May in Automotive History
Ford factory workers offered 40-hour weeks
On this day in 1926, Ford Motor Company becomes one of the first companies in America to adopt a five-day, 40-hour week for workers in its automotive factories. The
policy would be extended to Ford´s office workers the following August. Ford announced that it would pay its male factory workers a minimum wage of $5 per eight-hour day, upped from a previous rate
of $2.34 for nine hours (the policy was adopted for female workers in 1916). The news shocked many in the industry--at the time, $5 per day was nearly double what the average auto worker made--but
turned out to be a stroke of brilliance, immediately boosting productivity along the assembly line and building a sense of company loyalty and pride among Ford´s workers.
GM buys Chevrolet
General Motors Corporation (GM), which would become the world´s largest automotive firm, acquires Chevrolet Motor Company. GM had been founded a decade earlier by
William C. "Billy" Durant, a former carriage maker from Flint, Michigan, whose Durant-Dort Carriage Company had taken control of the ailing Buick Motor Company. On September 16, 1908, Durant
incorporated Buick into a new entity, General Motors, which by the end of that decade had welcomed other leading auto manufacturers--including Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Oakland--into its fold. In
1910, with GM struggling financially, stockholders blamed Durant´s aggressive expansionism and forced him out of the company he founded. In November 1911, he launched Chevrolet Motor Company, named
for his partner, the Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet.
Bruce Springsteen releases "Pink Cadillac"
The New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen releases "Pink Cadillac" as a B-side to "Dancing in the Dark," which will become the first and biggest hit single off "Born in
the U.S.A.," the best-selling album of his career. "Pink Cadillac" was Springsteen´s second song to reference the classic car brand created in the first years of the 20th century by Henry Leland.
(The first, "Cadillac Ranch," was included on "The River.") Elvis Presley, whom Springsteen (and countless other rockers) looked to as an early inspiration, famously bought a blue Cadillac Fleetwood
in 1955 and had it painted a special shade of pink dubbed "Elvis Rose."
Harry Gant is oldest NASCAR winner, again
1991, the 51-year-old race car driver Harry Gant racks up his 12th National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup career victory in the Winston 500
in Talladega, Alabama. In doing so, Gant bettered his own record as the oldest man ever to win a NASCAR event. A native of Taylorsville, North Carolina, Gant quit the family carpentry business in
1978 and raced his first full Winston Cup season in 1979, at the relatively advanced age of 39. He was a candidate for Rookie of the Year, but lost to Dale Earnhardt.
Daimler-Benz announces purchase of Chrysler
The German automobile company Daimler-Benz--maker of the world-famous luxury car brand Mercedes-Benz--announces a $36 billion merger with the United States-based
Chrysler Corporation. The purchase of Chrysler, America´s third-largest car company, by the Stuttgart-based Daimler-Benz marked the biggest acquisition by a foreign buyer of any U.S. company in
history. Though marketed to investors as an equal pairing, it soon emerged that Daimler would be the dominant partner, with its stockholders owning the majority of the new company´s shares. After a
near-collapse and a government bailout in 1979 that saved it from bankruptcy, the company surged back in the 1980s under the leadership of the former Ford executive Lee Iacocca, in a revival spurred
in part by the tremendous success of its trendsetting minivan.
“Speed Racer” movie is released
“Speed Racer”, the big-budget live-action film version of the 1960s Japanese comic book and television series “MachGoGoGo”, makes its debut in U.S. movie theaters.
Warner Brothers, the studio behind “Speed Racer”, brought on Larry and Andy Wachowski, the brothers who created the blockbuster science-fiction hit “The Matrix” and its two sequels, to write and
direct the long-awaited movie. Emile Hirsch starred in the title role of Speed, an 18-year-old driver whose family´s business is building race cars. Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and
Matthew Fox co-starred in “Speed Racer” alongside Hirsch. Another key cast member was not an actor but an automobile: the mighty Mach 5, a race car designed and built by Speed´s father, Pops Racer.
As in the American version of the comic, the sleek Mach 5 used in the film is white with red accents, bears similarities to an early Ferrari Testarossa and is outfitted with an array of special
Transcontinental railroad completed
In 1869, the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads meet in Promontory, Utah, and drive a ceremonial last spike into a rail line that connects
their railroads. This made transcontinental railroad travel possible for the first time in U.S. history. No longer would western-bound travelers need to take the long and dangerous journey by wagon
train. One year into the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act (1862), guaranteeing public land grants and loans to the two railroads it chose to build the
transcontinental line, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. With these in hand, the railroads began work in 1866 from Omaha and Sacramento, forging a northern route across the country. For all
the adversity they suffered, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific workers were able to finish the railroad--laying nearly 2,000 miles of track--by 1869, ahead of schedule and under budget. Journeys
that had taken months by wagon train or weeks by boat now took only days.
B.F. Goodrich develops the tubeless tire
1947, the B.F. Goodrich Company of Akron, Ohio, announces it had developed a tubeless tire, a technological innovation that would make automobiles safer and more
efficient. Pneumatic tires--or tires filled with pressurized air--were used on motor vehicles beginning in the late 1800s, when the French rubber manufacturer Michelin & Cie became the first
company to develop them. The culmination of more than three years of engineering, Goodrich´s tubeless tire effectively eliminated the inner tube, trapping the pressurized air within the tire walls
themselves. While Goodrich awaited approval from the U.S. Patent Office, the tubeless tires underwent high-speed road testing, were put in service on a fleet of taxis and were used by Ohio state
police cars and a number of privately owned passenger cars. The testing proved successful, and in 1952, Goodrich won patents for the tire´s various features. Within three years, the tubeless tire
came standard on most new automobiles.
Seventeen states put gasoline rationing into
In 1942, gasoline rationing began in 17 Eastern states as an attempt to help the American war effort during World War II. By the end of the year, President Franklin D.
Roosevelt had ensured that mandatory gasoline rationing was in effect in all 50 states. Rubber was the first commodity to be rationed, after the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies cut off the
U.S. supply; the shortage of rubber affected the availability of products such as tires. Rationing gasoline, it was reasoned, would conserve rubber by reducing the number of miles Americans drove.
Ration stamps for gasoline were issued by local boards and pasted to the windshield of a family or individual´s automobile. The type of stamp determined the gasoline allotment for that automobile.
Black stamps, for example, signified non-essential travel and mandated no more than three gallons per week, while red stamps were for workers who needed more gas, including policemen and mail
carriers. In a separate attempt to reduce gas consumption, the government passed a mandatory wartime speed limit of 35 mph, known as the “Victory Speed”.
Toyota announces plans for hybrid Camry
Toyota Motor Company announced its plans to produce a gasoline-electric hybrid version of its bestselling Camry sedan. Built at the company´s Georgetown, Kentucky,
plant, the Camry became Toyota´s first hybrid model to be manufactured in the United States. Toyota introduced the Camry--the name is a phonetic transcription of the Japanese word for “crown”--in the
Japanese market in 1980; it began selling in the United States the following year. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the success of the Camry and its Japanese competitor, the Honda Accord, had
allowed Toyota and Honda to seize control of the midsize sedan market in the United States. By then, Toyota had adapted the Camry more to American tastes, increasing its size and replacing its
original boxy design with a smoother, more rounded style.
Lotus makes Formula One debut
In Monaco, France, Team Lotus makes its Formula One debut in the Monaco Grand Prix, the opening event of the year´s European racing season. Over the next four decades,
Team Lotus would go on to become one of the most successful teams in Formula One history. Team Lotus was the motor sport wing of the Lotus Engineering Company, founded six years earlier by the
British engineer and race car driver Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman. Chapman built his first car, a modified 1930 Austin Seven, while still a university student. His success building trial cars led to
the completion of the first Lotus production model, the Mark 6, in 1952; 100 were produced by 1955, establishing Chapman´s reputation as a innovator in the design of top-performing race
Smart introduces its microcar
Los Angeles, California, is the first stop on a cross-country road show launched on this day in 2007 by Smart USA to promote the attractions of its “ForTwo” microcar,
which it had scheduled for release in the United States in 2008. In the early 1990s, Nicholas Hayek of Swatch, the company famous for its wide range of colorful and trendy plastic watches, went to
German automaker Mercedes-Benz with his idea for an “ultra-urban” car. The result of their joint venture was the diminutive Smart (an acronym for Swatch Mercedes ART) ForTwo, which debuted at the
Frankfurt Motor Show in 1997 and went on sale in nine European countries over the next year. Measuring just over eight feet from bumper to bumper, the original ForTwo was marketed as a safe,
fuel-efficient car that could be maneuvered easily through narrow, crowded city streets. Despite its popularity among urban Europeans, Smart posted significant losses, and Swatch soon pulled out of
the joint venture.
Connecticut enacts first speed-limit law
On this day in 1901, Connecticut becomes the first state to pass a law regulating motor vehicles, limiting their speed to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads.
The path to Connecticut´s 1901 speed limit legislation began when Representative Robert Woodruff submitted a bill to the State General Assembly proposing a motor-vehicles speed limit of 8 mph within
city limits and 12 mph outside. The law passed in May 1901 specified higher speed limits but required drivers to slow down upon approaching or passing horse-drawn vehicles, and come to a complete
stop if necessary to avoid scaring the animals. On the heels of this landmark legislation, New York City introduced the world´s first comprehensive traffic code in 1903. As late as 1930, a dozen
states had no speed limit, while 28 states did not even require a driver´s license to operate a motor vehicle.
Last day of Model T production at Ford
Henry Ford and his son Edsel drive the 15 millionth Model T Ford out of their factory, marking the famous automobile´s official last day of production. More than any
other vehicle, the relatively affordable and efficient Model T was responsible for accelerating the automobile´s introduction into American society. Introduced in October 1908, the Model T--also
known as the “Tin Lizzie”-- weighed some 1,200 pounds, with a 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. It got about 13 to 21 miles per gallon of gasoline and could travel up to 45 mph. Initially selling
for around $850 (around $20,000 in today´s dollars), the Model T would later sell for as little as $260 (around $6,000 today) for the basic no-extras model. After production officially ended the
following day, Ford factories shut down in early June, and some 60,000 workers were laid off. The company sold fewer than 500,000 cars in 1927, less than half of Chevrolet´s sales.
Volkswagen is founded
The government of Germany--then under the control of Adolf Hitler of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party--forms a new state-owned automobile company, then known as
Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH. Later that year, it was renamed simply Volkswagenwerk, or “The People´s Car Company.” Originally operated by the German Labor Front, a
Nazi organization, Volkswagen was headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany. In addition to his ambitious campaign to build a network of autobahns and limited access highways across Germany, Hitler´s pet
project was the development and mass production of an affordable yet still speedy vehicle that could sell for less than 1,000 Reich marks (about $140 at the time). To provide the design for this
“people´s car,” Hitler called in the Austrian automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche. Volkswagen sales in the United States were initially slower than in other parts of the world, due to the car´s
historic Nazi connections as well as its small size and unusual rounded shape. Twelve years later, the Beetle surpassed the longstanding worldwide production record of 15 million vehicles, set by
Ford Motor Company´s legendary Model T between 1908 and 1927.
First Indianapolis 500 was held
In 1911, Ray Harroun drives his single-seater Marmon Wasp to victory in the inaugural Indianapolis 500, now one of the world´s most famous motor racing competitions. The
Indiana automobile dealer Carl Fisher first proposed building a private auto testing facility in 1906, in order to address car manufacturers´ inability to test potential top speeds of new cars due to
the poorly developed state of the public roadways. The result was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, built on 328 acres of farmland five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis. On May 30, 1911, 40
cars lined up at the starting line for the first Indy 500. A multi-car accident occurred 13 laps into the race, and the ensuing chaos temporarily disrupted scoring, throwing the finish into dispute
when the eventual runner-up, Ralph Mulford, argued that he was the rightful winner. It was Ray Harroun, however, who took home the $14,250 purse, clocking an average speed of 74.59 mph and a total
time of 6 hours and 42 minutes. The Wasp was the first car with a rear-view mirror, which Harroun had installed in order to compensate for not having a mechanic in the seat next to him to warn of
other cars passing. The best cars were equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes and inline 3.0-liter V-8 engines made of aluminum.
Ford signs agreement with Soviet Union
Ford Motor Company signs a landmark agreement to produce cars in the Soviet Union on this day in
1929. The Soviet Union, which in 1928 had only 20,000 cars and a single truck factory, was eager to join the ranks of automotive production, and Ford, with its focus on engineering and manufacturing
methods, was a natural choice to help. The always independent-minded Henry Ford was strongly in favor of his free-market company doing business with Communist countries. Signed in Dearborn, Michigan,
on May 31, 1929, the contract stipulated that Ford would oversee construction of a production plant at Nizhni Novgorod, located on the banks of the Volga River, to manufacture Model A cars. An
assembly plant would also start operating immediately within Moscow city limits. In return, the USSR agreed to buy 72,000 unassembled Ford cars and trucks and all spare parts to be required over the
following nine years, a total of some $30 million worth of Ford products.
*Historical Data Provided by History.com