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September In Automotive History


Law requiring air bags is passed

The federal government passed new car safety legislation on this day, requiring all newly manufactured cars to install an air bag on the driver's side. While air bags have proven to be life-saving devices in most cases, concern over the safety of the air bags themselves arose during the 1990s. Several instances in which small children were seriously injured or killed by an air bag caused a public clamor for further investigation of the devices, which can explode out of the dashboard at up to 200mph. Air bags are still installed in all newly manufactured models.


Ford Falcon is introduced

The Ford Motor Company introduced its new marque, the Ford Falcon, in the first nationwide closed-circuit television news conference. Originally envisioned as a compact economy car, the Falcon name grew to include everything from sporty convertibles to the Ranchero truck, though all Falcons essentially remained small, fuel-efficient cars. When the Mustang was introduced in 1964, Ford used the Falcon's unitized chassis, as well as elements of the Falcon drive train, to "re-market" and "re-adapt" the Mustang. The Mustang was an immediate success, leaving the Falcon to exist in the shadow of its more powerful cousin. The Ford Falcon was eventually discontinued in 1971, but the success of the Volkswagen and other compacts just a few years later proved how forward-thinking the original Falcon designers were.


Porsche is born

Ferdinand Porsche, engineer and patriarch of Porsche cars, was born on this day in Maffersdorf, Austria. He began his career at the Daimler Company, rising to general director, but he eventually left in 1931 to design his own sports and racing cars. Perhaps his most famous project was Hitler's "car for the people," the Volkswagen. Together with his son, Porsche was responsible for the initial Volkswagen plans, but his involvement with Hitler was to cost him dearly. He was arrested by the French after World War II and held for several years before finally being released.


Edsel has its day

The Ford Motor Company proclaimed this day "E-day" in celebration of the Edsel's introduction, five years after its conception. It would take only three more years for Ford to discontinue the Edsel line. Despite careful market research that indicated consumers wanted more horsepower, tailfins, three-tone paint jobs, and wrap-around windshields, the fickle public had changed its mind by 1957. The Edsel's low price and V-8 engine simply failed to overcome its "ugly horse-collar grille." Overwhelmed by negative press and lack of sales, the Edsel faded into history as Ford's famed "ugly duckling." Ironically, the low numbers produced have made the Edsel a valuable collector's item in recent years.


Cross-country trip completed, backwards

Cross-country trips were no longer considered big news in 1930, but Charles Creighton and James Hargis' unique journey managed to make headlines. The two men from Maplewood, New Jersey, arrived back in New York City on this day, having completed a 42-day round trip to Los Angeles - driving their 1929 Ford Model A the entire 7,180 miles in reverse gear.


New electric-car speed record is set

Andrew L. Riker set a new speed record on this day, driving an electric car. His time of 10 minutes, 20 seconds established a new low for the five-mile track in Newport, Rhode Island, proving that the electric car could compete with its noisier petroleum-fueled cousins. In fact, the electric car remained competitive until 1920, often preferred for its low maintenance cost and quiet engine. However, developments in gasoline engine technology, along with the advent of cheaper, mass-produced non-electrics like the Model T, proved to be the death knell of the electric car. However, rising fuel costs in the late 1960s and 1970s renewed interest in the electric car, and several working models have recently been sold in small numbers.


First auto parade is held

Over a dozen motorcars, decorated with hydrangeas, streamers, lights, and Japanese lanterns, lined up to take part in America's first automobile parade. A throng of spectators showed up in Newport, Rhode Island, to witness the event, arriving in cabs, private carriages, bicycles, and even by foot to witness the spectacle, attracted by the novelty and rumors surrounding the event. The nature of the motorcar decorations had been shrouded in mystery prior to the parade, for each participant had wished to surprise and outdo the others.


First U.S. transcontinental bus service is offered

Continental Trailways offered the first transcontinental express bus service in the U.S. The 3,154-mile ride from New York City to San Francisco lasted 88 hours and 50 minutes, of which only 77 hours was riding time. The cost? $56.70. Today, Greyhound will take you on the same trip for $183.


No longer unsafe at any speed?

In response to the national uproar over automobile safety prompted by Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was signed into law on this day. Nader's book targeted the American automobile industry's neglect of safety issues, using General Motors' dangerous Corvair model as a focus for his criticism. Congress responded to the nation's concern by passing a new bill, which established federal safety standards with strict penalties for violations. At the signing of the bill, President Johnson assured Nader and a crowd of several hundred that safety was "no luxury item, no optional extra."


First DWI arrest is made

Even without Breathalyzers and line tests, George Smith's swerving was enough to alarm British police and make him the first person arrested for drunken driving. Unfortunately, Smith's arrest did nothing to discourage the many other drunk drivers who have taken to the road since. Although drunk driving is illegal in most countries, punished by heavy fines and mandatory jail sentences, it continues to be one of the leading causes of automobile accidents throughout the world. Alcohol-related automobile accidents are responsible for approximately one-third of the traffic fatalities in the United States--16,000 deaths each year, and also account for over half a million injuries and $1 billion of property damage annually.


Milwaukee Mile opens

The oldest major speedway in the world, the Milwaukee Mile, opened today as a permanent fixture in the Wisconsin State Fair Park. The circuit had actually been around since the 1870s as a horseracing track, but the proliferation of the automobile brought a new era to the Milwaukee Mile. However, the horses stuck around until 1954, sharing the track with the automobiles until the mile oval was finally paved. At one point, the horses and autos also had to make room for professional football. The Green Bay Packers played in the track's infield for almost 10 years during the 1930s, winning the National Football League Championship there in 1939.


Plan for transcontinental highway is unveiled

They called it the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway--3,000 and some miles of graveled road that would stretch from New York to San Francisco. Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison announced their vision to the world on this day, a plan for America's first transcontinental highway. The new highway was to be finished in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco at a cost of a mere $10,000,000, collected from private sources. However, Fisher and Allison's plan began to go awry when they failed to win Henry Ford's support for the project, putting their fund-raising efforts in jeopardy. Henry Joy, president of Packard and a supporter of the highway project, came up with the idea of naming the road after Abraham Lincoln--an idea that would garner $1.7 million in federal funds for the project. The highway was eventually completed as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, paved in concrete rather than gravel, and christened the Lincoln Highway. It was to become an American icon, the predecessor to Route 66.


First automobile fatality is recorded

The first recorded fatality from an automobile accident occurred on this day, after an oncoming vehicle fatally struck Henry Bliss on the streets of New York. Bliss, a 68-year-old real estate broker, was debarking from a southbound streetcar at the corner of Central Park West and 74th Street when driver Arthur Smith ran him over. Smith was arrested and held on $1,000 bail while Henry Bliss was taken to Roosevelt hospital, where he died.


Isadora Duncan strangled in car accident

Isadora Duncan, the controversial but highly influential American dancer, was instantly strangled to death in Nice, France, when her trademark long scarf got caught in the rear wheel of a Bugatti driven by factory mechanic Benoit Falchetto. Duncan was 49.


Ford sues Selden

George Selden is rarely mentioned in accounts of automobile history, often lost among names like Ford, Daimler, and Cugnot. However, Selden reigned as the "Father of the Automobile" for almost 20 years, his name engraved on every car from 1895 until 1911. He held the patent on the "Road Engine," which was effectively a patent on the automobile - a claim that went unchallenged for years, despite the many other inventors who had contributed to the development of the automobile and the internal combustion engine. Almost all of the early car manufacturers, unwilling to face the threat of a lawsuit, were forced to buy licenses from Selden, so almost every car on the road sported a small brass plaque reading "Manufactured under Selden Patent." Henry Ford was the only manufacturer willing to challenge Selden in court, and on this day a New York judge ruled that Ford had indeed infringed on Selden's patent. This decision was later overturned when it became plain that Selden had never intended to actually manufacture his "road engine." Selden's own "road engine" prototype, built in the hope of strengthening his case, only managed to stagger along for a few hours before breaking down.


Royce tests first gas engine

Frederick Henry Royce, of Rolls-Royce Ltd., successfully tested his first gasoline engine on this day. The two-cylinder, 10hp engine was one of three experimental cars designed by Royce during the automobile's early years, when gasoline-powered engines competed on equal footing with electric and steam engines. In fact, Royce's first company, Royce Ltd., built electric motors.


First coast-to-coast tour completed

At a time when driving across country was akin to climbing Mt. Everest, Lester L. Whitman and Eugene I. Hammond completed their coast-to-coast expedition on this day to national acclaim. Whitman and Hammond's journey, the third trans-U.S. automobile trip in history, contained a small detour, however. The two drivers decided to include a side trip from Windsor to Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, in order to dub their trek "international."


Couple crosses the Rockies by car

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Glidden completed the first crossing of the Canadian Rockies by automobile on this day, arriving exhausted from their 3,536-mile trip. The couple had driven from Boston, Massachusetts, to Vancouver, Canada, in their 24hp Napier.


Birth of a ratings man

Dr. Graham Edgar, developer of the octane rating system, was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on this day. Although he may not be a household name, evidence of Edgar's work lines every highway in America. His rating system measures a fuel's ability to resist any form of abnormal combustion, in other words, its ability to burn cleanly. Eighty-eight and 90 are the normal ratings for everyday unleaded gasoline, while racing gasoline will often have a rating as high as 115. Almost every gas pump in America sports an octane rating sticker.


War production halts

Automotive manufacturers had been at the heart of a seamless war machine during World War II, producing trucks, tanks, and planes at astounding rates. But only after the last shots were fired did auto factories begin to produce cars again, focusing their sights on the booming postwar market. A month after the surrender of Japan, Packard followed the lead of every other company and ceased military production, turning out its last wartime Rolls-Royce Merlin engine on this day.


Henry Ford II ascends to the throne

Henry Ford II, grandson and namesake of Henry Ford, succeeded his father as president of the Ford Motor Company on this day, inheriting a company that was losing money at the rate of several million dollars a month. After recovering from the shock of his father's unexpected death, Henry Ford II was effectively given a crash course in management, but fortunately for the company, he turned out to have the magic touch. He quickly set about reorganizing and modernizing the Ford Motor Company, firing the powerful Personnel Chief Harry Bennett, whose strong-arm tactics and anti-union stance had made Ford notorious for its bad labor relations. He also brought in new talent, including a group of former U.S. Air Force intelligence officers, among them Robert McNamara, who became known as the "Whiz Kids." During his tenure as president, Henry Ford II nursed the Ford Motor Company back to health, greatly expanding its international operations and introducing two classic models, the Mustang and the Thunderbird.


Duryea brothers build first automobile

America's first automobile was not built by a Henry Ford or Walter Chrysler, but by Charles and Frank Duryea, two bicycle makers. Charles spotted a gasoline engine at the 1886 Ohio State Fair and became convinced that an engine-driven carriage could be built. The two brothers designed and built the car together, working in a rented loft in Springfield, Massachusetts. After two years of tinkering, Charles and Frank Duryea showed off their home invention on the streets of Springfield, the first successful run of an automobile in the U.S.


First traffic fatality recorded

Nine-year-old Stephen Kempton died on this day, becoming the first recorded traffic fatality in Great Britain. Kempton had been trying to steal a ride from a taxi by hanging on to a spring, but lost his grip and was trapped underneath the wheel of the vehicle. The tragedy occurred on Stockmar Road near Hackney, a full two years before America's first traffic fatality.


First Model T is completed

The first factory-built Ford Model T was completed on this day, just one more step in Ford's affordable revolution. Affectionately known as the "Tin Lizzie," the Model T revolutionized the automotive industry by providing an affordable, reliable car for the average person. Ford was able to keep the price down by retaining control of all raw materials, and by employing revolutionary mass production methods. When it was first introduced, the "Tin Lizzie" cost only $850 and seated two people.


Groundbreaking auto engineer is born

Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, the French engineer who designed and built the world's first automobile, was born in Austrian Lorraine on this day. Cugnot arrived in Paris after the Seven Years War with the hope of tinkering with several inventions he had conceived during the war, including a steam-driven vehicle. After six years, Cugnot succeeded in building two steam-propelled tractors--which were actually huge and heavy tricycles. Although they may not have had power steering or cruise control, these massive tricycles are considered the world's first automobiles.


KITT debuts

The first episode of the television show Knight Rider aired on this day, starring David Hasselhoff as private eye Michael Knight. However, the real star of the show was "KITT," his talking car. KITT, a modified Pontiac Firebird, complete with artificial intelligence and glowing red lights, assisted Michael in his detective work. During the show's four years, KITT attracted a loyal fan following, and a few episodes even featured "KARR," KITT's look-alike nemesis.


Fighting with the Dragon

Construction on the infamous Nurburgring racing circuit, often referred to as a "green hell," began today. The 13-mile course through the Eifel forests was considered the most dangerous segment of road on the planet, curving around 72 corners and covering a rise and fall of almost a 1,000 feet. The circuit held a strange spell over many drivers, beckoning the brave to test their skill. The "green hell" proved lethal to many, and was once rumored to average 20 accidents a day. Racer Jochen Rind referred to the Nurburgring as "Fighting with the Dragon." Racing events are no longer officially held on the circuit, but the course is often used by auto manufacturers to test new models.


Sherman sets record

Car & Driver Editor Don Sherman set a Class E record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah on this day, driving the Mazda RX7, the standard-bearer for the rotary engine in the U.S. market, and reaching 183.904mph. The RX7's unique rotary engine doesn't have the standard pistons, instead, two rounded "rotors" spin to turn the engine's flywheel. Although the rotary engine was not a new concept, the Mazda RX7 was one of the first to conquer the reliability issues faced by earlier rotary engines. Light and fun to drive, with 105hp from its 1.1 liter rotary engine, the RX7 was extremely popular.


Mercedes-Benz, U.S.A.

Daimler cars managed to make it to New York long before other imports, thanks to William Steinway. Steinway, a car enthusiast, concluded licensing negotiations with Gottlieb Daimler on this day, gaining permission to manufacture Daimler cars in the U.S. He founded the "Daimler Motor Company" and began producing Daimler engines, as well as importing Daimler boats, trucks, and other equipment to the North American market. Still, the U.S. was just a small portion of Daimler's market, and when he introduced a new line in 1901, he christened it Mercedes because he feared the German-sounding Daimler would not sell well in France.


Regulating chaos around the world

Compulsory car registration for all vehicles driving over 18mph took effect throughout France on this day, as more and more countries began regulating automobile traffic. Early city roads were often a din of crowded chaos, streets mired in mud and shared by horses, cars, and streetcars. However, phenomenal increases in traffic and accidents brought an end to the laissez-faire attitude of the road. Nine years after France began its registration policy, dividing lines appeared, followed by traffic signs, traffic lights, and one-way streets.

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