On The Road Again: What Pittsburgh Has To Do With Cars

Jul 10, 2015

On a side street in Bloomfield, not far from Pittsburgh’s “automobile row,” on Baum Boulevard, Tom Lynn points out the cars and parts of cars that make up his business, Flop Custom.

“There’s a ’30 Ford that I chopped, another ’30 Ford, a ’31 Roadster, a ’32 truck,” he said, turning in the small space.

Lynn builds and restores antique cars, specializing in metal work. Surrounded by the sheet metal of the early 1900s, Lynn said it’s amazing what those automakers could do, describing the six-story, 300-ton press needed to stamp out the car panels.

“It’s hard to do today,” he said. “This stuff needs a lot of work to get right. Ford made 4 million Model A’s between 1928 and 1931. They came off the assembly line one every 20 minutes. And it takes me months and months and months to do one car.”

At the turn of the 19th century, Pittsburgh workshops played a role in creating the automobile, but assigning sole credit for its development is tricky: Leonardo da Vinci designed a car that ran on clockwork in 1478; a French engineer created a three-wheeled tractor in 1769 to haul artillery. Until gasoline-powered vehicles dominated the market, electric- and steam-powered engines jockeyed for consumer affection.  

“Most manufacturing cities had fledgling automakers, so I don’t know that Pittsburgh was more unusual than say Cleveland or Buffalo or Auburn, Indiana,” said Sarah Hall, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Frick Art & Historical Center, home to the Car and Carriage Museum, which is currently undergoing renovations.   

Hall said the early days of the car were an innovation race.

“Between say 1890 and 1910 there were a lot of startups, sort of tinkerers and investors trying to create cars here in Pittsburgh,” she said.  

Pittsburgh capitalized on existing industries, including steel and glass, and produced the steam-powered Artzberger, a model capable of tackling city hills. But auto production centralized in Detroit. So the region contributed something else — infrastructure.  

In 1913, Pittsburgh-based Gulf Oil opened the first drive-in gas station in 1913 at the intersection of Baum Boulevard and Saint Clair Street. Though other locations sold gas, the station on Baum was the first designed to do so and to cater to motorists. It was staffed 24 hours a day; it provided free water and air and produced the first road map. The car transformed everyday life, said Hall.

“It opened up the world. People could go farther, they could see more, they could choose where they wanted to go and when,” she said.  

But there were drawbacks to that newfound independence and possibility.

“That same freedom that had people roaming also created a certain disconnection — the privacy of the car. Life sort of decentralized. Walkability was less valued in neighborhoods,” she said.

Or simply became more dangerous. City streets ceased to be public spaces and instead became places for cars. Hall says it took a while to figure out coexistence and regulation.

Costa Samaras, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, is familiar with those questions. Thirty years ago CMU invented the autonomous car, and two groups at the university work on self-driving vehicles. Samaras doesn’t make the cars. Instead, his research focuses on their implications for society.

“This could be as game-changing as the car,” he said. “With self-driving cars, people can schedule where they want to be, how they want to get there in a whole new way.”

This isn’t a time of incremental change, he said. Most cars sit idle 95 percent of the time. Building a shared, schedule-able, self-driving fleet will revolutionize transit and daily life, affecting how people decide where to live and work, and how cities are structured.  

“What’s exciting about engineering in general is that you’re building the world anew every time,” he said.  

But the new world of self-driving cars is bringing back old questions about safety, energy and the environment. The difference, said Samaras, is the benefit of knowing how cars have affected society over the last 100 years.

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