The Early Automobile

The first motorcars appeared around 1900. At first people did not think of them as something useful; they were more like toys. Early cars were also expensive and unreliable. They always seemed to be breaking down, and tires went flat as often as once or twice a day on an all-day trip!

Ford Had a Better Idea

But automakers worked to improve their machines and lower the cost. By 1908 Henry Ford had brought out his Model T. It was inexpensive, reliable and built to run well on country roads and in small towns. It was simple to take care of, and the cost was low enough so that many people could buy it. The speed at which people traveled in a Model T (20 miles per hour) greatly reduced the time it took to get from one place to another. It wasn't long before several motor car companies were producing inexpensive vehicles. Soon the whole country was on wheels.

Early Problems

The owners of these more dependable, low-cost autos still faced a few problems. In the winter water in the radiator expanded as it froze, popped the metal seams and leaked out. To prevent this some drivers just drained the radiator, put the car up on jacks, and stored it for the winter season. Some kept the car in use by filling the radiator with hot water in order to get it going. Horse blankets covered the motor and radiator to keep it warm while the occupants conducted their business or visited with friends.

Springtime brought different problems for motorists. Roads turned to quagmires as they thawed. Sometimes, people laid boards over the muddy stretches and the drivers who could keep all four wheels on the planks continued on their way. Those who bogged down in the mud would seek help at the nearest farmhouse. With a team of horses, the car could be pulled out of the mire. Some farm people charged for the service, others had no fee.

Basic Mechanics

Learning to drive and care for a car was simple. It took only a knowledge of basic mechanics to fix something if a gasoline-powered engine should happen to stop. Farmers had an advantage in that they were already experienced with gasoline engines because they had used power on their farm machinery. Kids who grew up when those first autos came into use learned to drive at an early age. Some were only 11 or 12 years old. There was less concern about serious accidents then, because cars did not go very fast and there were so few of them on the road.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “The Way to Go,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 2 (November 1982): 2-6.


Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.