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The experimental era for cars could be—should be—a model for invention today
Henry Ford, Henry Leland (Cadillac, Lincoln), Billy Durant (General Motors) and the other winners of the competition to build a successful car company are huge figures in the history of the American automobile industry, but in their way, they’re freaks: They succeeded where almost no one else did.
Several years ago, I wrote a story about the St. Louis, a car named after the city, and learned it was one of about 100 makes based there. In fact, almost any town with an industrial base probably had a car built there, from the Angus in Nelson, Nebraska; to the Nyberg in Chattanooga as well as the Chattanooga truck (and probably more I don’t know about).
Pick any nearest town of 20,000 or more people—odds are that an entire company was born, lived and died there. There have been well over 2,000 car companies in the last 120 years. In one of the big manufacturing centers like Detroit, if you look at where a factory was, you’ll find layer on top of layer of failure—an E.M.F. plant will be in an old Briggs Detroiter factory, which Studebaker then sold to REO, then acquired by Willys and later used to stamp Chrysler Imperial bodies. Henry Ford II’s Renaissance Center became GM’s white elephant and has under its foundations the factories of half-a-dozen makes.
Failure wasn’t expected a century ago; after all, investors threw millions of dollars at manufacturers. But no one was surprised when a company went under, as that’s what practically all of them did.
Often a carmaker would only build a few weird prototypes or, at best, manage a year or two of production. Then the promoters, managers, financiers and engineers would pop up again later that year under a new name with their next big idea, and try again. For an early automotive pioneer, failure was always an option.
When you’re willing to fail, there are no limits to what you can consider, and the products of the era before the Depression reflect this: Rotating reciprocating engines? Adams-Farwell gave it a shot. Driving the front wheels directly by the crankshaft? Walter Christie raced ’em that way. Engines burned oil, kerosene, alcohol, coal gas and anything else you could light on fire or make explode. Knight’s valveless, Itala’s rotary valve and Franklin’s valve-and-a-half engines all ran.
In hindsight, some were obviously doomed, but a crazy idea and a great idea can both look good when they first appear. This spirit also yielded Pilain’s 1911 internally expanding hydraulic front-wheel brakes, Levassor’s 1903 mechanical fuel injection, Fouillaron’s continuously variable belt drive (and diagonal engine) and Owen Magnetic’s electromagnetic automatic transmission, all before 1925.
Those were just as odd in their day as B-L-M’s (of Brooklyn) cast-iron clutch facing or Wilson-Pilcher’s engine pivots. Then again, the ’04 Wilson-Pilcher’s engines were horizontally opposed 2.7-liter fours and 4.0-liter sixes (with a four speed), arrangements that Porsche fans recognize a century later.
That isn’t to say people expected to fail; aside from a few scam artists, everyone had some plan. But inside, somewhere, many must have known that their chances were slim. Did William Mazzei really think his amphibious Hydromotor was the next big thing? Was Fageol actually going to sell a Hall-Scott aero-engined car for $17,000? Neither did, yet many persevered and the result was a culture of innovation and experimentation the likes of which America hasn’t seen again outside Silicon Valley.
Today, not only every car but also their every option must succeed. Without accepting failure, you can’t have true originality. As a result, we’ve suffered through a generation of tepid, similar cars, where the distinguishing features are now infotainment systems.
The capacity for creativity hasn’t been lost; that’s obvious from the responses to demands for higher fuel economy, such as amazingly efficient turbo four- and six-cylinder engines producing V-8 power; the transmissions behind them; and battery-assist drivetrains. But these are reactions—they’re fixing a problem, not speculating about the future.
I’m not sure we should subsidize failure, but there has to be room for it. Engineers and designers have to be not only encouraged to take risks, but executives need to bring them to market knowing they’ll get another chance.
When money people run car companies, the results are disastrous, as when Cerberus Capital Management luridly demonstrated with Chrysler. Inventors know that there’s no straight path to success, and sometimes it’s the losers that take us to the most interesting places.