Posted August 17, 2017
The list of names of American Automobiles Past is as long as your arm – the inaugural era of U.S. auto manufacturing was a burst of entrepreneurship that included more than 1,800 carmakers, almost all of them defunct today. Brands like Hudson (1909-1954), Packard (1899-1956), Pierce Arrow (1901-1938) and others are the car ghosts of the past – though not completely gone and hardly forgotten.
These iconic brands and many more that helped define the golden age of car travel will be the stars this weekend in one of the country’s biggest classic car shows, the Woodward Dream Cruise, scheduled to roll down Woodward Avenue from suburban Pontiac, Mich., to downtown Detroit. Some 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars are expected. Energy will be there as well – in the fuel, lubrication and rubber need to keep the wheels turning.
Karl Benz, founder of Germany’s legendary Mercedes Benz, first used gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines in commercial automobiles in the late 1800s. The notion of engine-powered personal vehicles didn’t blossom until the early 20th century, driven by the innovations of Henry Ford and Ransom Olds. The two American automotive pioneers found more safety, versatility and distance in petroleum-based fuel engines than in steam- or electric-powered designs.
From Old’s first use of the assembly line in 1901 for his Curved Dash Oldsmobile, to Ford’s history-changing Model-T in 1908, the idea of the family car entered the American psyche. To support a new century on the move, service stations sprouted up across the country. As the number of cars in the United States grew from 8,000 in 1900 to more than 112 million in 2015, so, too, did the number of filling stations – from the first drive-in establishments in 1913 to more than 123,000 in 2016.
Beyond the Fuel
Whether you’re driving a 1935 Studebaker Commander roadster or a 2017 Chevrolet Camaro, petroleum does a lot more than put fuel in the tank. To keep engines running, proper lubrication protects against wear and the elements. This means adding oil and fluids for everything from the pistons to the transmission and power steering system. And even though that 1935 Studebaker doesn’t have power steering, it does need its joints greased to keep riding smoothly. Like the gasoline that fills the tank, much of the oil, fluid and grease products used to keep a car in shape, from classics to late model, also come from energy, namely petroleum and natural gas.
Now, bet you didn’t know there several types of automobile grease. One of the most common is lithium grease, which is made from mineral oil, a petroleum product. Lithium grease works well for keeping CV, or constant-velocity, joints well lubricated. These joints make steering a car possible. It’s also good for any other metal-on-metal joints and hinges, removing squeaks and decreasing friction so they last longer.
When it comes to the oil and fluids for an automobile’s engine, it can seem a little overwhelming. As you have motor oil for making sure the pistons are properly lubricated, transmission fluid so the car can smoothly shift gears, and power steering fluid to keep the steering system agile and responsive. Most motor oils, both conventional and synthetic, use an energy base. In the case of conventional oil, this traditionally is petroleum crude. Synthetic oils go through a more advanced engineering process and can be made from either petroleum or natural gas. Likewise, most transmission fluids and power steering fluids are petroleum-derived.
From the Road to the Roof
Remember in the movie, “Back to the Future,” when Marty McFly travels from 1985 to 1955 and that sweet 1981 DeLorean he’s in turns a bit temperamental? No worries. He hops in Doc Brown’s 1948 Packard Custom Eight Victoria, with its smooth lines, abundant chrome and whitewall tires. The ’40s and ’50s wouldn’t look the same without those wide white rubber tire walls framing flashy chrome hubcaps that proudly proclaim names like Nash, Cadillac, Buick and DeSoto.
Natural rubber was the main ingredient in tires until World War II helped create a solid industry for petroleum-based synthetic rubber. By the mid-1950s, right when Marty found himself stranded in his parents’ teen years, the automotive industry used about 80 percent of the synthetic rubber produced in the United States. This synthetic rubber accounted for about 50 percent of the rubber in tires, including those featuring the whitewalls. Today, most tires are made of about 60 percent synthetic rubber, with natural rubber making up the rest.
Beyond that stylish set of whitewalls, other energy products often help keep a classic car looking like its youth. Even the glossy shine of a classic auto’s paint benefits from energy. Car wax uses petroleum distillates to make that robin-egg blue or canary yellow paint glow. Microfiber cloths, made with polyester or a blend of polyester and polyamide (derived from petroleum), keep it buffed and clear of grime.
An Automotive Celebration
As tens of thousands of classic autos cruise the 16 miles of Detroit’s historic Woodward Avenue this weekend, hundreds of thousands of spectators will bask in the glow of more than 100 years of transportation history. Energy will keep this history parade looking good and on the move.
From the Model-T to the T-Bird, oil and natural gas are inextricably linked to America’s long love affair with the automobile. Along the way, makes such as Duesenberg, Auburn, Cord and others – don’t forget the Tucker 48, only 51 of which were ever made – each wrote a page in automotive history. Today, their legacies are kept alive and rolling, thanks to petroleum and petroleum-based products.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.