When producing vehicles today, we take it for granted that the body shell will be composed of some form of steel. Rewind to the start of the 20th century, however, and it was not just the design, performance and levels of luxury that were in stark contrast to those of the modern vehicle – even the materials used have come a long way.
Many of the early vehicle body manufacturers had made their names producing body parts for horse-drawn carriages. The companies transferred the skills they had in woodwork across to this new form of transport.
Vehicle bodies were either made entirely of wood or of a metal/wood composite at least until 1914. It was then that the first all-steel vehicle was produced by the American brothers John and Horace Dodge. Starting out as owners of a shop where they not only sold, but built, their own push bikes, the brothers developed a side venture in producing small quantities of parts for pioneering vehicle manufacturers.
This business became so successful that the brothers decided to begin producing vehicles of their own, and the 1914 Dodge was their first model. Priced at $785, it cost $295 more than the ubiquitous Ford Model T that it was pitched up against.
The Dodge, known as Old Betsy, had an engine developed by Horace personally. This was a 3.4-litre, four-cylinder unit capable of delivering 26kW of power, 15kW more than its rival. But the car’s all-steel body was what set it apart.
The all-steel body was both stronger and cheaper than the wooden or composite alternatives, but the main advantage was the time it saved in the painting process.Painting a wooden body would require multiple slow-drying coats to be applied by brush and then rubbed by hand before the next coat’s application. Including the drying process, both composite and wooden versions could take weeks to be completed.
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