Conference of the Society of Automotive Historians
April 10th-12th 2014, Palo Alto, USA
2014 was an occasion for the biennial conference of the Society of Automotive Historians. It was held in Palo Alto in the U.S. state of California. A dedicated group of participants listened to the conference’s 21 presentations in the one-tier conference.
The present and the future use of the car were not discussed much, at least not during the breaks, as the framework had hoped. The conference was held in the development workshop of Stanford University, where the meeting room was located in the middle of the development department workshop. This workshop, by the way, was filled with boxes of parts for cars, prototypes for testing cars, and students and researchers engaged in excited discussion. The participants could see cars designed for operation with solar panels and all types of electrical operations. In a nearby cinema, the participants could control a test car, which ran in a three-dimensional, computer-controlled reality thereby enabling users to get a very life-like experience of perilous critical events in traffic.
The head of the development workshop, Christian Gerdes, introduced one of the workshop’s most comprehensive studies, the goal of which is to develop a driverless vehicle. The vision is to get vehicles to run on their own. If achieved, such a vehicle would reduce all accidents by up to 90% by eliminating the human factor in accidents. The task is very complicated, but after years of analysis of how race drivers optimize driving directions, experimental cars today can run without a driver around a race track at high speed.
A contribution by John Marino from Kent State University on 3D technology did not deal specifically with automobiles, but showed that new forms of production in a few years might also revolutionize this field. 3D technology might also be used some day to produce spare parts for vintage vehicles.
One of the conference’s best lectures was delivered by Masato Inoue. He explained how he, as head of the Nissan LEAF development project, had been working to develop a small, lightweight electric-powered car, which he thought would satisfy most driving needs in the future. The committed conference participants eagerly engaged in discussing this and exchanging views and experiences on other topics.
The majority of conference presentations were devoted to historical studies in which many of the audience’s practical experiences with vintage vehicles supplemented the archival research.
The conference’s first presentation focused on basic vehicle technology. José Barros Rodrigues examined the trial in Portugal, carried out in the exciting years of development in the early 1900s, when car technology had not yet been formalized. Among other things, in 1910 people were working on developing a vehicle in which the engine would be powered by compressed air. The experiments were abandoned, but the experience was instead used in the development of brake systems based on compressed air.
It must be a real challenge to keep a fleet of vehicles running in a country like Tanzania, which does not have money for spare parts and training of mechanics. Joshua Grace from the University of South Carolina, described the great efforts made by self-taught mechanics in the African countryside. Conference participants were convinced of the mechanics’ hard work under difficult conditions when Grace showed movies of engine repairs done with tools made of wood.
In contrast was the development of vehicles in American dirt track racing from 1920 to 1960. Alison Kreitzer from the University of Delaware showed how adventurous racers solved the growing challenges in running such vehicles. The vehicles were built from standard parts that enthusiasts had modified. Later the races became a showroom where car manufacturers and suppliers of auto parts could display their products.
Although the car was the focal point of all presentations much of the proceedings also addressed American society culture and politics. Christina Ann Mesa from Stanford University showed some examples from the American literature in which the writers depicted driving and, especially, car travel. The car is shown as liberating the driver, particularly for members of the working class, women and coloured. For example, cheap Ford cars were central in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In that novel, the unemployed gather their belongings in vehicles and drive west to find their fortune. Rolls Royce is central to characters at the opposite end of the social spectrum. Here driving has been associated with drinking champagne and partying, as depicted in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Another researcher from Stanford, Eric Karl Roth, showed, through an examination of U.S. driver license history, how the society was originally interested in only skilled operators taking the wheel but that restriction would have collided with the strong American sense of freedom and unwillingness to be registered. The individual states’ different policies in this area caused many problems with transportation between states. It was not just a problematic case when licenses were introduced for the first time. In recent years, advanced production methods and installation of chips in driver’s licenses have been adopted to prevent fraudulent driver’s licenses, but such measures raise the undesirable option of being used to monitor drivers. In recent years the introduction of licenses for illegal immigrants in the United States brought a new dimension to the desire to improve road safety through driver’s licenses when it conflicted with society’s reluctance to accept wanted labour but unwanted citizens.
Police forces’ increasing presence in society was the subject of the presentation by Sarah Seo from Princeton University. She showed how motoring reduced the mostly local social control of outsiders, who could now move around. Special police forces became necessary to control and regulate the important automobile traffic. In fact, the transport sector became the main driver of growth in the police force as an important and powerful institution in society.
Similarly, a presentation on the U.S. residential trailer showed how an important part of American culture evolved. David Burel from Auburn University described how trailers, especially from the 1930s on, were produced industrially. They gave people the opportunity to travel around the U.S. and provided users with new opportunities to experience nature and other areas. Soon, trailers also came to be used as permanent and affordable mobile homes. They became a form of housing for the unemployed, the weak and those not economically favoured to live among peers in large trailer parks.
Some of the presentations focused on technological development process around specific areas. Gundula Tutt from Institut für Malerei, ABK Stuttgart, Germany reviewed types of paint. The topic is not only interesting from a theoretical point of view because many museums and private owners can use the specific practical knowledge of the various types of paints’ long-term characteristics when they are faced with having to restore their vehicles to their original appearance. However, paints may only have a limited shelf life or durable paints would no longer be original. Mechanics are often the focus of studies of car design, but actually new paints and processes also greatly influenced the design, marketing and preservation of cars. One of the first major innovations in car paints was Ford’s use of black asphalt-based heat-set paints around 1918. Moreover, the setting of Duco paint, developed by Du Pont in the 1920s, enabled General Motors to get a head start on other companies because it was able to deliver its cars in many beautiful colours, while Ford still used enamel-based paint, in which cars could be delivered in any colour “just as long as it was black” as Ford put it. The new paints reduced vehicle production times because drying was reduced from 18 days to fewer than 10 hours.
The development of lubricating oil was examined by William Chamberlin from Lubrizol Corporation, which has been one of the major suppliers of additives for oil companies’ oil departments. Additives were an especially important part of lubricating oils because they gave oil its proper counteracting wear, corrosion, deposit formation, friction, viscosity and stability. Oil was originally an important part of the daily maintenance of vehicles since engines and other parts used large quantities of oil. Volumes of oil used per vehicle have since been greatly reduced, but necessary characteristics of oils have increased significantly in line with engines’ increased performance. There have already been several generations of oil types. The military developed standards for oil that set the standard for oils for many years. Now oils with associated standards are marketed.
Rubber tire development was described by Jørgen Burchardt from the National Museum of Science and Technology in Denmark. He showed that very low-pressure tire, which the tire industry supplied from the beginning of 1923, were important for cars to become serious vehicles. In the following years, a whole new generation of vehicles appeared. They had more powerful engines and improved vehicle bodies, so passengers could drive more enjoyably and comfortably. The presentation was one of few in the conference to address other types of vehicles in addition to passenger cars, where the development of tires for heavy vehicles was delayed in comparison to the lighter cars. Therefore, it lasted longer before the solid rubber tire could be avoided in the greatest vehicles. Gentler tires really got trucks on the interstate roads from 1930 onwards.
Before 1914, pharmacies and other random points served as points of sale. Then petrol pumps made special outlets for petrol possible and then the car really became a serious vehicle. Usua Amanam from Stanford University showed how the filling station became a phenomenon after underground tanks were required by authorities for safety reasons. Quickly, they acquired their own architectural expression and, together with the often associated repair shops, became an important visual element in today’s car society.
A special technological historical development took place in the safety area when car manufacturers had to introduce locks and other technologies to prevent theft of valuables from inside the vehicles and the vehicle itself. John Heinmann from the University of Dayton noted that even as new methods constantly develop, the latest digital security can be circumvented by technically-minded criminals.
Business history was the topic of Grace Ballor of the University of California, Los Angeles. She reported how economic cooperation between countries in the EU was especially instrumental in bringing the German company VW forward to become one of the strongest companies in the automotive industry, even though VW’s production facilities were largely destroyed during World War Two. U.S. Marshall aid after the war was of course the first impetus to revive the company along with the British occupation forces’ policy towards companies in the area of Germany they managed for a number of years. The “Beetle” was a former major Nazi propaganda piece and without regulation and moderated access to consumer markets in other Western European countries, Volkswagen could not have been transformed “Hitler’s car” into the vehicle of choice for the burgeoning middle class in post-war Europe.
The company Studebaker Corporation was for many years one of America’s major automakers. It did not belong to the greats, and around 1960 the company was having problems keeping up with the competition for newly designed car models and related technical innovations. Robert Ebert from Baldwin-Wallace College showed how the company’s management in the final years tried changing strategies to get the company to survive. Despite considerable savings by closing plants and moving production to better and cheaper facilities in Canada, the firm stopped car production in 1966.
Economy of scale was a similar theme in an overview of companies in the auto industry development in the 1920s. Rational methods of production through assembly lines and economies of scale were necessary to compete. New ideas and smart structures were not enough for the craft-based businesses to survive, as explained by Douglas Leighton from Huron University College.
The Society of Automotive Historians has a branch in England, but there was only one contribution from there. Helen Evenden from the Royal College of Art in London spoke about how cars have been an independent artistic expression, in which designers through new production methods shape vehicles from clear, visual artistic desires. The change of the designers’ role, especially with the move from two-dimensional drawings to clay models, gave the designers more opportunities to promote their ideas when they prepared designs for mass production. The work has gradually evolved to become an independent job for which practitioners must undergo intensive training.
The development department at Stanford also contributed to the historic sessions when Peter Mangiafico told of the database of historic vehicle images. The department is in the process of digitizing the images and will put them freely on the web.
Motoring has become an important part of society, but future transportation will probably evolve in a different direction. Rudi Volti from Pitzer College closed the conference with a keynote address during the final dinner.
”What drives technological change?” was the question. Technological change can be driven by internal forces, he said– that is, perceived inadequacies in the existing ways of doing things, along with new insights into how to address these inadequacies. New technologies developed in other sectors also may be important, and forces that are not themselves technological or scientific in social construction can affect technological change.
Volti’s presentation was commented on during an efficient workshop despite the evening’s festive environment. After the successful conference, all participants expressed the hope that the next conference in two years would attract more non-US participants. It will be announced at the website of the society, www.autohistory.org.
National Museum of Science and Technology in Denmark.