May 25th, 1898
Elwood Haynes, who built America’s first gasoline-powered car, and Elmer Apperson, founded the Haynes-Apperson Company in Kokomo, Indiana. Best known as a metallurgist, Haynes was the first to produce all aluminum engines and to build car bodies of nickel-plated steel. Haynes and Apperson astonished the world when they fulfilled the terms of a buyer’s agreement by delivering their car from Kokomo to New York City. It was the first 1,000-mile car trip undertaken in the United States.
May 25th, 1947
Chung Ju Yung founded Hyundai Construction, Chung Ju Yung. Hyundai Motor Company was later established in 1967. The company’s first model, the Cortina, was released in cooperation with the Ford Motor Company in 1968. When Hyundai wanted to develop their own car, they hired the former Managing Director of Austin Morris, George Trumbull. In 1975, the Pony, the first Korean car, was released, with styling by Giorgio Giugiaro of ItalDesign and powertrain technology provided by Mitsubishi ofJapan. Exports began in the following year to Ecuador. In 1991, the company succeeded in developing its first proprietary gasoline engine, the four-cylinder Alpha, and transmission, thus paving the way for technological independence. In 1986, Hyundai began to sell cars in the United States, including the very affordable Excel. The company began to produce models with its own technology in 1988, beginning with the midsize Sonata.
May 26th, 1927
Henry Ford and his son Edsel drove the 15 millionth Model T Ford out of their factory, marking the famous automobile’s official last day of production. More than any other vehicle, the relatively affordable and efficient Model T was responsible for accelerating the automobile’s introduction into American society during the first quarter of the 20th century. Introduced in October 1908, the Model T—also known as the “Tin Lizzie”—weighed some 1,200 pounds, with a 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. It got about 13 to 21 miles per gallon of gasoline and could travel up to 45 mph. Initially selling for around $850 (around $20,000 in today’s dollars), the Model T would later sell for as little as $260 (around $6,000 today) for the basic no-extras model.
Largely due to the Model T’s incredible popularity, the U.S. government made the construction of new roads one of its top priorities by 1920. By 1926, however, the Lizzie had become outdated in a rapidly expanding market for cheaper cars. While Henry Ford had hoped to keep up production of the Model T while retooling his factories for its replacement, the Model A, lack of demand forced his hand. On May 25, 1927, he made headlines around the world with the announcement that he was discontinuing the Model T. As recorded by Douglas Brinkley in “Wheels for the World,” his biography of Ford, the legendary carmaker delivered a eulogy for his most memorable creation: “It had stamina and power. It was the car that ran before there were good roads to run on. It broke down the barriers of distance in rural sections, brought people of these sections closer together, and placed education within the reach of everyone.” After production officially ended the following day, Ford factories shut down in early June, and some 60,000 workers were laid off. The company sold fewer than 500,000 cars in 1927, less than half of Chevrolet’s sales.
The Model A’s release beginning in select cities that December was greeted by throngs of thousands, a tribute to Ford’s characteristic ability to make a splash. No car in history, however, had the impact—both actual and mythological—of the Model T: Authors like Ernest Hemingway, E.B. White and John Steinbeck featured the Tin Lizzie in their prose, while the great filmmaker Charlie Chaplin immortalized it in satire in his 1928 film “The Circus.”
May 28th, 1919
The first Citroen car, the Model A went into production, prior to its launch in April. A massive advertising campaign had preceded it with full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines announcing the launch of ‘Europe’s first mass-production car.
Orders for 16,000 cars were reported as having been received within a fortnight and the break-even target of 30,000 was reported as having been reached before any car left the plant. The sales drive was backed with the introduction of over 1,000 Citroen dealers throughout France fully conversant with the model being launched and backed with published repair costs and stocks of spare parts. Owners had access to maintenance manuals and detailed spare parts catalogs.
Buyers were barraged with posters and advertisements including eventually the lighting up of the Eiffel Tower with an enormous sign spelling out the name Citroen. All these publications resulted in Citroen forming his own publishing company named ‘André Citroën Editions’.
May 28th, 1937
The government of Germany–then under the control of Adolf Hitler of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party–formed a new state-owned automobile company, then known as Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH. Later that year, it was renamed simply Volkswagenwerk, or “The People’s Car Company”.
The government allocated 480,000 reichsmarks as start-up capital for the construction of a new factory, and on May 26th, 1938, Hitler laid the foundation stone in the Stadt des KdF-Wagens – renamed Wolfsburg in 1945, and still the home of Volkswagen today. After WWII, the factory found itself in the British-occupied sector of Germany and was handed over to Major Ivan Hirst to run on behalf of the British military government. He persuaded the British Army to order 20,000 cars for its occupying personnel, effectively saving the company from ruin. The business, now renamed just Volkswagen was offered to various US and British car companies, who all rejected it. So in 1949, the company was made into a trust controlled by the West German government and administered by the state of Lower Saxony, which still owns 20%.
The German federal government floated its stake on the German stock market in 1960. The company went from strength to strength, becoming a potent symbol of German post-war regeneration. It suffered problems in the 1970s but came back stronger to become the world’s second-largest vehicle-maker, behind Toyota.
May 29th, 1946
The first production Kaiser and Frazer automobiles came off the Willow Run line in Michigan, US. The first cars were shipped to dealers on June 22; all were registered as 1947 models. Despite Kaiser and Frazer’s earlier talk of inexpensive small cars, neither model was anything close to a low-priced economy car. The Kaiser Special started at $1,868, nearly $700 more than the cheapest 1947 Chevrolet. The Frazer, meanwhile, started at $2,053, over $100 more than an eight-cylinder Buick Special.
Both Kaiser-Frazer products rode well, were reasonably economical, and had nicely trimmed interiors, but they were in no way exceptional. At almost any other time, that would have been disastrous, but Kaiser-Frazer had the good fortune to roll out its new cars close to the beginning of the postwar automotive boom. Unlike depressed, devastated Europe and Japan, American roads were intact and American buyers, flush with unspent wartime earnings, had money to spend. As soon as civilian production resumed in the fall of 1945, customers began snapping up every new car they could get their hands on. Dealers soon had long waiting lists and automotive “scalpers” became common. Kaisers and Frazers might have been ordinary, but they were new and they had four wheels, which was enough for many buyers.n such a seller’s market, it was all Kaiser-Frazer could do to keep up with demand. When Continental couldn’t build engines fast enough, Frazer arranged to lease a plant in Detroit so K-F could build most of the engines itself.
Kaiser-Frazer ultimately sold 70,474 Kaisers and 68,775 Frazers in the 1947 model year, giving the company the best market share of any of the American independents. Kaiser-Frazer posted a $19 million profit for the 1947 calendar year, offsetting the previous year’s losses. Graham-Paige, however, was still not pulling its weight. Graham was supposed to build a third of all Kaiser-Frazer cars but ultimately managed fewer than 9,000. Moreover, Graham-Paige still hadn’t been able to meet its contractual obligation to finance one-third of Kaiser-Frazer’s operating expenses. In February 1947, the Graham-Paige board finally decided to sell its remaining automotive assets to Kaiser-Frazer and get out of the passenger car business once and for all. Kaiser-Frazer sales remained robust in 1948 despite even higher prices. Demand was still strong enough that buyers didn’t flinch at the $2,460 price of a new Kaiser Custom model or the even-costlier Frazer Manhattan, which actually listed for $27 more than a Cadillac Series 62 sedan. Total K-F sales for the model year amounted to 91,851 Kaisers and 48,071 Frazers, yielding a $10.4 million net profit.
Despite two profitable years, Kaiser-Frazer remained perilously under-capitalized. In January 1948, the company tried to organize another stock offering, underwritten by Allen & Company, First California, and Otis and Company, but the brokers got cold feet and the offering collapsed almost immediately. The main results were a significant drop in Kaiser-Frazer’s share prices and a protracted legal battle between Kaiser-Frazer and Otis and Company’s Cyrus Eaton. Without the expected income from the stock offering, Kaiser-Frazer had to obtain another $20 million loan from Bank of America.
May 30th, 1897
The Erie & Sturgis gasoline carriage designed and built by James Philip Erie and Samuel D Sturgis was given its first test drive in Los Angeles, California. At 3 o’clock in the morning, while most of the city was still asleep, Erie, Sturgis, and a couple of workers rolled the new machine from Sturgis’s shop on Fifth Street to Broadway. Clutching a candle for illumination, Erie turned a crank to start the engine and climbed aboard with Sturgis, their wives, and a few guests. Erie then rang a bell, pulled a lever, and set off on the first documented automobile ride in Los Angeles history.
Nearly two years and $30,000 in the making, the Erie & Sturgis Gasolene Carriage, built from scratch based on Erie’s own designs, was roughly half the weight of the steam and electric automobiles appearing elsewhere across the country. Theoretically, the lightweight vehicle could have achieved speeds of 25 mph and reached San Francisco on a single tank of fuel—gasoline, preferably, but in a pinch kerosene oil or naphtha would have worked, too.
This week in Automotive History is produced by Branding Roar