Curious History

Curious History
Automotive History of Michigan

The Automotive History of Michigan

When they think about auto manufacturing, most everyone thinks of Detroit, Michigan — after all, it is known as the “Motor City.” The Big Three automakers (Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler) got their start in Michigan, and famous automobile revolutionary Henry Ford was born in Springwells Township, MI.

But there are some intriguing aspects to the history of the automobile in Michigan you might not know about, especially when it comes to the early days.

Detroit: The Heart of Auto Manufacturing

In the 1800s, the streets were still mostly populated with horse-drawn buggies, and the automobile was only just beginning to emerge. That began to change when Ransom E. Olds patented the first car to run on gasoline in 1886, and later founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing. In 1899, Olds sold his company and moved to Detroit to start a new enterprise, Olds Motor Works, which gave birth to the first Oldsmobile.

In the late 1800’s, while buggies still ruled the streets, engineering minds were tinkering with gasoline-powered vehicles. In 1886, Ransom E. Olds received a patent for the first car that ran on gasoline. He founded his first company, Olds Motor Vehicle Company, in Lansing 11 years later.

Henry Ford came into the picture after building the quadricycle, a gasoline-powered horseless carriage. In 1899, he collaborated with some other investors to found the Detroit Automobile Company. While that enterprise unfortunately failed, the Ford Motor Company, founded in 1903, thrived. The famous Model T came out of the company’s factory, and by 1927, there would be 15 million of them on the roads.

The Henry Ford Company also inadvertently gave birth to another major car company. A machinist named Henry Leland was called in to look at the assets of the failed Henry Ford Company, and decided not to sell it. Out of the remnants of the company came the Cadillac Car Company, which produced the world’s first self-starting engine, power steering, and windshield wipers.

The Early Days of Driving

The early days of the car were frequently chaotic. A steady rise in accidents around the time of the First World War led to phenomena such as “safety parades.” where city intersections in Detroit would be labeled with cautionary signs and wrecked cars would be towed down the street, some with bloody mannequins as drivers and passengers. In other cities, these parades featured thousands of children dressed up as ghosts.

Because no residential homes had garages or driveways in those days, the streets would frequently be clogged up with parked cars. Many of the phrases we still use today were coined during that time: joyriders, road hogs, Sunday drivers, and so on. The term “jaywalking” was also born during this time — a practice that eventually led to laws being passed ordering pedestrians to cross only at specific places, instead of walking into traffic wherever they pleased (an everyday practice up to that point).

Michigan Motor Laws

In those wild and early days of the automobile, politicians struggled to deal with the new and unprecedented challenges posed by the technology. For a while, it was very much unclear who might be at fault in terms of lawsuits and litigation.

For example, the first discussions about how to deal with concepts such as speeding and the rights of pedestrians and children weren’t seriously brought up until 1906. There was some debate about whether the automobile was inherently evil, a notion that was brought up in Georgia’s Court of Appeals.

But the car wasn’t going anywhere, and by the year 1917, there were thousands of accidents and over 100 fatalities in Detroit, three-fourths of which were pedestrians. Streetcars added to the existing threat, as disembarking passengers had to deal with cars and trucks going by on the road. Many of the early traffic fatalities were children, as playgrounds weren’t common and children usually played in the street.

All this notwithstanding, there were few laws regulating the road until 1909, when the first speed limits were set (5 mph, the same pace as horse-drawn carriages).

The history of auto laws in Michigan is also notable for what laws didn’t exist — for example, there were initially no parking laws; drivers just stopped their cars wherever and left them there, sometimes for hours. Similarly, for a long time there were no meaningful laws for car insurance in Michigan — the Michigan No-Fault Automobile Insurance Act didn’t go into effect until October of 1973. Before that, Michigan had what was called a Tort Liability System, which used every insured person’s premiums to pay for everyone else’s car damage and/or medical bills. This, unsurprisingly, caused a lot of legal strife in Michigan.

Today, cars are more or less ubiquitous, and the streets, although far from risk-free, are much safer than in the Wild West days of the automobile.

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