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How Different? Automobiles of the 1910's and 2010's

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How Different? Automobiles of the 1910's and 2010's

Bill Crittenden
August 9, 2013

The technology behind the automobile has changed so much and yet surprisingly so little in the past 100 years. It's been about that long since Cadillac introduced the Type 53 in 1916, the first car to use what we consider the modern control layout.

This was already 7 years after John North Willys wrote, "Through years they have worked out the problem, until to-day they have the perfected car, or one near as perfect as can possibly be made. The American automobile, as a rule, has become standardized, and it can probably never be bettered, except in minor details of finish and refinement of small parts."

That was the year the world was introduced to the Ford Model T, of course. That's a long way away from a modern Ford Taurus.

The fundamental principles haven't changed much in the last century. A reciprocating-piston Otto cycle gasoline powered internal combustion engine powers the vehicle through a set of gears to multiply engine power for acceleration or maximize efficiency for cruising, with power delivered through the road wheels which are wrapped in rubber pneumatic tires. Aside from automatic transmissions to change those gears for us and all-wheel drive, our vehicles are fundamentally working on the same principles as the automobiles of a century ago.

Even hybrid and all-electric vehicles had existed those many years ago, but they were squeezed out of the market by gasoline's affordability, availability and quick refueling.

But the development of the car since then has coincided with the development of the technologies that have gone into its construction or have been invented and added on to it since the 1910's.

If you have a skilled group if auto builders of 1913 the plans for a 2013 Ford Fiesta, they wouldn't be able to put together the car. Why not?

Let's start with the obvious. Vacuum-tube operated radio was a fairly new development, and the world was a long way away from transistors, let alone computer microprocessors. Even if you told technicians of the time how to make the processors (including the exact diagrams) that operate pretty much everything important that the car does, they wouldn't have the technology that the computer industry has invented to make those processors.

Just how far off would the electrical system be? Well, much of the wiring insulation of the day was cloth, not the synthetic rubbery or plastic materials we use today. The principle of electroluminescence behind LEDs was only discovered in 1907, the LED itself not invented for another two decades after that. 1907 was also the year Bakelite was invented. Bakelite was the world's first thermosetting plastic, and was very brittle, not at all suitable for all the various connectors, insulators, and housings used in the vehicle's electrical system, to say nothing of the rest of the car's plastics!

Oh, and if you were to opt for a version of a car with a navigation system, you still wouldn't get the display screen right even after you explained to the builders what satellite navigation was. Or satellites, for that matter.

The changes that have come about in the past century go even deeper than that, however, right into the steel of the car itself. All steel is not the same, and even alloys that had been developed a hundred years ago have been improved by more accurate control of mixing and temperatures at the steelmakers. New alloys and methods of layering them have resulted in steel that is both stronger AND lighter than the steel used just a few decades ago. This is in addition to the invention of hydro forming, which creates strong structures in shapes impossible to create without a lot of welding (and excess weight) before.

Speaking of welding, that is another area of development that has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. Most notably in the auto industry are the robotic welders that can create thousands of precise identical spot welds (the most common type in automobile construction) all day every day. Spot welding, while dating back to 1885, wasn't known to be used in the automobile industry until the 1930's.

Finally, there is the most fundamental of all elements that connect our automobiles to those of a century ago: the use of gasoline and oil. Even if you had a fully functioning 2013 Ford in 1913, a modern engine with precise tolerances wouldn't last long on 1913 oil.

The petroleum industry has constantly been developing new standards for gasoline purity and new additives for oil all that time. The American Petroleum Institute's current standard for oil efficiency is SN, a system that started with SA and SB in the 1960's.  It is not recommended to run a post-1930 car on SA oil, although it's often done.  How long a 2013 car would last on 1913's best oils is anyone's guess, but my guess is it won't be the 200,000+ miles cars often can reach today.

1913 predates the widespread introduction of even leaded gasoline (tetraethyl lead was added for its anti-knocking properties), and while a Fiesta might run on 1913 gasoline, it might not run at its full performance capabilities, owing to having to alter spark timing to compensate for the lack of anti knocking agents. It also might not run for very long, as the lack of detergents in a fuel not as precisely refined or carefully handled as modern gasoline will inevitably lead to clogging in the fuel injectors or fuel filter.

John North Willys was right, in a way. Four wheels, driver on the left holding a steering wheel, pedals for going and stopping on the floor, internal combustion gasoline engine, two headlights...cars are recognizably the same today as they were a century ago, even more so after the introduction if the Cadillac Type 53. The fact that such cars are capable of traveling today's roads (try getting on the Internet with a 1983 computer!) show just how fundamentally similar they still are. However, the technology that goes into the details, from the steel structure and how it's welded to the optional satellite navigation system to the over 1,400 automobile patents that Toyota registered in 2012 alone show that the automobile is also a world away from the 1916 Cadillac and still advancing at an amazing rate.

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