Basic Transportation is usually defined in the United States as an inexpensive automobile, without a lot of accessories,trim, or style. In many rural areas of the United States the vehicle of choice for basic transportation is not a car but a pickup truck. In many European and Asian countries, an automobile that would be considered as basic transportation in the United States would be considered a luxury. In most European countries, despite excellent railroad, subway, and other public transportation systems, their roads in recent decades have become nearly as clogged as American roads as Europeans have sought to keep up with their American counterparts. In asian countries, depending how far the country is along the development ladder, basic transportation mostly means bicycles, motorscooters, and small motorcycles. In the more crowded parts of the world, these two wheeled conveyances are often the vehicle of choice, even among people who could come up with the cash to buy an automobile. In many of these places, there is little or no parking available in urban areas, and the small two wheeled vehicles can more easily maneuver the chaotic streets crowded with everything from trucks, to rickshaws, and oxcarts. This principle also applies in crowded urban areas in the United States and Europe as well, such as Manhattan and London

A Brief, Basic History of Basic Transportation in the United States

In America's distant past, Basic Transportation meant a good pair of shoes and a strong pair of legs. A major advance in basic transportation came with the domestication of the horse a few thousand years ago, and this was pretty much the story until about 175 years ago, when engineers figured out how to make a coal fired steam engine powerful and compact enough to move itself and a useful load behind it on a pair of iron rails. Thus, the railroad was born, and it spread rapidly over the lands of North America and Europe by the end of the Nineteenth Century. While the railroad was a great advance in transportation, and paved the way for more advanced industrial and commercial development, it had a couple of drawbacks for the average working stiff that wanted to travel further than his legs or his horse could carry him. First and foremost, there is a small matter of cost, a train ticket in the nineteenth century cost many times more in terms of hours worked than a plane ticket to the same place costs today. The railroads were often monopolies and charged accordingly. Another small matter was the fact that you were limited by the trains schedule and where the rails went. Many of limited means still chose to walk.

Early development of private vehicles

Development of private self propelled vehicles traces its roots to a contraption cobbled together by a frenchman named Cougneot, who around the year 1769, put a primitive steam engine on a wagon chassis, and a means of transferring that power to the wheels. It was the first known attempt at building an automobile, but it only travelled a few feet before turning over and burning. Over the next century, a few more feeble attempts were made at building a self-propelled road vehicle, but the relative safety of the horse, and the growing capabilities of the railroad relegated the automobile to the realm of a few tinkerers. This all changed when the German engineer Nicolas Van Otto invented the 4 cycle gasoline engine around 1880, give or take a few years. By the turn of the century, Otto's invention was refined to the point that a man of means could purchase a fine horseless carriage outfitted with a tiller steering mechanism and a gasoline engine powerful enough to move the carriage along at speeds exceeding that of a horse at full gallop. These early automobiles were expensive, cranky, smelly, and noisy, but were built by literally hundreds of companies.

Henry Ford and the Model T

One of these companies was a small operation in Michigan owned by Henry Ford. The small factory that Henry Ford owned produced a few unremarkable models in the early years of the 20th century, but Henry Ford was persistent, and also a good student of engineering and mass production methods. In particular, he studied the operations in the Meatpacking industry, and used many of the things he learned there to build the first automobile assembly line. By streamlining operations, standardizing parts, and ruthlessly enforcing production standards, he built a small, simple, but tough little car called a Model T. He sold it for less than half of what other comparable cars cost, and made enough money to build the enormous Rouge Assembly Plant. By the early 1920's, he dropped the price as low as $300. In terms of the wages of the time, a Model T was cheaper than a cheap Hyundai is today. He sold millions of the little Model T before ending production in 1927.

Other Companies get in the Act

The Model T became the first automobile to be considered Basic Transportation, but it wasn't alone for long. Maxwell became the forerunner of Chrysler Corporation and produced a line of advanced and well-engineered cars for their time, and Chevrolet became the nucleus around which the the collosal General Motors coalesced. A dozen or so other companies built cars in some numbers as well, including luxury makes such as Packard, and more pedestrian cars such as Nash and Studebaker. In Germany, Adolph Hiltler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to build a "people's car" for the masses to drive down his new Autobahn. The results of Porsche's efforts became known as the Volkswagen.

The Great Depression: Americans forge a bond with their cars

As the Great Depression descended over the world like a heavy blanket of snow as it paralysed economies worldwide, the the Model T's, Chevies, and Dodges became a lifeboat for many Americans displaced by the economic chaos of the time. John Steinbeck told the story of these wandering souls, who lost their houses and farms but hung onto their cars when times got tough. A car could take one to a more prosperous town, a house couldn't. In a pinch, one could live in his car, one could not travel in his house. During the hard times of the 1930's, a bond was forged between Americans and their cars unlike anywhere else in the world. On the other side of the world, the cold biting winds of the Great Depression fanned the flames of hatred and war, and the factories that put America on wheels in the 1920's were converted to produce tanks, jeeps, and planes in the early 1940's.

The Postwar Years: Basic Transportation takes a vacation

After the war, Americans were eager to replace their depression and war worn mechanical steeds with bright stylish and shiny new models. Basic transportation was out, and power, chrome, and syle was in, as practical no frills designs of the 30's up through the war years gave way to tailfins, lots of chrome, more and more powerful engines, and bright colors if you had the means. If your means were limited, you drove someone else's rusting former status symbol. At the same time, returning servicemen and their wives were making babies in record numbers. Both these trends continued until the early sixties, when the first of the baby boomers turned sixteen in 1962.

The Volkswagen comes to America

Around this time, Germany's industry had recovered from the war enough by the early 1960's to start exporting Hitler's brainchild the Volkswagen in large numbers to America. At the same time many of the newly minted teenage drivers were looking for a car that was cheap to buy, easy to maintain, and also did not have the stigma of being like their parent's car. Enter the Volkswagen, a small, cheap, homely, but tough little car that needed little more than a socket set, a pair of pliers, and a handful of screwdrivers to repair anything up to an engine overhaul. The fact that the heater didn't work worth a damn, it was badly underpowered, and traced its roots to Adolph Hitler didn't matter. It took Detroit almost 2 more decades to build a decent small car. Chrysler used a Volkswagen engine in their first subcompact car, the Plymouth Horizon.

The 1970's: Energy Crisies, Japanese Imports, and the Chevy Vega

At the end of the 1960's, the Volkswagen was still synonomous with basic transportation. Detroit responded to the Volkswagen with the likes of the Dodge Dart, the Plymouth Valiant, and the Chevy Nova. These cars were called "Compacts" by the big 3 in Detroit, but in general they were drab knockoffs of their bigger relatives. Sporting mostly anemic inline 6 cylinder engines and somewhat smaller bodies than the big standards of the day such as the Chevy Impala, they had only slightly better gas mileage than the Impala, and nearly as bad acceleration as a Volkswagen. Detroit seemed to go out of their way to make the cars seem even cheaper by their selection of ugly fabrics, drab colors, and lack of soundproofing. Despite their casually engineered feel, they were popular as second cars, since suburban housewives found that it was impossible to do their daily shopping and childcare duties without a car. Many women were also entering the workplace as well. At the turn of the 1970's, gas was still cheap, but the market for subcompacts could not be ignored. GM introduced the Chevy Vega, and lookalikes for its Pontiac, Buick, and Oldsmobile divisions, and Ford introduced the Pinto, and its brother the Mercury Bobcat. Unlike their slightly larger compact cousins of the 1960's, the Pinto and Vega were lightweight and fairly fuel efficient, and like the compacts of the 60's, they tended to be shoddily built, and were decorated with cheesy trim and uppolstery. Despite this, they hit their target demographic, and sold well.

Both the Pinto and the Vega suffered from the quality woes common in American cars of the time but with a special twist: both cars suffered from uncontrolled oxidation. Under normal circumstances, the Chevy Vega would develop serious rust holes within a couple of years, and its aluminum radiator would clog with oxidation in about the same time. While the first problem was primarily cosmetic, the second problem resulted in the engine self-destructing when the clogged radiator made the engine overheat. The Vega was replaced in 1976 with the Chevette, a car that was fairly sound mechanically, but about as sexy as a clothes dryer in a laundromat. Mechanically, the Ford Pinto tended to fare a bit better than the Vega under normal circumstances, but would undergo massive and rapid oxidation of its fuel load if it was hit from the rear at anything over walking speed. The massive and rapid oxidation of its fuel load when hit would also result in massive and rapid oxidation of the rest of the car, and sometimes the passengers as well.

By the time the first Arab oil embargo hit in 1973, the reputations of both cars were permanantly soiled. As the oil spigots were shut down, the trickle of small fuel efficent cars from another World War 2 adversary Japan became a steady stream then a torrent as the gas lines got longer in 1974. The new Japanese invaders, with names such as Datsun, Honda, and Toyota gained respect quickly for not only being fuel-efficent, but for being dependable as well. While dead Vegas were being stacked like cordwood in the junkyard, the well-built little Toyotas and Datsuns were often going as far as 200,000 miles or more before being sent to the crushers, while Vegas were frequently making the trip to the crusher after as little as 30 or 40 thousand miles. Despite their problems with rust, they developed a loyal following among college students, long distance commuters, and other road warriors, and won converts from the legions of former Pinto and Vega owners. Even after the oil spigots were turned back on, the Japanese imports still sold well, and when the spigots were turned off again in 1979, the improved Japanese models became the first choice not only for college students and the like, but people who brought American cars as well. During the tough economic times of the late 70's and early 80's, having a fuel-efficient and dependable car was a major asset.

Front Wheel Drive

A major change that occured in car design during the late 70's and early 80's was the introduction of front wheel drive on a widespread basis. Front wheel drive dated back to the early days of the auto industry, and was in limited production on the Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado, both big luxury land yachts. Front wheel drive gave the driver better traction on slippery roads, and opened up room in the passenger compartment. Honda, which up to that time was know mainly for its motorcycles led the way in 1973 with the introduction of the Honda Civic. The first generation Honda Civic sported an 86 inch wheelbase, did not need a Catalytic Converter, was quite peppy, got up to 50 miles per gallon, and the front wheel drive layout provided reasonable passenger room at least for the front seat passengers. In the fuel starved days of 1973 and 1979, it often commanded thousands of dollars over its Sticker Price, often by loading it up with dubious dealer installed options. Other front wheel drives soon followed, such as the Datsun F-10, the VW Rabbit, and Toyota Tercel. The Big 3 automakers of Detroit soon followed in the early 1980's, and by 1985, almost all of the subcompact, compact, and midsize cars were front drive. The only holdouts were trucks, some sports cars, and the big sedans, such as the Impala and Crown Victoria, whose buyers were mostly police departments and senior citizens.

Basic transportation today

Since the 1980's, automobile design has become more evolutionary than revolutionary, and quality of American cars has gotten a lot better than it used to be. The cheaper Japanese models, such as the Honda Civic, Toyota Echo, and offerings by Mazda, Subaru, and others are still good basic transportation models, but in general the Japanese have gone upmarket, after the luxury and near luxury markets with Acura and Lexus, and with ever larger and better equipped "midsize" models such as the Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry. With somewhat of a vacuum in the market for basic transportation, Korean manufacturers Hyundai and Kia, and for a while Yugo out of Yugoslavia (that is, before the civil war destroyed Yugoslavia) offered low-cost alternatives to increasingly expensive Japanese and American cars. After a rocky start, the Hyundai and Kia seem to have found a place in the American market, but the Yugo was so bad it generated more car jokes than the previous champ the Edsel. During the late 90's through 2001 or so, basic dependable cars have been de-emphasized by many manufacturers, as the SUV has become the most profitable type of vehicle for many manufacturers to market, but continuing economic weakness and high gas prices are taking the luster off these huge gas guzzling status symbols.

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