The story of the automobile is, in the grand scheme of history, fairly short — but cars have come a long way since the steam-powered horseless carriages of the early 1800s. What started as a pastime for enthusiasts and the wealthy spread quickly throughout society, unlocking all sorts of new ways and places to travel. Even as modern cars get more and more advanced, vehicles from the past still capture our imagination, conjuring up images of muscle cars, luxury convertibles, and the open road. So hop in your DeLorean and get ready for five facts from the vehicular past.
The Model-T Ford Cost $290
At the end of 2022, the average cost of a new car was a whopping $48,681, a record-setting high. So it might be hard to believe that in the 1920s, when cars were still a relative luxury item, you could get a brand-new Model T Ford for just $290, or right around $5,000 in today’s dollars. These days, that’ll barely get you a 10-year-old Ford Focus.
The price wasn’t always that low; when Model-T runabouts first hit the market around 1908, they cost $825, or roughly $17,000 today. The price was still lower than the average person’s yearly salary, though, and that was by design.
"I will build a car for the great multitude,” Henry Ford said of his design ethos for the Model-T in his 1922 autobiography. He envisioned a car that was convenient and high-quality, but “low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”
In 1912, there were fewer than 10,000 automobile registrations in the United States. By 1927 — the last year of the Model-T — Ford had slashed the price, and automobile registrations had soared to more than 20 million.
The First Practical Gas Car Topped Out at 10 Miles per Hour
Steam-powered “horseless carriages” date back to the 18th century, but the first practical vehicle with an internal combustion engine was designed by engineer Karl Benz in 1885. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen had three wheels and not a lot of oomph; a journalist who drove a replica of one for Car and Driver in 1986 reported that it “gathers speed like a fog bank cresting a hill.” Its one-cylinder, four-stroke engine generated just one horsepower, and at 400 revolutions per minute, it could reach a max speed of 10 miles per hour (unless it was headed downhill). It was not hard for someone on foot to outrun the car.
Nevertheless, the Patent-Motorwagen was the first modern car to actually hit the market, and more than 25 of them were built between 1886 and 1893. Sales quintupled the following year, with more than 136 selling in 1894 alone.