Motor City II: How cars shaped Dayton’s identity

Historic photos window to early car culture

Dayton is a car town.

“We’re one notch below Detroit,” said Skip Peterson, Chairman of Dayton’s Concours d’ Elegance, a premier classic and antique automobile and motorcycle show. “You know that Detroit is the Motor City – well, we are Motor City II.”

Historic photographs of Dayton from the early 1900s prove it by illustrating the beginning of our automobile culture.

Explore>>> PHOTOS: Early automobile history in Dayton

Seven automobiles in a photograph circa 1914 line up in front of a garage along Fourth Street with drivers at the wheel. In another vintage photo men wearing straw boater hats cluster around open roadsters with wooden spoke wheels and leather button tufted seats.

There were 28 makes of automobiles built in Dayton, according to Peterson, who has written the “Wheels” column for the Dayton Daily News since 2007. There were 53 makes if one counts the broader region that includes Middletown and Springfield.

The best-known car built early on was the Stoddard Dayton manufactured by the Dayton Motor Car. Co., according to Peterson. The factory, spanning three city blocks at Third and McDonough streets, produced close to 125 cars in 1905. Two years later, it was producing more than 2,000 cars.

Stoddard Dayton, Speedwell, Maxwell and Courier were among the many names Dayton car enthusiasts would have been familiar with in the first two decades of the 20th Century.

The automotive inventions of Dayton’s Charles F. Kettering were also common in the vocabulary of the automobile.

The self-starting motor revolutionized transportation by eliminating the back-breaking hand crank, making it easier and safer for drivers to start their automobiles. Introduced in the 1912 Cadillac and patented in 1915, the self-starter became standard in most new automobiles by 1920.

Spark plugs, quick-drying automotive paint, leaded gasoline, shock absorbers, automatic transmissions, four-wheel brakes, safety glass and the diesel engine are also among Kettering’s automotive innovations.

Peterson describes the early automobile style depicted in many of these photographs as utilitarian. The hoods were rounded, and the grills were at stark angles. The roofs were boxy, and the front window was a large square.

“The Ford Model T sat way up high because the roads were awful and people would drive across a creek or a field to get to somebody’s house,” said Peterson. “They were sort of like an SUV before we knew what they were.”

The automobile transformed life for many Daytonians.

“It gave them mobility and it gave them the opportunity to go places they hadn’t gone before,” Peterson said. “It was the difference between riding in a wagon pulled by two horses and hopping in a car to go somewhere. It’s why people on Sundays would hop in their cars and go places because they never could do that before.”

The advent of automobiles and the technology around them impacted Dayton for decades, said Peterson, who noted that Dayton has transitioned to a new kind of car town - one with a huge appreciation for collector cars.

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