Antique Autos/Classic Cars

The N.C. Transportation Museum's collection of antique and vintage cars traces the evolution of automobiles through several different stages, many of which can be seen in the museum's Bumper to Bumper exhibit, located in the Flue Shop.

1900s – The first automobiles were nothing more than horse buggies, which were converted with some type of, power motor and primitive steering mechanism. These style of automobiles (called horseless carriages) date back to the 1890s, when Ransom Olds built four successful motorized carriages in 1897. There were no windows, doors, windshields or steering wheels. Lights operated off carbide or kerosene. A tiller turned wheels, similar to small boats.  In 1908, Henry Ford began manufacturing the Model T, which was a huge step in putting cars into the homes of middle class American families.

1920s – In the 1920s the Good Roads Movement in North Carolina was pushing for improved roads. Automobiles by this time were generally less expensive, allowing more people to own a car. Life began to improve as families used their automobiles to travel to different cities, visit relatives, and go shopping or to see the doctor. Doctors, in fact, were usually the only people to own cars in smaller towns and communities. Improvements included better windshields, larger tires, better springs, larger, more powerful engines and electric headlights.

– During this decade roads continued to improve with the use of brick, broken stone, shells and concrete for surfaces. Many country roads continued to remain dirt and barely improved. In 1939, at the New York World’s Fair, the idea of an interstate highway system was first shown to the public as part of the future exhibit. As more families purchased automobiles, highways were constructed between larger cities and towns. Many roads paralleled railroad tracks. Gas stations were popping up everywhere to accommodate the increased demand for fuel.

– In the 1940s the manufacture of automobiles would drastically change due to World War II and design changes leading to the 1950s. Cars were produced during 1940 through 1942 before the War Production Board ceased car production so that vital military vehicles could be produced. All the main manufacturers began to produce jeeps, half-tracks, large trucks, tanks, guns, airplane engines or whatever was needed at the time. 1946 was the first year manufacturers were allowed to return to normal, but all they could do was build reissues of 1942 cars due to time restraints. Also during this period, wood replaced steel in car production due to material shortages for the war effort. The 1948 Lincoln Continental shows similar lines to pre-war production, only the chrome was changed. Lincolns by this time were advertised and sold as luxury cars with such amenities as air conditioning, power windows and push-button doors.

– After the war, the American economy was booming. There were plenty of good jobs and people were earning more money. Families had more vacation time on their hands. During this time some families decided to purchase a second car to help with shopping or family travel. Construction of the Interstate Highway System began in the mid-50s under President Eisenhower. Automobiles were more comfortable and air conditioning was available on many models. With more families traveling, the need for additional motels and restaurants developed along all highways. The 1950s also created the “hot rod” automobile movement. These were stripped and rebuilt cars of the 1910s – 1940s, utilizing more powerful engines, lots of chrome and custom frames.

– During this decade, most families owned a second car. The suburbs really began to sprawl, creating a larger need for more cars on the road. Parents now drove to work or to the new shopping centers being developed away from downtown. During this time cars began to increase in power, giving rise to the “muscle car” era. Speed and handling became the new buzzwords. Gasoline was still relatively cheap, around 35 cents a gallon. Gas mileage went down while engine size went up. Car design also changed, giving automobiles a sleeker, faster look. The fins were gone, replaced by hood scoops and spoilers. By the late 1960s automobiles were reminiscent of the 1930s, with curved lines and hidden accessories (such as headlights).

1970s & 1980s
– The early 1970s began much like the 60s ended: bigger, faster cars. Then in 1973, the gas crisis made people realize these larger cars were way behind the times. Newer, smaller, more efficient automobiles were gaining demand. Foreign manufacturers for the first time began selling more cars than domestic producers. By the late 70s, American car manufacturers had regained some footing, and produced fuel efficient cars of their own, many through a joint effort with foreign companies. Some companies, such as General Motors, still made larger cars. Most large-bodied cars did not cease production until the mid-80s. The cars of the late-80s resemble cars of today, using turbo and/or fuel injected engines and smaller body designs giving excellent gas mileage.

The price of gas rose to over $1.00 a gallon by 1984, and stayed until the beginning of the 1990s.

For more cool cars, visit the Back Shop, which houses our larger automobiles, including our great collection of antique and classic fire trucks.  The 1929 Model AA Fire Truck has been completely
restored and may be seen rolling about the site when not on display in the Back Shop.