The answer to this question is complicated, but it’ll make more sense when you know what I’m talking about. When you read the news stories from the 1920s and 1930s, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The media called it a ‘racing riot’ and it was headline news for weeks. In fact, the only thing that came close to rivalling the excitement was the stock market crash of October 1929.
For those of you who don’t know much about auto racing, I’ll give you a brief overview of what happened. The cars would pull up to the starting line, ready to race. The drivers would get out, make their way to the podium and then get back in their cars and take off. When they crossed the starting line, their vehicles would be greeted with deafening roars from the crowd. It was a racing frenzy; the excitement was palpable. After the race, people would mob the cars, slapping on stickers, asking for autographs and giving the drivers a hero’s welcome. In short, this was racing as you’ve never seen it. Big. Huge. Gigantic.
For those of you who were there, you know exactly what I mean. And for those of you who weren’t, let me give you a glimpse of what it was like.
The Glory Days Of American Automobile Racing
Before there was the IndyCar Series or the World Series of Fishing, there was American Automobile Racing. From the early 1900s to the end of World War II, automobile racing was the pinnacle of American motorsport. For those of you who are unfamiliar, auto racing is basically racing cars as quickly as possible around a set of track. As a spectator sport, you would sit down with your family and friends and watch skilled drivers negotiate oodles of speed, with little bullets (the cars in those days) hurtling around the track, occasionally hitting other cars or pedestrians. Naturally, this was exciting stuff.
The sport took a hit when fuel became scarce during World War II. However, it didn’t die, and gradually built itself back up to pre-war levels. By the 1960s, competition driving had become so popular that major auto racing series were established. Today, the IndyCar Series and the World Series of Fishing are the two biggies. But, back in the day, there were a slew of racing series that you might have heard of, such as the Can-Am Series, the Safari Rally and countless others.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, racing was professional, organized and – dare I say – somewhat respectable. Drivers were considered heroes and it wasn’t uncommon for fans to follow the cars around the track, screaming, ‘Go, go, go!’ The image of a large crowd gathered around a racetrack to watch an automobile race is, to this day, iconic and somewhat recognizable.
Spurting Steam, Snarling Engines And Loud, Thumping Drums
One of the things that make the 1920s and ‘30s so notable is the sheer volume of motorsport stories that were covered in the media. This was, in part, due to the ‘racing riots’ that I mentioned earlier. But it was also the result of a few things that made the twenties and ‘30s such an extraordinary time for auto racing. For one, there was a large influx of new drivers. Women were, for the first time in motorsport history, taking the driver’s seat and competing against men. For another, mechanical technology was advancing as rapidly as human technology, allowing for more elaborate and complex vehicles. Finally, gasoline was, for the most part, available and affordable – even the most affluent families could afford to drive their own cars. It was a golden era for American motorsport.
What made the years immediately following World War II even more special is that with the end of the war, most of the world’s wealthiest and most gifted athletes decided to get behind the wheel. In 1945, sports cars were so rare that making one was considered a rare feat. As a result, there were fewer restrictions on the types of cars that could be driven, leading to a deluge of innovative and exciting vehicles. In today’s world of Formula One, hypercars and hybrids, it’s hard to believe that cars back then just looked like this:
The above photo shows a typical example of a car from this time. While the design looks rather simple (in a ‘50s sci-fi sort of way), it’s actually fairly complex. The two-story brick factory was, in fact, the headquarters of the Miller Brewing Company – the largest brewery in America back then. The building was built in 1914 and, at the time, was the largest brewery headquarters in the world. Naturally, they wanted to keep up with the latest fashions, so they commissioned a local carpenter to build them three fully equipped spartan mansions, one for each of their executives (hence the nickname ‘Brickies’). These were just some of the cars that were produced in this timeframe.
What happened around the same time that the brewery was expanding is that the American auto industry was also experiencing a golden era. From the late ‘40s to the early ‘70s, American automakers produced outstanding vehicles. Many were inspired by the car designs produced by the Germans during World War II. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at how the industry evolved, from the early 1900s to the end of World War II.
It would be a mistake, though, to assume that cars during this time only looked like the ones in the above photo. Back in the early 20th century, car manufacturers had to invent ways to make their cars distinctively American. It wasn’t enough to have a pretty face – the models of the day needed to have some sort of visual flair, in order to stand out.
If you compare the above photo to this one, you’ll notice a clear difference. The former shows a time when cars were still pretty much anonymous, while the latter depicts a time when cars were becoming more personal, with manufacturers trying to give each one a unique identity. This is evident in the variety of cars that are featured in the above photo – it’s almost as if they were all styled by a mad, artistic collective, with no two being the same.
It’s also important to note that, while the design of the cars might have changed, the basic framework of the car stayed the same. Design-wise, the above photo typifies the so-called ‘fish-tail lamps’, ‘flying-wing’ cars and the ‘streamlining’ trend that was so prominent in the ‘20s. These were all designed to make the cars go faster. It wasn’t just a styling trend – in fact, regulations changed around this time, limiting the ability of car manufacturers to tinker with their vehicles, in order to make them go faster. For example, in 1915, cars were allowed to be wider, longer and taller, but due to safety concerns (more on that later), these measurements had to be the same, otherwise it wasn’t approved. In other words, the basic architecture of the car hadn’t changed, but the way it was used and the ways in which it was styled had.
Standardized Safety Standards
While safety standards for cars have mostly stayed the same since the early 1900s, there were still a few major differences that you needed to know about. For one, the weight limit for cars drastically increased. Before the war, cars didn’t have to be weighed, so it wasn’t unusual for someone to drive a car that was far more than it’s rated capacity. For another, cars were much less safe. Air bags, seat belts and other passive safety devices didn’t exist in the early 1900s. Even more amazing is that in some cases, cars were actually less safe back then. For example, in 1910, a 25-piece outfit of American cars (the Standard Motor Car Company) was tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the results were rather surprising…
After three months of rigorous testing, which consisted of 1,920 miles of driving, the cars were found to be lacking in several crucial areas. For starters, they weren’t equipped with shock absorbers, making them very jiggly and shakey on the road. In addition, some of the cars failed to reach certain speeds (a few even came to a complete halt), lacked over-run protection (which could cause gearbox failures) and were found to be dangerously unbalanced. Overall, the cars were determined to be a danger to drivers and passengers, despite their many positive qualities.