Today the Cadillac comes to England. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Victorian England boasted
that the sun never set on its empire, that
Britannia ruled the waves, and that English
manufacturing was without peer. Civilization seemed
to go downhill in all directions away from London.
In 1900 England took its leadership in powered
machinery for granted.
But that leadership was built on steam. English
engineers disdained internal combustion. Worse than
that, says author Maurice Hendry, the upper classes
saw the development of personal vehicles as a
threat to the class system. The best of the early
automobiles in England were European. England
looked at American products with open contempt, and
no one imagined that America could produce a decent
automobile -- not even most Americans.
In 1903 a young Englishman, Frederick Bennet,
worked for an auto import firm. On a hunch, he
imported one of the new Cadillac autos. He uncrated
this 6½-horsepower one-cylinder touring car
and directly entered it in the Midland Automobile
Club Hill Climb in London. This sort of competition
was teaching a fascinated general public about
Bennet's little Cadillac chuffed right up the hill
at 8 miles an hour. He won the competition over
cars with three times the power, and then he took
his car on to win other competitions. He convinced
people; but he faced another problem when it came
to selling the car. If an auto broke down in
England, the owner could send it in to have a new
part "fitted." Up to then, auto parts were only
approximately interchangeable. Factory experts had
to file and hammer parts to fit the car. American
factories and mechanics were too far away for that.
So Bennet had to teach the English another lesson.
In 1908 he asked officials to select three cars
from a set of eight new Cadillacs. Each of the
three was publicly dismantled into 700 parts. The
parts were thoroughly mixed up and then
reassembled. They fit perfectly into three
composite cars. These cars were driven off to the
starting line of yet another competition -- looking
like three circus clowns in their mixed-up colors.
Bennet made his point. No one had thought cars
could be made by mass production with
interchangeable parts. These early Cadillacs
pioneered that technology, and they opened the
British market to American cars.
But more important than that, they overcame our own
inferiority complex. They also cracked open the
American market for American manufacturers. These
proud little machines were stalking horses for the
fleets of Fords and Oldsmobiles that would
transform American life by 1920.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds