Garages Then and Now

Long before the automobile there were garage-like structures known as barns.  Instead of service stations there were blacksmith shops.  The transportation choices were horses, carriages, and your feet.

It was important to protect and maintain your transportation and for some time if you owned it you could fix it.  Some specialty work such as wheel repair and manufacture, harness making, and the proverbial buggy whip company existed to service these modes of transportation.

The wealthy could afford a carriage house and people devoted to the care and feeding chores.  Everyone else had to learn to care for themselves. 

Before the automobile came to be there was the bicycle.  The Wright brothers had a bicycle shop.  Many blacksmith shops evolved to service and supply bicycles.  My own family’s ancestors did just that. 

The bicycle did not require a barn to store. Perhaps a porch or a shed out back was all that was needed to protect it from weather.  But it was certainly more complex than any existing transportation device so the bicycle shop became a necessity.

When a gasoline engine that was small enough to be attached to a carriage was developed, and combined with the sprockets and chains borrowed from the bicycle technology the automobile was born.  Truly a “horseless carriage”.  The concept of motor powered transportation vehicles was so compelling that it spawned more than a hundred companies that designed and manufactured automobiles in the US.

It took a visionary like Henry Ford to comoditize car and make it affordable to the blue collar worker and the farmer.  Right along with this was the necessary infrastructure to supply the essential gasoline and service. 

Gasoline sold for five cents a gallon.  Your average wage was twenty-two cents and hour.  Three cents of it was tax.  I don’t know what they did with the tax income, because they certainly didn’t build many roads.  In 1905 there were only 144 miles of paved road for 8000 cars.  The speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.  The blacksmith shop that had transformed into a bicycle shop became a service station.

When you pulled up for fuel there was no self service.  For your five cents a gallon someone pumped your gasoline, checked your oil and water (antifreeze), and made sure there was air in your tires.  With practically no paved roads and bicycle tire technology you were lucky to get a few hundred miles out of your tires.  There was no detergent lubricating oil for the crankcase so every few thousand miles it would be torn down and all the sludge was scraped off.  In many the main bearings were formed by hand by the mechanic.

You probably didn’t have to worry about flushing or bleeding the brake system because the brakes were mechanical.  You did have to put grease in the suspension cups so that the friction points wouldn’t squeak or wear out prematurely. Don’t worry about your shock absorbers, you didn’t have any.  Battery?  Nope, you didn’t have a starter, only a hand crank that was likely to break your arm if you weren’t careful or lucky.  No seat belts, air bags, or even a rear view mirror. 

All these things came later.  You can than racing for the rear view mirror.  The first race cars would not only have a driver, but a mechanic riding along.  The mechanic’s job was not just to fix something during the race, but to look to the rear and warn the driver of someone trying to pass.  One enterprising driver decided to save the weight of his mechanic and attached a mirror so he could see behind without turning around in his seat.

You can thank racing for many of the nice things about cars today.  The tire technology has gone from bias belted tires to radial and now Michelin has an entirely new technology that completely eliminate pneumatic tires from the roads, the Tweel (http://www.michelinman.com/difference/releases/pressrelease01102005a.html).  Fuel injection, turbo charging, all wheel drive, and thousands of other technology improvement came out of racing cars.

In the post WW II world people were happy to have a house without a thought to a garage for their car.  In those days you had one bathroom and one phone in the house so what did you care about your car.  Most were parked on the street and the only time they needed a garage was when they were being serviced.  In the seventies garages came into style.  In the northern climes they made it easier to deal with during snow season.  Still a one car garage was about it. 

Then came the eighties where the consequences of the prosperity of past WW II was combined with the material expectations of the baby boomers.  Two car garages were a status symbol and you not only had multiple bathrooms and telephones in the house you had more than one color TV.  Oddly enough many of these garages hardly ever saw a car park in them.  They were too convenient to use for general storage and a workshop.  Usually cluttered with bicycles, sports equipment, and some boxes of things that would not be opened before the next move.

Today garages are still being included with the house and most of them are actually part of the house.  They tend to be on the small side, even the two car garages can barely contain an SUV let alone any tools or a bench. 

The service station no longer exists.  It has been replaced with a pump-your-own convenience store.  No one checks your oil or cleans your windshield.  You can pay close to three dollars a gallon for fuel and some times of year even more.  You car has become far more complex than Henry Ford could ever had imagined. 

Henry was all about simplification.  When he had his engineers working on a successor to his model T he challenged his engineers to design a carburetor that would not need four bolts to mount it to the manifold.  The engineer proudly designed a solution using only two bolts, half of the original design.  Henry sent him back to the design board saying he wanted it done with one bolt.

Today the personalization of cars has spurred an aftermarket industry of over $35 billion.  This means a lot more garages are being used for what they were meant to be – a place to care for the automobile.  It has also created a growing number of custom shops that don’t just service cars.  These shops provide frame-off restorations as well as installation and tuning of the products of the aftermarket performance industry.

Take a look at your own garage and imagine what it could be.  A safe haven from the weather and a place to tune and care for the most technological piece of transportation the public has ever had the privilege to own.

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