Bodies in Motion: Michigan’s Auto Industry Then and Now

Sputtering out of the 19th century, Detroit’s automakers fostered a can-do tradition like none other. Now, a full-on shift leads back to battery power, as in the days before World War I, and to the software-driven autonomous and connected vehicles that futurists always dream about.
1958 Corvette Stingray Concept. // Photograph courtesy of GM.

Ever since Charles Brady King sketched his “road carriage” in 1893, Detroit has led the world in automotive innovation.

By day, King drudged away, drafting rolling stock at the Michigan Car Co. in Grand Trunk Junction. By night, he doodled and tested. In his road carriage, a steering wheel — quite a novelty! — stood upright on the left, before the seated driver. The mechanism was hard to perfect, though, and on King’s journey of March 6, 1896, he guided a motorized delivery wagon called “Tootsie” by manipulating a crude tiller.

Remarkably, though, instead of the day’s dominant singles and twins, Tootsie’s engine was an exotic four-cylinder job. The cylinder block was cleverly cast as a one-piece unit. Reaching 5 miles per hour, Tootsie crept a few miles up Woodward Avenue and back, the first automobile to drive in Detroit.

Henry Ford witnessed King’s frolic in light snow that evening. About three months later, Ford finished and drove his own “Quadricycle,” hitting 20 mph.

Forming Ford Motor Co. in 1903, he fielded various efforts before introducing the Model T in October of 1908. Its four-cylinder engine had a cast-iron block; the steering wheel was on the left. Firing up the moving assembly line at the Highland Park factory in 1913, Ford began to build millions of Model Ts, placing any of a selection of different bodies on the same basic chassis.

Henry Ford with the 1896 Quadricycle and the 10 millionth Ford vehicle, a Model T. This Model T was driven from New York to San Francisco on the Lincoln Highway, the only coast-to-coast highway at the time. // Photograph courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Novelist Upton Sinclair later wrote, “It was the beginning of an epoch; cars would be lighter, stronger, cheaper.”

Coinciding with Ford’s big bang, General Motors Co. formed out of the automotive nebulae in 1908, with Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile as the main units. General Motors soon contributed a crucial advance in usability. As the result of Charles Kettering’s efforts, Cadillac introduced Delco’s electric self-starting system in 1912, replacing the tricky and dangerous hand-crank starting of engines.

GM added Chevrolet in 1918 to compete against Ford in the low-price field. Now a mighty corporation, GM instituted scientific management practices, a design department, and systematic research and development.

Its marketing effort centered on the idea of “a car for every purse and purpose” — hence the proliferation of models. Then in 1940 came the next big advance in usability: the fully automatic transmission available in the Oldsmobile. No longer was gear shifting “a matter requiring some practice and judgment [that] must be learned by trial,” as Charles Duryea, another auto pioneer, put it.

Who wouldn’t love to drive the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Sport Coupe? // Photograph courtesy of GM.

Next was the challenge of interior air conditioning, but that wouldn’t be ready until 1953, when Cadillac, Buick, Olds, Chrysler, and the independent Packard Motor Car Co. made it available.

Today, Chrysler is a part of the international group Stellantis, which has 16 French, Italian, German, British, and U.S. brands. Chrysler had become the third member of the Big Three automakers after being founded in 1925. Walter P. Chrysler reached multimillionaire status by running Buick during the 1910s; his namesake company made its debut in the midprice field with six-cylinder power and four-wheel hydraulic brakes. (Mechanically operated rear-wheel-only brakes were the norm.)

Following GM’s up-the-ladder formula, Chrysler added low-price Plymouth, midmarket Dodge and DeSoto, and upscale Imperial. Later claims included pioneering the muscle car movement in the 1950s with the awe-inspiring Hemi V-8 engine and, by 1970, introducing aerodynamic features, namely the pinched noses and gigantic rear wings on the Plymouth Superbird and Dodge Charger Daytona.

1964 Pontiac GTO. // Photograph courtesy of GTO.

In the midcentury period, the Ford Thunderbird represented a product breakthrough as an appealing “personal car.” The Pontiac GTO came along in 1964, refining the muscle car formula; then, the Ford Mustang introduced the “pony car” concept that would be emulated by the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, and Dodge Challenger.

But issues of safety, pollution, and fuel efficiency soon consumed the industry at the expense of performance and design.

The Detroit industry devoted itself to downsizing and the application of electronic controls. Coming out in 1984, the Chrysler minivans utilized front-wheel drive for interior space efficiency and four-cylinder engines for improved gas mileage. Look-alike “badge-engineered” models — different brands sharing similar designs and common corporate chassis — became the norm.

In response to the trend’s result of decreased expression of individuality for the buyer, light trucks emerged as the hot category to a degree never before seen in the world.

The Jeep Cherokee came out in 1974 and was successfully downsized in 1984. It put the “sport” in “sport utility vehicle.” // Photograph courtesy of Jeep Stellantis.

Packard had stopped its assembly lines by 1956. Already, two years earlier, other independents — the Hudson Motor Car Co. and Nash Motors Co. — had merged to form American Motors Corp., headquartered in Southfield. In 1970, AMC acquired Kaiser Jeep of Toledo, Ohio. AMC nevertheless struggled to achieve scale, and when Chrysler bought AMC in 1987, Jeep was the big prize. With inspired design by Dick Teague, the Jeep Cherokee was already opening up a whole new market segment for seriously capable midsize SUVs.

The Ford Explorer picked up the baton as a more civilized SUV when it rolled out in 1991. Meanwhile, a big shift started as pickup trucks stepped in as personal vehicles. The epitome of the movement was the 2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, a truck without precedent.

In the past 15 years, Detroit has reworked its muscle and pony car formulas, stirring up the masses with high-horsepower Mustangs, Camaros, and Chargers. But to a small extent, it also adopted hybrid gasoline-electric power trains in, for example, the Ford Escape compact SUV.

Now the industry is going all out on development of battery-electric vehicles. The astonishing GMC Hummer EV takes the monster truck to a new, zero-emissions level, and the Ford F-150 Lightning is the first pickup ever to advertise the ability to power lights and tools at a construction site.

The 1990 Chrysler Town & Country was loaded with luxury features and swathed in wood-grain trim. // Photograph courtesy of Stellantis.

Political leaders — Michigan’s included — do everything possible to lure new battery (or related) manufacturing to their states, as seen in the April announcement that the state of Michigan will provide $175 million in subsidies for a Mecosta County plant for battery components. Software designers are in demand, too; in May, GM announced the hiring of a former Apple executive to lead its own software unit.

Self-driving cars will be sold by 2030, GM’s chair and CEO, Mary Barra, said in June, promising the company’s Cruise autonomous driving system will reap $50 billion a year. With self-driving vehicles, connectivity gains even greater importance as cars themselves receive and send data and occupants use transit time for productive purposes beyond listening to Eminem’s bestsellers.

Not exactly what Charles Brady King had in mind 127 years ago aboard Tootsie, but innovation is a force that cannot be tamed, especially in Detroit.

This story is from the September 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.