week in Michigan, where tributes to the centennial include the Detroit Historical Museum's fascinating Motor City exhibit.

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