National Geographic : 1983 Jul
a car and company that bore his name. A believer in corporate immensity, Wil liam C. Durant gathered several companies together to form General Motors. He lost control of it not once but twice, but the giant he created remains the largest manufactur ing corporation in the world. Since the dawn of the auto age, some 2,000 companies have conjured nearly 5,000 makes of cars in the United States. Long gone are the Zip, the Buzmobile, the O-We-Go, and the 1914 Hazard. Few more than a dozen cars continue to be produced in volume by the big three-Gen eral Motors, Ford, and Chrysler-plus the smaller American Motors. Their models have grown powerful, quiet, comfortable, and complicated. But unlike powered flight, which boasts advancements that in clude different power plants, automatic pi lot, and tenfold increases in speed, the theory of auto operation has changed little over three-quarters of a century. "The basic technology was set in the 19th century," auto restorer Tom Batchelor told me in Reno, Nevada. We were surrounded by nearly a thousand vintage American made cars in showroom condition at Har rah's Automobile Collection. Most car engines still run on the four stroke design developed by Nikolas Otto in 1876, Batchelor explained. Manual-shift transmissions are still changed by engaging different-size gears on a shaft. Refinements? The 1903 Thomas had a tilt steering wheel. The turbocharger was being used as early as 1911. In half a day at Harrah's I rode through nearly half a century of motoring history. Batchelor first rolled out a green 1904 Knox with a two-cylinder air-cooled engine and a boatlike tiller that steered like Columbus's Nina. A 1911 Pope-Hartford followed, with such luxuries as a steering wheel and the rel ative smoothness of four cylinders. A plain black 1915 Dodge reflected, like the Model Slow-paced precision is a matter of pride at Rolls-Royce Motors, which spurns most mass productiontechniques in favor of hands-on craftsmanship,turning out 3,000 cars a year. A specialist (left) checks the fit of a quarterpanel for a PhantomVI at the firm's London plant, where a made-to-orderRolls can take as long as six months. Duringthe same period, Nissan's giant Zama plant near Tokyo turns out 230,000 Sentras and Silvia/Gazelleswith the help of robot welders (above). Only 3 percent of the work force at the body-assembly shop is human.