An Ode to the American Roadtrip

It’s no secret that COVID has changed a lot of things in our world. Not least among them is how we travel. Airline travel is at its lowest level in decades, with more and more Americans choosing the relative safety of their own vehicles and embarking on that simultaneously most-dreaded and also most-loved traditions: the road trip.

So it seems to fitting today to look back on the invention that started it all. For, on October 1, 1908, the first Ford Model-T rolled off the assembly line. And the American roadway has never been the same.

For all of the United States’ “car culture,” the automobile’s invention actually belongs to Europe. In 1901, Wilhelm Maybach designed a Mercedes for Daimler Motoren Geshellschaft, effectively creating the world’s first ever modern-day motorcar. Its thirty-five horsepower engine achieved speeds of fifty-three miles per hour but was so complex and expensive to make, it took hundreds of workers to produce fewer than a thousand cars a year, thus rendering the automobile and extravagant luxury few could afford (or find!)

Back in the United States, inventors and entrepreneurs were hard at work coming up with their own version. Ransom Eli Olds released his Oldsmobile Model R in 1901, affectionately known as “Curved Dash” for its arched footboard. With a seven horsepower engine and tiller-steering, it was little more than a motorized buggy–a small step up from the horse-drawn carts the general public was used to. And at $650, most viewed it as an interesting and yet unnecessary one.

And then Henry Ford came along. His idea was to “build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no making making a good salary will be unable to own one–and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Built with vanadium steel, the Model T was light yet durable. It had a twenty horsepower engine, giving it speeds of up to forty-five miles per hour (lightning speed considering the state of America’s rutted, pot-holed roads at the time). The engine’s cylinder head was also removable, as opposed to fixed head, making it easier for any mechanically-minded farmer of the day to be able to service and clean it. It truly was an “everyman’s car.”

And “every man’s” it became. The car’s popularity was rivaled only by its impressive production: over 15 million were built between 1908 and 1927, a result of another of Ford’s genius ideas–the assembly line. Bucking the trend of the day, Ford offered $5/day wages for an 8 hour day (versus the standard $2.50/day for 12 hours). Productivity soared (along with sales) and Ford’s control of the product–from iron ore to finished car–allowed quality to remain the same while prices dropped. By 1925, you could own a brand new Model T for just $250.

Thousands of new cars on the road led to a flood of public works projects as well. New roads were needed; old ones were paved. Street signs and traffic lights went up in formerly unmarked intersections. Whole towns popped up along the way–roadside businesses and gas stations leading to the construction of houses and schools and churches.

The American landscape has never been the same. And neither have summer vacations.

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