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Early motorists had to detour around naysayers

Published January 22. 2011 09:00AM

Thanks to the Ford Motor Company's Model T which was introduced in 1908, the automobile was beginning to impact American society in a big way by 1911.

Not only was the Model T simple to drive and easy to repair, but Henry Ford's hope to make the car affordable to the average wage earner was also becoming a reality.

Ford was a big believer in mass marketing strategy. His Detroit public relations department made sure that every newspaper in the nation was supplied with stories and advertisements about the newest advancements in the auto industry.

Local motorclubs sprang up giving the industry more exposure and thus, free advertising. Autoists toured the countryside, much like the motorcycle clubs of today take to the road for weekend rides.

Despite Ford's astonishing success rate - some of the early sales years saw 100-percent gains over the previous year - the automobile industry had its naysayers and detractors. In one of its last editions of 1910, the Tamaqua Courier ran an article about motorists dying because of breathing the noxious fumes, which we know today as carbon monoxide poisoning.

"A curious explanation is now given by medical authorities of the sudden death of automobile drivers and air men which have hitherto been unexplained," the article stated. "Doctors do not accept sudden heart failure as a sufficient explanation. The real cause is given as carbonic acid gas poisoning due to the pressure on the mouth, resulting from driving fast through the air and the consequent inability to expel the poisoned air which has been breathed."

It went on to say that the "direct poisoning" might not be detected the first time a motorist drives fast, but that it can take effect in the "process of time" with the gas causing a "kind of narcotic sleep."

He pointed out one warning sign.

"Automobilists who run past their destination without knowing why should beware, for it is a sign that the disease is getting hold of them," the writer warned.

He also cautioned that the danger was especially great in winter when the air was very cold.

"One cannot inhale such a quantity of air in winter as in summer, for there is a mechanism in the breathing apparatus which prevents too cold air from rushing in and freezing the lungs, " he stated.

To protect from the noxious fumes, he recommended that motorists and airmen wear a mouth guard with a U-shaped tube. The ends of the tube would be open behind the ears and point backward so that the breath with deadly fumes could escape and dissipate. It was suggested that this mouth guard also cover the nose area.

Besides publishing the article about motorists facing the hazard of breathing polluted air, the Courier also questioned the ability of many families to afford the new motorcar, despite Henry Ford's claim to make it affordable to the average wageowner. The automobile's $825 pricetag in 1908 was comparable to a sticker price of $20,100 in today's dollars.

The price of a new auto actually fell every year into the 1920s, but some detractors, including a Courier news journalist, remained unconvinced if its lasting impact on society.

"Have the American people an inordinate love of luxuries and is it true that the nation is suffering not from the high cost of living but from the cost of high living?" a writer asked in an opinion published on Aug 19, 1910.

The writer first stated that the local economic climate was not favorable.

"A goodly portion of our people are poor," he explained. "For every person who is well-to-do you know a score and maybe more who are not."

Reporting that there were about 350,000 automobiles in the country at the time, he wondered how many of the estimated one in 400 automobile owners at the time could actually afford their vehicles.

"What portion of the owners of automobiles are in a financial condition to own machines and pay for their upkeep?" he asked.

He stated that no person should purchase an auto unless he had sufficient funds or had an annual income of at least a $1,000. He said before making such an expenditure, the person considering a new vehicle should make sure the family's needs are met first.

He went on to state that money should not be expended "for a luxury by people who should expend it for the well-being of themselves and their families and in the payment of their debts."

The writer explained that if the wageowner does decide to purchase a new vehicle, that expenditure will negatively impact the local economy.

"The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker will all feel the effect of that unwarranted expenditure," he warned.

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