A History of the American Auto Industry

“The Cars That Made America” is a fascinating and informative three-part TV miniseries about the rise of the automobile industry in America up to the present day, and how it played major roles in reshaping the country and the rise of the middle class. Rare historical film footage reveals everyday life and transportation as it was back in the day. Insightful commentary is provided by executive producer Dale Earnhardt Jr. and other famous racecar drivers.

Along the way we learn about “The Big Three”: Ford, GM and Chrysler; the rise of unions – and Ford’s attempts to smash them; the auto industry’s vital contributions to the World War II effort; going beyond offering merely practical and functional cars to those that celebrated style, speed (muscle cars!) and more; the downfall and recovery of Chrysler, which was saved by Lee Iacocca; the loss of market share to Japanese and European competitors, which led to vastly improved American cars; and the dawn of autonomous cars (note: Mario Andretti does not want one).

A portrayal of John DeLorian with 1969 Pontiac GTO (Courtesy Magilla Entertainment & HISTORY)

This series focuses on several icons of the American auto industry and the companies that they worked for. These included Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge (Ford and then Dodge), William C. Durant (he bought car companies and created General Motors), Walter Chrysler (Buick, Maxwell and Chrysler), Lee Iacocca (Ford and Chrysler) and the flamboyant John Z. DeLorean (General Motors and the DeLorean Motor Company), who demonstrated with his DMC-12 that style alone is not enough to sell an underwhelming, overpriced car.

Jan in a DeLorean DMC-12 “Back to the Future” car at CES 2014

Prior to the ascendance of the automobile, Americans had few alternatives for their personal transportation. The most popular one was the horse, but it was not particularly quick or convenient – and then there was the horrible stench that large numbers of horses created with their waste on crowded city streets.

Cars offered freedom of mobility at a time when most Americans rarely travelled more than a few miles beyond where they lived. However, early cars were unreliable and largely unaffordable.

Companies raced their cars to demonstrate their reliability, which led to increased sales. Henry Ford won a crucial race in his Model T because it was more reliable than the much quicker car of his competitor.

Racing improved the breed (2016 Coronado Speed Festival)

Beginning with the letter “A,” Ford went through the alphabet developing and naming cars until he came up with a reliable and affordable one that would prove massively popular. That car was the Model T.

A portrayal of Henry Ford with an early Model T (photo courtesy of Magilla Entertainment & HISTORY)

Cars used to be built by small groups of workers assembling one car at a time. In order to vastly improve the speed, efficiency and quality of the Model T’s production process, and drastically reduce its price, Henry Ford originated and implemented the automobile production line, modeled after what was used to butcher and process cattle. New Model T’s moved along assembly lines, where workers quickly installed just one thing over and over again, to perfection. This helped enable Ford to become America’s number one automaker.

For years the other auto manufacturers had been paying a per-car royalty due to the Selden patent on the automobile. Ford alone refused to do so. He stubbornly fought it in the courts and eventually won.

1937 Chevrolet Master Custom Coupe (Courtesy Magilla Entertainment & HISTORY)

Ford was a ruthless tyrant. He incessantly criticized and demeaned those who worked for him – up to and including his son Edsel – and ignored important suggestions that would have kept his cars competitive and Ford on top.

Early on Henry had joined with the Dodge Brothers in a mutually beneficial partnership, but he downplayed their important engineering contributions by not giving them the public credit that they deserved. They let their dissatisfaction be known. The Dodge brothers had shares in Ford so, fearing that they would leave to start their own company, Henry installed his son Edsel as president – in name only – to drive down the stock price. As Henry predicted, investors did not respond well to that appointment, causing the value of the Dodge brothers’ shares in Ford to fall significantly before they could sell them. Nevertheless they formed their own automobile company. Their innovative ideas made them a strong competitor to Ford.

Eventually Ford relented and allowed Edsel to implement important changes, including the successful introduction of the Model A – a new beginning – but then the Depression hit. Henry blamed Edsel for the company’s sales slump.

1931 Ford Model A Roadster

These are but a few of the many stories told in “The Cars That Made America.” For more information, visit the A+E Networks “History” channel at


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Jan Wagner

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