America's motor industry is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, but credit for creating the biggest of the automotive world's giants does not go to the likes of Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet or Walter Chrysler. Instead, the spotlight is focused on two brothers whose name is unlikely to ring a bell. Charles and Frank Duryea were not the first Americans to build a horseless carriage, but in 1896 their Duryea Motor Wagon Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, assembled 13 identical cars. This was the USA's first instance of serial production.

One of those tiller-steered contraptions greets visitors to the mind- boggling Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where cars representing dozens of manufacturers vie for attention with everything from musical instruments to a colossal railway locomotive.

Credit for making Uncle Sam a serious contender goes to such far-sighted engineers as Ransom Eli Olds, who started his business in 1897 and became the American motor industry's first millionaire. But the man who really put the world on wheels was Henry Ford, a farmer's son who pioneered the moving production line. It succeeded to such an extent that 15,007,033 Model T Fords were built between 1908 and 1927. There were months when production topped 200,000 - a figure to compare with the 12,000 per month averaged by Britain's long-running Mini. Such economies of scale enabled the Ford's Tin Lizzie's price to be cut by almost 75 per cent. Meanwhile, Ford was paying his workers $5 a day - double the industry's average.

Factors that included excellent communications soon made Detroit the car world's capital. Today, hosting the annual North American International Auto Show epitomises the big effort that Motor City is making to improve its drab, down-market image. Among other symbols is the riverside Renaissance Centre complex whose Westin Hotel is the world's highest. Views from its revolving restaurant include such spectacular links with the golden age as the art deco Fisher and General Motors' buildings. They stand close to Woodward Avenue, where Charles Brady King became the city's first motorist on 6th March 1896. Henry Ford and his first car puttered along nearby Bagley Avenue a few weeks later - eight years before he founded the Ford Motor Company.

I recently spent a busy week in Michigan, where tributes to the centennial include the Detroit Historical Museum's fascinating Motor City exhibit. Visitors are welcomed by a replica of Charles Brady King's 1896 car, which Mr King built to mark the 50th anniversary of his epochal drive. Reminders of such backroom boys as Charles Kettering (the grandfather of today's starter motor) rub shoulders with, for example, a board game called Assembly Line that challenges players to "Assemble Cars Like The Motor Czars".

Meanwhile, speed freaks should visit the Motorsport Hall Of Fame in Novi, the small town that gave its name to racers that contested such American classics as the Indianapolis 500. Top marks for terror go to the jet-propelled Green Monster in which Art Arfons achieved the fastest speed ever recorded by a vehicle with an open cockpit.

At the other end of the performance scale, 1903's advert for the Oldsmobile concentrated on the difference between modern and traditional power: "Mechanical skill and mathematical exactness eliminate the danger of the horse's uncertain temper, sudden fright and unruly disposition," the blurb proclaimed.

That little gem was spotted at the R E Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, 85 miles from Detroit. The cars on display range from an 1897 Oldsmobile to the latest Aurora. Between those landmarks, the 1937 model is a reminder that Oldsmobile was the first to offer automatic transmission in a mass-produced car. The option cost the equivalent of about pounds 50. One of the post-war era's most notable Oldsmobiles was the awesome Toronado. Launched in 1966, it attempted to reconcile front-wheel drive with a 7.0- litre, 385bhp engine.

A few blocks to the west, Lansing's highly commended Michigan Historical Museum reveals other aspects of the state's key role in the motor industry's development.

My centennial tour's highlight was a visit to Auburn, Indiana, three hours from Detroit by road, where an art deco building houses the Auburn- Cord-Duesenberg Museum. The three inter-related marques produced some of pre-war America's most stylish cars. I have vowed to buy a Model J Duesenberg (fewer than 300 were made) when the National Lottery does its stuff.

For information about car museums and special centennial events, contact the Michigan Information centre, 110 St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4DY (0171 240 1422).

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