George B. Selden is a pivotal figure in the early history of the automobile, but don't look to see if there are any buildings or freeways in Detroit named after him. There aren't. Nor should there be: Mr. Selden probably did more to stall the progress of the U.S. auto industry than any other man in history.

This now obscure figure was an inventor and lawyer who filed the first patent for a “road locomotive” powered by an internal combustion engine in 1879.

He wasn't much of an engineer, and he struggled to build just a few cars that were good enough to sell. But he was a fantastic lawyer, and he managed to keep his 17-year horseless carriage patent alive for 30 years by skillfully filing amendments.

The patent was so broadly written that virtually anyone who connected an engine to wheels — in Mr. Selden's view — was infringing on the patent and owed him money. He formed a powerful syndicate to license manufacturing operations and collect royalties for every “horseless carriage” built in the U.S. For many years he attempted to monopolize the industry and enforce his patent.

By 1903, skilled carbuilders like Ransom E. Olds were paying Mr. Selden royalties. Others just quit the business after a few of his enforcers dropped by their shops and roughed them up when they refused to pay.

There's no telling how many brilliant ideas were lost during this period because their inventors just didn't have the gumption or the money to stand up to Mr. Selden.

Then one day a little-known inventor, one of the 485 car builders operating at the time, stood up and said “Tell Selden to take his patent and go to Hell with it.” He was a stubborn, tenacious man who was working his way down the alphabet with one failed car model after another, but his model N was a modest success, and he wasn't interested in sharing any of his hard-earned profits with Mr. Selden.

So instead of giving in to Mr. Selden's syndicate, the inventor fought like a bulldog in a court battle that lasted eight years. Meanwhile he continued to work down the alphabet with new car models. In 1911 the inventor finally won his case, freeing not only his company, but the entire auto industry, from Mr. Selden's grip.

Without Mr. Selden's meddling, early automakers were able to start experimenting with interchangeable parts and new mass production techniques. That paved the way for one of the inventor's most successful models. You've probably heard of it: the Model T.

Henry Ford wasn't just a brilliant inventor. He was one tough SOB. So were his contemporaries, or at least the successful ones.

From the very beginning, the U.S. auto industry has not been a place for wimps. It has always been a hard — but very resilient — business.

William C. Durant took a big risk when he merged Buick Motor Car Co. with Oldsmobile and several other small, financially shaky operations to form General Motors Corp. in 1908.

When he predicted that motor cars someday would sell at the rate of a half a million per year, one influential banker said: “If he has any sense, he'll keep those notions to himself if he ever tries to borrow money.”

Only a few years after forming GM, after just about bankrupting the company with new acquisitions, Billy Durant's bankers stripped him of most of his power. So in his spare time he formed a partnership with Louis Chevrolet, a former driver for Buick's racing team. The Chevrolet Co. was so successful that Mr. Durant was able to use its stock to trade his way back to power at GM in 1916. By 1920 he grew GM to eight times its 1916 size, but then the company verged on bankruptcy again, and its founder was tossed out for good.

In 1945, thirty-four years after Mr. Ford had won his court case with Mr. Selden and built an automotive empire, Ford Motor Co. was verging on bankruptcy. At the age of 28, Henry's grandson, Henry Ford II, forced his grandfather out of power, fired most of his staff and engineered what has been called “the most dramatic comeback in industrial history” in just one year.

And then there's Chrysler. Its brushes with extinction are too numerous to mention here. If it were a cat with nine lives, it would be dead.

Over just the past two decades Detroit automakers have weathered crushing strikes, soaring gas prices, oil shocks, economic slumps and all manner of global competition.

Each time they have managed to come back — usually around mid-decade — touting record sales and profits, almost as predictably as winter turns to spring. After a terrible slump in the early '80s the industry roared back with new vehicles like the first-generation Taurus and the Chrysler minivan. After the Gulf War recession of the early '90s, U.S. automakers hit their most prosperous era ever thanks to fleets of hot-selling pickup trucks and sport/utility vehicles.

In comparison to the truly cataclysmic times the U.S. auto industry has faced in the past, today's troubles at Ford, GM and the Chrysler Group look like mere speed bumps.

Listen to Drew Winter and other Ward's editors Monday and Thursday on WJR 760 AM radio in Detroit.
dwinter@primediabusiness.com