- - Friday, September 6, 2019

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That’s a quote from Henry Ford, the U.S. industrialist/engineer who founded the Ford Motor Co. and created the first affordable automobile for the working man.

Fortunately, Americans realized there was more benefit in driving a four-wheeled vehicle than a four-legged equine express. This growing consumer base encouraged more manufacturers to enter the industry and create unique products for individual drivers and families. In turn, the automotive marketplace became more innovative, competitive and profitable.

Dan Albert’s “Are We There Yet?: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless” is an enjoyable, well-written examination of America’s love affair with the automobile. He gracefully mixes serious stories with humorous anecdotes and examines what the future holds in a hands-free, driverless environment. 

Mr. Albert has gained a reputation as a leading automotive historian in his contributions for the literary magazine n+1. In his view, “a deep understanding of American automotive history and the American car culture is critical to cutting through the self-serving explanations for the driverless car and getting to the truth.” Driverless vehicles are still being developed, and haven’t established a comfort zone with most people. At the same time, “the end of driving in America will have profound consequences for how we organize our lives.” 

The automobile’s history is diverse. Early prototypes include Flemish missionary Ferdinand Verbiest’s “Jesuit Rat Car” in 1672 (although there’s no proof it ever existed) and France’s Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s cannon hauler in 1769. The first Americans to own cars were Europeans “by another name,” including the Rothschild and Astor families. 

In fact, “America First types may be disappointed to learn that it was France that had the first car culture.” Mon dieu!     

It didn’t take took long for Americans to pass on their fascination with bicycles and move to cars. This first wave included the “largely forgotten” William Morrison, who rode his electric vehicle in Chicago in 1891, Charles and Frank Duryea’s 1893 internal combustion automobile and the Stanley brothers’s 1897 steam automobile.

It was Ford’s automobiles that truly broke the American mold. While some viewed him as a “benevolent authoritarian … who bestowed mobility on the common man,” others recognized his affordable Model T as “not simply the product of American capitalism but of a particular vision of our motorized future.” This visionary built his first car in 1896, established his motor company in 1903, paid his employees high wages to encourage productivity and introduced an assembly line.  

Ford was a flawed individual. Mr. Albert suggests he had a “monomaniacal, dictatorial, and simpleminded approach to running a car company.” He published the anti-Semitic tract “The International Jew” in the early 1920s, which was sent to Ford dealers and placed in Model T backseats. Most importantly, he didn’t adapt to customers’ changing tastes, which destroyed his greatest creation.   

This opened the door to competitors like General Motors, founded by William C. Durant in 1908. His management style was described in the book as “seat-of-the-pants.” A “snake oil and carriage salesman” who spent money like water, he used GM as a holding company and purchased smaller manufacturers like Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Oakland (later Pontiac). He even tried to buy Ford, but lacked dollars and cents. As Mr. Albert amusingly writes, “had someone told him about credit default swaps he might have fainted from joy.”

“Are We There Yet?” also looks at developments that did affect, or could have affected, the automobile. 

“The Interstates are not the product of Republican free-market ideology,” he writes, “but of its opposite: statist central planning by Washington.” There’s an intriguing chapter on flying cars, which was the stuff of dreams as “real-life aerial drama” captured American hearts and minds. Ralph Nader became a “crusader for auto safety” long before he ran for the White House. Foreign competition, including the Volkswagen Bug, was originally America’s mortal enemy because to drive it “was to reject the car that capitalism built in favor of the socialist machine, the people’s car.”    

In the rich history of American automobiles, there’s a sense of sadness that it will gradually come to an end. “When we embrace driverless cars,” Mr. Albert writes, “we will surrender our American automobile as an adventure machine, as a tool of self-expression, and the wellspring of our wealth and our defense.” He’s probably right. At least we’ll still have fond memories of riding those winding roads as independent, car-loving creatures.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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By Dan Albert

W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95, 304 pages

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