Know Your Niche: The Brass Era of Automobiles
What makes the automotive world great are the small, uncovered corners of history that have a loyal and knowledgeable following. Though everyone flocks to the Mustangs and Camaros, the community of Corvair owners is as tight– if not tighter– than the community of Corvette owners. It is its obscurity that tightens the bond. This is no different with vehicles of the Brass Era. Though the vehicles of this time may appear to be the first cars on the road, this was actually the second major movement in the history of the automobile. The first car ever was designed by Karl Benz in 1888, and the following years were highly experimental, with early dominance by the German and the French. It is generally understood that the “Brass Era” began in 1905, as the developments in Europe had made their way to the United States, where plenty of ingenuitive minds took to building their own vehicles.
PHOTOS: See More of the 1902 Mercedes-Benz Simplex 40 HP
This era was characterized by the widespread use of– you guessed it– brass. Just ten years prior, in 1895, French manufacturer Panhard et Levassor’s vehicle layout of a front-mid engine driving the rear wheels was licensed throughout Europe and the US. This solidified the move from seemingly strange vehicle styles, to the early beginnings of the automotive shape we know today.
Light housings, radiators, door handles and frames– they were all constructed of brass. The brass headlights were typically fitted on either side of the engine housing, and (in some cases) above the metal wheel housings or fenders.
PHOTOS: See More of the 1912 Packard Model 1-48 Custom Runabout
By 1907, there were over 75 American carmakers, dotted across the country. Automakers like IHC and Holsman were built out of Chicago, and Sears even offered vehicles through its catalog.
The use of steel bodies was brought on around 1914 by companies like Hupp in the United States, and BSA in the UK. In fact, in 1914, a company by the name of Dodge started building steel bodies– for the Ford Model T. In addition to variation in brands, there was a variation in propulsion systems. Electric and steam were all attempted with some degree of success. Oldsmobile tried both, before arriving at a gas engine, like the single-cylinder, 7-hp motor on this 1904 Curved Dash Pie Wagon.
PHOTOS: See More of the 1904 Oldsmobile Curved Dash Pie Wagon
The start of WWI brought an end to the brass era. Design effort and physical resources were directed toward the war effort. By the time the First World War had concluded, the Vintage Car Era had begun– but that’s a tale for another time.