The dawn of America’s automobile obsession.
AT The ouTseT of the 20th century, the automobile had its share of doubters, people who thought “the auto was a rich man’s toy, of which he might soon tire.” Some estimates from the time had suggested that no one earning less than $10,000 a year—some $120,000 in current terms—would buy one. And in 1920, only about 150,000 American families made that much.
Yet more than 9 million motor vehicles were registered in America that year, a 1,900%-plus increase in a decade—cars from Ford and Chevrolet, Buick and Dodge, Studebaker and Willys-Overland. With those soaring numbers in mind, Forbes asked, “Is the automobile industry nearing the saturation point?”—and answered its question with a resounding no. “The desire for a car is almost universal . . . . Some men want a wife, a house, a boat or a dog . . . but practically every man (and woman) wants to own a motor car.” Less than three years later, U.S. roads were being plied by more than 15 million cars, buses and trucks. There were 50 million by the early 1950s, and 100 million by the late ’60s. Today’s American fleet: more than 260 million.