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February In Automotive History


First auto insurance policy is issued

The Travelers Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut, extended coverage to an automobile owner, making them the first company to issue an automobile insurance policy to an individual. Dr. Truman J. Martin of Buffalo, New York, paid a premium of $11.25 for the policy that covered $5,000 to $10,000 of liability. In 1925, Massachusetts became the first state to mandate automobile insurance, "requiring owners of certain motor vehicles and trailers to furnish security for their civil liabilities." Today, auto insurance is a fact of life for American drivers as nearly every state requires some insurance for the operator of a motor vehicle. In a country where the driver´s license serves as the primary form of identification, the challenge of selecting a coverage policy and paying the car insurance premium has become a rite of passage for many young Americans.


Leaded gasoline goes on sale

Gasoline mixed with Tetraethyl lead was first sold to the public at a roadside gas station owned by Willard Talbott in Dayton, Ohio. Coined "ethyl gasoline" by Charles Kettering of General Motors, the blend was discovered by General Motors laboratory technician Thomas Midgley to beneficially alter the combustion rate of gasoline. Reportedly, in seven years of research and development General Motors labs tested at least 33,000 compounds for their propensity to reduce knocks. Leaded gasoline would fill the world´s gas tanks until emissions concerns lead to the invention of unleaded gasoline.


Model T maker is born

On this day in 1881, Joseph A. Galamb, a Ford Motor Company engineer and a member of the team of engineers that developed the Model T, was born in Mako, Hungary. The Model T design would change automotive history with its reliability, affordability, and capacity for mass production. "If you freeze the design and concentrate on production," Ford explained, "as the volume goes up, the cars are certain to become cheaper." Thanks to men like Joseph Galamb, the design for the "Tin Lizzy" met her maker´s expectation to bring automobiles to the masses and guaranteed that the New World would become even newer for the next wave of immigrants. On February 3, 1981, the citizens of Mako, Hungary, paid tribute to Galamb, honoring the 100th anniversary of his birth.


Ford acquires Lincoln

The Ford Motor accompany acquired the Lincoln Motor Company for $8 million on this day. Henry Ford´s son, Edsel, was subsequently named president of Lincoln. The move signaled Henry Ford´s first acknowledgement of diversification as a desirable marketing strategy. Throughout the 1920s, Ford Motors suffered from its unwillingness to match the diverse range of automobiles offered by General Motors. Ford regained some of its market share in 1927 when it released the new Model A, a car whose styling leaned heavily on the traditional sleek look of the Lincoln automobile.


First "Don´t Walk" sign installed

The first "Don´t Walk" sign was installed in New York City on this day. The city erected the signs in response to the growing awareness of pedestrian fatalities in the increasingly crowded Manhattan streets. Pedestrian fatalities are essentially an urban problem, so city dwellers, next time you see a Don´t Walk sign, please don´t run. In 1997, 5,307 pedestrians died as a result of automobile accidents. Fatal collisions between pedestrians and motor vehicles occur most often between six p.m. and nine p.m., a period that roughly coincides with rush hour. In 1998, in hopes of minimizing gridlock, New York City began strictly enforcing its jaywalking laws during rush hour. Pedestrians are subject to a $50 fine if they walk, or run, when faced with a Don´t Walk sign.


Mercedes introduces 300SL

On this day, Mercedes introduced their 300SL coupe to the public. A stylish sports car characterized by its gull-wing doors, the coupe was a consumer version of the 300SL race car. With a six-cylinder engine and a top speed of 155mph, the two-door coupe created a sensation among wealthy car buyers who were actually seen waiting in line to buy it. Because of the impracticality of the gull-wing doors, the company only manufactured 1,400 300SL coupes. Nevertheless, the 300SL is widely considered the most impressive sports car of the decade. Unfortunately, the 300SL race car also played an infamous role in car racing history. Careening out of control in the 1955 race at Le Mans, the SL crashed into the gallery. Eighty spectators died and Mercedes-Benz pulled its cars out of racing competition for nearly three decades.


Canada imposes speed limit

Canada imposed a 55 mph speed limit on this day. In 1973, reacting to the ban of oil sales to the United States and other Western countries by 11 Arab oil producers, President Richard Nixon lowered the U.S. speed limit to 55 mph in hopes of conserving gasoline. An addition to a greater reserve of oil, a by-product of the mandate turned out to be a lower rate of highway automobile fatalities. Two years later, Canada followed suit in hopes of lowering their own rate of highway fatalities.


Jaguar´s founder dies

Sir William Lyons, founder of Jaguar Motors, died in Wappenbury Hall, England, at the age of 83. As a young entrepreneur, Lyons got his start making motorcycle sidecars in Blackpool, England. In 1926, he co-founded the Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding Company with William Walmsley. Recognizing the demand for automobiles, Lyons eventually built wooden frames for the Austin Seven car, calling his creation the Austin Swallow. Spurred on by the warm reception of his Austin Swallows, Lyons began building his own cars, which he called Standard Swallows. In 1934, his company, now SS Cars Ltd., released a line of cars called Jaguars. After World War II, Lyons dropped the "SS" initials that reminded people of the SS title of Nazi officers. Jaguar Cars Ltd. went on to produce a number of exquisite sports cars and roadsters, among them the XK 120, the D Type, and the XK-E or E Type. Lyons´ most monumental achievement was perhaps the E Type, which was the fastest sports car in the world when it was released in 1961. With a top speed of 150mph and a zero-to-60 of 6.5 seconds, the Jaguar made a remarkable 17 miles to the gallon and suffered nothing in its looks. In spite of Jaguar´s distinguished record on the race track, the company is most associated with the beautiful lines of its car bodies, an impressive feat considering Lyons´ first offering to the automobile industry was a wooden frame bolted to another man´s car.


The Brickyard is founded

On this day, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation incorporated with Carl G. Fisher as president. The speedway was Fisher´s brainchild, and he would see his project through its inauspicious beginnings to its ultimate glorious end. The first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway took place on August 19, 1909, only a few months after the formation of the corporation. Fisher and his partners had scrambled to get their track together before the race, and their lack of preparation showed. Not only were lives lost on account of the track, but the surface itself was left in shambles. Instead of cutting losses on his investment in the speedway, Fisher dug in and upped the stakes. He built a brand new track of brick, which was the cheapest and most durable appropriate surface available to him. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway would later be affectionately called "the Brickyard." Fisher´s track filled a void in the international racing world, as there were almost no private closed courses in Europe capable of handling the speeds of the cars that were being developed there. Open course racing had lost momentum in Europe due to the growing number of fatal accidents. Recognizing the supremacy of European car technology, but preserving the American tradition of oval-track racing, Fisher melded the two hemispheres of car racing into one extravagant event, a 500-mile race to be held annually. To guarantee the attendance of the European racers, Fisher arranged to offer the largest single prize in the sport. By 1912, the total prize money available at the grueling Indy 500 was $50,000, making the race the highest paying sporting event in the world. However, the Brickyard almost became a scrap yard after World War II, as it was in deplorable condition after four years of disuse. The track´s owner, Eddie Rickenbacher, even considered tearing it down and selling the land. Fortunately, in 1945, Tony Hulman purchased the track for $750,000. Hulman and Wilbur Shaw hastily renovated the track for racing in the next year, and launched a long-term campaign to replace the wooden grandstand with structures of steel and concrete. In May of 1946, the American Automobile Association ran its first postwar Indy 500, preserving an American tradition. Today, the Indy 500 is the largest single-day sporting event in the world.


Consumers awake!

Ralph Nader testified before the Senate, reinforcing his earlier claims that the automobile industry was socially irresponsible and detailing the peculiar methods the industry used in attempting to silence him. Nader´s 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, had become a sensation a year earlier. Nader attacked the automotive industry´s unwillingness to consider the safety of the consumer, or as Nader himself put it, "insisting on maintaining the freedom to rank safety wherever it pleases on its list of considerations." Nader´s heaviest criticism was leveled at the Chevrolet Corvair, a car that had been involved in a high number of one-car accidents. General Motors (GM) responded to Nader´s criticism by launching an investigation into his personal life and accusing Nader of being gay and anti-Semitic. Nader filed an invasion of privacy suit against GM, and ultimately exacted $425,000 from the automotive giant. By bringing the public´s right to safe automobiles into the spotlight, and by directly challenging General Motors in court, Nader created the methodology for contemporary consumer advocacy. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which in 1966 mandated seatbelts, owed its existence to Nader´s initiative, as do the other federally regulated safety standards which are common practice today.


Hornet stings Big Three

Marshall Teague drove a Hudson Hornet to victory on the beach oval of the 160-mile Daytona Grand National at Daytona Beach, Florida, beginning Hudson´s extraordinary run on the NASCAR circuit. In 1948, Hudson introduced the revolutionary "step-down" chassis design that is still used in most cars today. Until Hudson´s innovation all car drivers had stepped up into the driver´s seats. The "step-down" design gave the Hornet a lower center of gravity and, consequently, better handling. Fitted with a bigger engine in 1951, the Hudson Hornet became a dominant force on the NASCAR circuit. For the first time a car not manufactured by the Big Three was winning big. Excited by the publicity generated by their success on the track, Hudson executives began directly backing their racing teams, providing the team cars with everything they needed to make their cars faster. The Big Three, fearing that losses on the track would translate into losses on the salesroom floor, hurried to back their own cars. Thus was born the system of industry-backed racing that has become such a prominent marketing tool today. The Hudson Hornet would contend for nearly every NASCAR race between 1951 and 1955, when rule changes led to an emphasis on horsepower over handling.


Packard is patented

J.W. Packard received his first automotive patent a year after forming his company with partner George Weiss. Packard became interested in building cars after purchasing a Winton horseless carriage. The Winton proved unreliable and after nearly a year of fixing up his horseless carriage, Packard decided he would manufacture his own automobile. Among Packard´s necessary automotive innovations were the "H" gear-slot pattern and the gas pedal, begging the question would anyone ever have been able to "drop the hammer" or "step on it" without him?


U.K.´s first auto fatality

Henry Lindfield of Brighton, England, died on this day after being involved in an automobile accident, becoming the first driving fatality in Great Britain.


Future king takes a ride

Edward Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VII, became the first member of the British Royal Family to ride in a motor vehicle.


Olds runs ads

Oldsmobile ran its first national automobile advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post. Ransom Olds was no stranger to innovations in the field of publicity. A year earlier, Olds had sent one of his assistants, Roy Chapin, on a voyage from Detroit to New York in a 1901 Olds Runabout. In spite of the absence of proper roads, gas stations, or repair garages, nine days and 800 miles later, Chapin arrived at New York´s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel unscathed. Newspaper accounts of the journey boosted publicity for the Runabout. In one year, Olds´ company increased its sales of Runabouts from 425 to 2,500. With the help of newspaper advertisements annual sales would jump another 100 percent to 5,000 cars by 1904.


The Studebaker is born

Henry and Clement Studebaker founded H & C Studebaker, a blacksmith and wagon building business, in South Bend, Indiana. The brothers made their fortune manufacturing during the Civil War, as The Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company became the world´s largest manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages. With the advent of the automobile, Studebaker converted its business to car manufacturing, becoming one of the larger independent automobile manufacturers. During World War II, Studebaker manufactured airplanes for the war effort and emphasized its patriotic role by releasing cars called "The President," "The Champion," and "The Commander." Like many of the independents, Studebaker fared well during the war by producing affordable family cars. After the war, the Big Three, bolstered by their new government-subsidized production facilities, were too much for many of the independents. Studebaker was no exception. Post World War II competition drove Studebaker to its limits, and the company merged with the Packard Corporation in 1954. Financial hardship continued however as they continued to lose money over the next several years. Studebaker rebounded in 1959 with the introduction of the compact Lark but it was shortlived. The 1966 Cruiser marked the end of the Studebaker after 114 years.


VW Bug sets record

The 15,007,034th Volkswagen Beetle rolled out of the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, surpassing the Ford Model T´s previous production record to become the most heavily produced car in history. The Beetle or the "Strength Through Joy" car, as the Germans initially called it, was the brainchild of Ferdinand Porsche. He developed the Volkswagen on orders from the German government to produce an affordable car for the people. Developed before World War II, the Beetle did not go into full-scale production until after the war. It became a counter-culture icon in the U.S. during the 1960s largely because it offered an alternative to the extravagant American cars of the time. In 1998, Volkswagen released the "New Beetle" to rave reviews. The "Old Beetle," however, hasn´t completely disappeared, as it is still being produced in Mexico.


A legend is born

Enzo Anselmo Ferrari was born in Modena, Italy, on this day. After fighting in World War I, where he lost both his brother and his father, Ferrari became a professional driver with the Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazional (CMN.) The following year, Ferrari moved to Alpha Romeo, establishing a relationship that would span two decades and take Ferrari from test driver to the director post of the Alpha Racing Division. In 1929, Enzo founded Scuderia Ferrari, an organization that began as a racing club but that by 1933 had absorbed the entire race-engineering division at Alpha. For financial reasons, Alpha took back control of their racing division from Ferrari in 1939. His pride wounded, Ferrari left Alpha Romeo in 1940, transforming the Scuderia into an independent manufacturing company, the Auto Avio Costruzioni Ferrari. Construction of the first Ferrari vehicle was delayed until the end of World War II. Like Ferdinand Porsche, Enzo Ferrari suffered during the war, as his factory was bombed on numerous occasions. Still, Ferrari persisted with his work. In 1949, Ferrari´s 166 won the 24 Hours at Le Mans, Europe´s most famous car race. Ferrari would not look back. His passion for racing drove his company to become one of the world´s premier race car builders. Ferrari cars would win 25 world titles and over 5,000 individual races during Enzo´s 41-year reign. Off the track the company fared just as well. Responding to Ferrari´s personal demand that his engineers create the finest sports car in the world, the company produced the F40 in 1987. With a top speed of 201mph and a 0 to 60 time of 3.5 seconds, the F40 may have been Ferrari´s crowning achievement. Enzo Anselmo Ferrari died on August 14, 1988.


T-Bird hatches

The Ford Thunderbird was born in prototype form on this day. It wouldn´t be released to the market on a wide scale until the fall of 1954, the beginning of the 1955 model year. The T-Bird was a scaled-down Ford built for two. It came with a removable fiberglass hard top and a convertible canvas roof for sunny days. Armed with a V-8 and sporty looks, the T-Bird was an image car. For $2,944 a driver could drop the top, turn the radio dial, and enter a more promising world. General Motors (GM) had created the Corvette two years earlier to meet the needs of the G.I. who had developed a taste for European sports cars. In keeping with Ford´s cautious tradition, the T-Bird, its response to the Corvette, still looked like a Ford and was classified as a "personal car" and not a "sports car." But it was popular. Just as it had relied heavily on one car, the Model T, in its early stages, Ford would rely heavily on the T-Bird to bolster its image as a progressive car maker capable of keeping pace with GM. A decade later the Mustang would take the torch from the T-Bird, but to remember Ford in the 1950s one only needs to call to mind the stylish growl of the Thunderbird´s V-8.


Lamborghini dies

Ferrucio Lamborghini died on this day in 1993, leaving behind a remarkable life story of a farm boy with big dreams. Born on his family´s farm outside of Bologna, Italy, Lamborghini grew up tinkering with tractors. He enrolled in an industrial college near Bologna, where he studied machinery. Graduating just before World War II, Lamborghini then served as an engineer in the Italian Air Force. After the war he returned to his family´s farm and began assembling tractors from leftover war vehicles. Lamborghini built such high-quality tractors that by the mid-1950s, the Lamborghini Tractor Company had become one of Italy´s largest farm equipment manufacturers. But Ferrucio dreamt of cars. In 1963, he bought land, built an ultra-modern factory, and hired distinguished Alfa Romeo designer Giotti Bizzarini. Together they set out to create the ultimate automobile. In 1964, Lamborghini produced the 300 GT, a large and graceful sports car. By 1974, Ferrucio Lamborghini had sold out of the business bearing his name, but the company would never deviate from his initial mission to create exquisite vehicles at whatever cost.



Six days after its first race was held, NASCAR was officially incorporated as the National Association for Stock Car Racing, with race promoter Bill France as president. From the beginning, stock car racing had a widespread appeal with its fan base. As the legend goes, the sport evolved from Southern liquor smugglers who souped up their pre-war Fords to outrun the police. NASCAR brought the sport organization and legitimacy. It was Bill France who realized that product identification would increase enthusiasm for the sport. He wanted the fans to see the cars they drove to the track win the races on the track. By 1949, all the postwar car models had been released, so NASCAR held a 150-mile race at the Charlotte Speedway to introduce its Grand National Division. The race was restricted to late-model strictly stock automobiles. NASCAR held nine Grand National events that year. By the end of the year, it was apparent that the strictly stock cars could not withstand the pounding of the Grand Nationals, so NASCAR drafted rules to govern the changes drivers could make to their cars. Modified stock car racing was born. Starting in 1953, the major auto makers invested heavily in stock car racing teams, believing that good results on the track would translate into better sales in the showroom. In 1957, rising production costs and tightened NASCAR rules forced the factories out of the sport. Today NASCAR racing is the fastest growing spectator sport in America.


Landmark Chevy produced

The 1,000,000th Chevy was produced on this day. Chevrolet began when William Durant hired Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss race-car driver and star of the Buick Racing Team, to design a new car. Durant hoped to challenge the success of the Ford Model T with an affordable, reliable car. Chevrolet wanted to design a finer sort of automobile, however. Their product, the Classic Six, was an elegant car with a large price tag. But Durant built two more models, sturdier and cheaper, and Chevy was on its way. Durant eventually made over a million dollars in profits on his Chevrolet marque, money that allowed him to reacquire a majority interest in General Motors (GM) stock. Durant eventually merged the two companies and created GM´s current configuration. Louis Chevrolet left the company before the merger, leaving only his name to benefit from the company´s success.


Diesel engine is patented

Rudolf Diesel received a German patent for the diesel engine on this day. The diesel engine burns fuel oil rather than gasoline and differs from the gasoline engine in that it uses compressed air in the cylinder rather than a spark to ignite the fuel. Diesel engines were used widely in Europe for their efficiency and power, and are still used today in most heavy industrial machinery. In 1977, General Motors (GM) became the first American car company to introduce diesel-powered automobiles. The diesel-powered Olds 88 and 98 models were 40 percent more fuel-efficient than their gas-powered counterparts. The idling and reduced power efficiency of the diesel engine is much greater than that of the spark engine. Diesel cars never caught on in the U.S., partly because the diesel engine´s greater efficiency is counter-balanced by its higher emissions of soot, odor, and air pollutants. Today, the argument over which engine is more environmentally friendly is still alive; some environmentalists argue that in spite of the diesel engine´s exhaust pollution, its fuel efficiency may make it more environmentally sound than the gasoline engine in the long run.


Hudson Motor incorporated

The Hudson Motor Car Company, founded by Joseph Hudson, in Detroit, Michigan, was incorporated on this day. Hudson is perhaps most famous for its impact on NASCAR racing, which it accomplished thanks to a revolutionary design innovation. In 1948, Hudson introduced the Monobuilt design. The Monobuilt consisted of a chassis and frame that were combined in a unified passenger compartment, producing a strong, lightweight design with a beneficial lower center of gravity that did not affect road clearance. Hudson called the innovation the "step-down design" because, for the first time, drivers had to step down to get into their cars. In 1951, Hudson introduced the Hornet. Fitted with a bigger engine than previous Hudson models, the Hudson Hornet became a dominant force on the NASCAR circuit. Because of its lower center of gravity, the Hornet glided around corners with relative ease, leaving its unstable competitors in the dust. For the first time a car not manufactured by the Big Three was winning big. In 1952, Hudson won 29 of 34 events. Excited by their success on the track, Hudson executives began directly backing their racing teams, providing the team cars with everything they needed to increase success. The Big Three responded, and in doing so brought about the system of industry-backed racing that has become such a prominent marketing tool today. The Hudson Hornet would dominate NASCAR racing until 1955 when rule changes led to an emphasis on horsepower over handling.


First state gas tax imposed

Oregon became the first state to impose a tax on gasoline. The funds collected from the one percent tax were used for road construction and maintenance.


Winton sets speed record

Alexander Winton, driving his Winton Bullet, set the first speed record ever achieved at Daytona Beach, Florida. Built in 1902 the "Bullet Number 1" drove a measured mile at over 65mph. The first automobile race at Daytona was held a year earlier when Winton and his Bullet took on Ransom Olds. The race was declared a tie as both cars reached a top speed of 57mph. For hardware lovers, the "Bullet 1" carried a massive water-cooled four-cylinder engine with a displacement of 792 cubic inches. It had automatic intake valves, operated by compressed air, and an overhead cam. Winton´s "Bullet 2" carried two four-cylinder engines bolted together, creating a straight eight. Winton´s cars were driven by legendary speed demon Barney Oldfield, whose celebrated competitions with Ralph DePalma carried car racing through its first decade. Oldfield was America´s first racing icon. Fans loved to watch him speed to victory with an unsmoked cigar clamped in his teeth.


Nader is born

Ralph Nader was born on this day in Winsted, Connecticut. Nader would revolutionize consumer advocacy with his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, in which he lambasted the safety standards of the Big Three automotive manufacturers.


Last Model A is produced

The last Ford Model A was produced, ending an era for the Ford Motor Company. The successor to the Model T, the Model A was an attempt to escape the image of bare bones transportation that had driven both the Model T´s success and its ultimate failure in the market. The vastly improved Model A boasted elegant Lincoln-like styling, a peppy 40 horsepower four-cylinder engine, and, of course, a self-starting mechanism. The Model A was as affordable as its predecessor, however, and with a base price at $460, five million Model A´s would roll onto American highways between 1927 and 1932.


Cadillac standardization is tested

At the Brooklands track in Weybridge, England, a standardization test of three random Cadillacs took place under the watchful eye of the Royal Automobile Club. This test was the first step towards a heightened reputation for American motor cars overall. Proving the concept of interchangeable parts to be a valid one was a leap towards mass-production and more ease in car repair.

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