Not all fathers are remembered for their devotion to family, giving good advice and stuff like never missing a son’s baseball game. Check out these five men whose pioneering work established our modern American car culture.
Father of the Modern Automobile Industry: Henry Ford
Everybody knows his name and major accomplishments: Ford developed the modern assembly line. He built and sold a lot of cars. He was good to his workers (at least until they wanted to organize) and put millions of everyday Americans on the path of prosperity. But did you know that the Ford Motor Company wasn’t his first car company?
The third time was the charm for Ford, who started out his career as an engineer under Thomas Edison. Experimenting with gasoline engines on the side, Ford developed a prototype vehicle in the late 1880s and, with Edison’s blessing, went on to found the Detroit Motor Company. A notoriously hard man to please, Ford dissolved the venture in 1899 because the end product was, in his opinion, shoddily built and overpriced. The Henry Ford Company came next, but here again Ford butted heads with investors. He quickly dissolved the company in 1902 after only a few months.
Father of the Modern Interstate System: Dwight Eisenhower
While serving as a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel in 1919, the man who would eventually become the 34th president of the United States, embarked on a transcontinental mission to test the mobility of troops and supplies in wartime conditions. Some 81 vehicles and over 300 soldiers left Washington D.C. bound for San Francisco, a 3,251-mile expedition that took 62 days and was punctuated by chronic breakdowns, accidents and personal injuries along a primitive roadway largely unpaved from Illinois to Nevada. During those two months, the army’s heavy trucks were routinely bogged down in mud. Crossing any bridge along the route was a sketchy proposition at best; in fact, the army spent many days rebuilding bridges that were damaged or partially collapsed under the weight of the convoy.
The road trip proved what the army expected: that the U.S. was in serious trouble should a foreign invasion threaten American shores. The experience stuck with Eisenhower who later authorized the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and with it the modern interstate system was born. While Eisenhower always argued that improving America’s roads was a matter of national defense, the modern highway system he championed would ultimately impact everything from commerce to recreation in the United States.
Father of the Hot Rod: Ed Winfield
According to the Motor Sports Hall of Fame, hot rod pioneer Ed Winfield began his life of legendary exploits at age 11 when he souped-up the family’s Model T and ran it to 60 MPH while his parents were out of town. At age 16, and with no more than an 8th grade education, Winfield was grinding his own motorcycle cams and building his own carburetors.
After founding the Winfield Carburetor Company in 1924, Winfield famously dusted the competition in 1928’s “World’s Fastest Ford” challenge with his flathead Model T with a two-up-two-down crankshaft he designed. Winfield carburetors dominated at Indianapolis throughout the 1930s. Ditto for Winfield cams and other components sought after by racers chasing speed records throughout the 1940s.
Father of Route 66: Cyrus Avery
Tulsa businessman and Oklahoma’s first highway commissioner dreamed of bringing commerce to the Midwest and figured the best way to do that would be to construct a major highway through the heart of his adopted home state. One of the original highways designated in 1927, the now legendary Chicago-to-Los Angeles Route 66 cut through Oklahoma (right past Avery’s filling station and restaurant) then turned west through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Avery supposedly picked double sixes to name the route because he wanted something that would be easy to remember and also, so the story goes, because of the number’s significance in numerology; supposedly, the number “66” holds cosmic value in bringing about social interaction, pleasure and material success.
Father of the Tailfin: Harley Earl
In 1950s America, there was no bigger and more revered automotive personality than GM’s hard-drinking, hard-talking design chief, Harley Earl. A charismatic visionary known for his flamboyant linen suits and physically imposing stature (Earl stood 6’4” and weighed 235 pounds), Earl could just as easily be called “The Father of American Automotive Style.”
According to Auto-Opium author David Gartman, Earl—a coachbuilder by trade—used his charm, critical eye for design and understanding of the American car-buying market to wrestle control away from engineers and production experts that had entrenched themselves in the auto industry. Earl had no formal design or engineering training. But the man could wield his salesmanship and vision in such a way that GM executives time and again invested millions producing almost any whimsical creation he could conjure.
Earl has always received public credit for being the first to put “wings” on a 1948 Cadillac. So began an industry-wide tailfin craze that led to the sort of soaring and sharply pointed fins that appeared later on GM concept cars (a marketing tool Earl introduced) and production models in the 1950s. Tailfins are unique in the world of the automobile; even people who don’t know anything about cars fondly recognize the tailfin as symbolic of cars produced during The Golden Age. What other automobile design feature so singularly captures the essence of an era?