Archive Gallery: PopSci Witnesses The Early Days of the Automobile

PopSci's earliest coverage of Model T's, sleazy car salesmen, and the must-have automobile accessories of the 1920s

Before Ford’s Model T entered mass production, cars were largely a novelty, a curio for those privileged enough to afford them. They sputtered odorous gases, crawled at speeds barely faster than a horse’s gallop, and stirred up so much dust that you’d need to wash up after disembarking. Pretty cool!

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Once cars became affordable, we jumped on the opportunity to help our readers make the best financial choices. Thanks to the rivalry between Henry Ford and W.C. Durant, car prices had been lowered from around $1000 to just over $250. Even better (or so it seemed), people could buy cars second hand for as low as $75 — far cheaper than a phonograph, even. Not wanting our readers to get into car accidents, or to spend thousands of dollars on repairs, we dissected cars and took their inner workings to our pages. How do you tell the difference between a 1913 Ford and a 1917 Ford? Check the engine number and call an agency. How do you know you’re being ripped off? Check the gears to see if the seller has concealed their flaws with cork and grease.

Despite accidents, con men, and business feuds, owning a car was fun. We showed readers how to stuff tents and awnings into their cars for greater comfort. Car parts don’t last forever, so we held a contest for ideas on what to do with an old tire. People suggested everything from converting it to a baby walker to turning it into a hose.

Click through our gallery of Popular Science’s early coverage of automobiles.

Buying a Used Car: October 1917

As it turns out, slimy used car salesmen have been conning people for the past 100 years. The difference is that since automobiles were still a fairly new commodity at the time, the most second-hand car customers were even more clueless about mechanics than today’s average person. In this article, published just a three years after Henry Ford began mass-producing his Model Ts, we taught readers how to spot hidden flaws in used cars. For instance, if you wanted to confirm that the 1917 Ford you were buying was actually from 1917, and not the 1913 edition in disguise, you could telephone the nearest Ford agency and ask them to check the date of sale against the engine number. That way, you could also confirm that the seller himself didn’t buy the car second-hand while claiming that it is new. Other tips: check your gears for heavy oil and ground cork installed to hide parts. If you’re considering a second-hand Ford, buy it from a reputable agency. Unlike other cars, Ford automobiles could use parts from other models. This made it easy for dishonest sellers to install enough parts so that an older car looked brand new. Make sure you aren’t being ripped off — no car made before 1913 is worth more than $100. “Among all liars we take off our steel helmets to the sellers of old cars,” we wrote. Read the full story in “Buying a ‘Used Car'”

Safety First: March 1919

People couldn’t drive as quickly then as they do now, but that doesn’t mean they were much safer from accidents. We posted these pictures, morbid as they are, to serve a warning to motorists who got carried away by the thrill of the open road. If you look at the full spread, you’ll notice that the center image depicts an overloaded moving van that toppled over after taking a sharp turn. The taxi, pictured at the top right, slammed into a tree after the driver failed to use his chains. Yet another vehicle, pictured next to the word “happen,” was crushed beneath a moving train. Read the full story in “How Automobile Accidents Happen'”

Automobile Accessories Galore: February 1920

“There’s always something new in accessories for the motorist,” we proclaimed. Among them was a speedometer shaft lubricator, which released grease in case the car owner forgot, and small bags that could block hot and cold air from coming in through a Ford’s operating pedals. Some cars even came with a tent that could be packed into an 850-pound trailer. Still others were equipped with curtain attachments, snowplows, and adjustable awning frames. Read the full story in “There’s Always Something New in Accessories For the Motorist”

The Cars You’ll Want This Year: May 1920

If you were a car owner during the spring of 1920, you probably would have lusted over these cars. “Stop and admire the luxurious smartness of these automobile bodies,” we wrote. “Wouldn’t you be proud to own one?” Roadsters with enclosed bodies, and two-door sedans, were among the trendier models. We were also impressed by actress Clara Kimball Young, who owned a specially-built convertible with ninety horsepower. Read the full story in “Very Latest Fashions in Automobile Bodies”

Gadgets and Gizmos: April 1921

The automobile had only recently gone into mass production, but people were already producing a slew of accessories for the auto enthusiast. The hooded cap you see pictured left protects your face from dust, while the electric heater on the top right would keep the engine and radiator warm during winter. On the bottom right, a one-armed man enjoys the thrills of driving, thanks to a novel steering wheel that lets him maneuver it with a prosthesis. Other must-have items included sliding drawers beneath the front seat (for storing tools), and tires with suctioned surfaces to prevent skidding. Read the full story in “New Accessories for the Owner of Motor-Truck or Automobile”

The $150 Car: January 1923

The rivalry between Henry Ford and William Crapo Durant, founder of General Motors and Chevrolet, began at the turn of the century, where the two men competed for dominance in the automobile industry. Although both men expected cars to become a mass-market item, Ford insisted on producing only his basic Model T (“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”), while Durant persisted in developing a range of automobiles catering to various markets. By the time 1923 rolled around, Durant had founded a new company, Durant Motors, which continued producing cars targeted toward various incomes and tastes. His cheapest car was the “Star,” on the right, which had a price tag rivaling that of the Model T. In response to the threat of competition, Ford slashed the price of his car by $50, making it cheaper than many phonographs and radio sets. The Model T now cost $269, far below its original price of $1000 back in 1909. Durant predicted that prices would continue dropping while the government erected highways. The improvement of road conditions would allow manufacturers to build lighter cars and engines (less material equals less money, apparently). Once a car’s weight went down, its price would follow suit. Read the full story in “New Accessories for the Owner of Motor-Truck or Automobile”

What to Do With an Old Automobile Tire: June 1919

In 1919, we ran a contest asking readers for ideas for using discarded automobiles tires, and to no one’s surprise, they delivered. An old tire could be used as a makeshift basketball hoop. Trim it to the proper size, and it could become a tree guard. Scrub it down, add spokes and tiny wheels, and you’ve got a baby walking chair. With four tires and two tackle-blocks, you could build a sling to support incapacitated animals. Right a tire to the ceiling and you’ve got a punching bag frame! Read the full story in “What You Can Do With That Old Automobile Tire”

Future of the Automobile: September 1924

In 1924, we imagined that the cars of 1950 would look a lot like this one. We predicted correctly that most consumers would no longer need stick shift, and that starting an engine would be a matter of inserting a key and pulling a lever, but we were a little optimistic in foreseeing the arrival of electric vehicles in the near future. Instead of using gasoline, drivers would rely on citywide electric power stations, which would charge them a certain fee per month to use electricity while driving. Nor would we drive three-wheeled cars or have our windshields double as ventilators. Read the full story in “Where is the Automobile Going?”

Inside an Auto Factory: January 1927

Given the boom in automobiles, it was only fitting that we publish a feature on how they were made. The Ford Motor Company launched its first factory in 1903 with $28,000 in cash from various investors. As history shows, it experienced great success in making cars a mass commodity, and it was also one of the more notable companies to survive the Great Depression. Read the full story in “Automobile Magic — How Your Car is Built”

From “Devil Wagons” to Cadillacs: September 1929

Driving a car didn’t always mean cruising the streets in a fancy Oldsmobile or Model T. At one point, it meant driving “a measly little, noisy little two-passenger one-lung runabout with a turned-up nose.” RogerB. Whitman, a former technical director of the New York School of Auto Engineering, reminisced with us on the automobile’s crude beginnings. “Many a time have I scorched along in one of those bouncing little contraptions at the breakneck speed of twelve or fifteen miles an hour,” he said. They were noise and stirred up so much dust that you’d immediately need a bath after taking the car out for a spin (keep in mind that even a $650 Oldsmobile didn’t come with a windshield). Read the full story in “Scorching in My Horseless Carriage”