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These 25 machines paved the way. They showed customers and car manufacturers alike what the next big thing was destined to be.
From safety to convenience, here we chart, in chronological order, the motoring innovations that proved epoch shifting and a few that, despite proving popular, were probably best consigned to history.
1. Monocoque construction – 1922 Lancia Lambda
In the early years of car building – and for much longer if you were American – separate-chassis construction was the only way to go.
The coachbuilding industry existed for decades by fabricating beautiful hand-assembled bodies for rich customers.
Said body was then dropped onto a relatively mass-made chassis, creating a near-unique machine.
The industrial and off-road sectors still rely on the inherent strength of body-on-chassis construction, but for light vehicles, the combined body and chassis system (monocoque) proved vastly superior.
An early pioneer of many motoring firsts was Italian maker Lancia. In this instance, we’re referring to its 1922 kick-off of combined chassis and body construction.
2. First effective cabin heater – 1929 Cadillac 341-B
Though all kinds of ingenious and often dangerous ways of keeping passengers warm had been tried since the birth of motoring, using engine coolant only arrived in 1929.
Perfectly timed to coincide with the collapse of its economy, American customers of both Cadillac 341-Bs and Ford Model As were offered the world’s first effective heaters, for the small additional cost of roughly $500 in today’s cash.
GM introduced the first truly modern heating system for its 1930 model line-up. Coolant from the engine of GM’s new models was passed through a matrix, then ventilated through the cabin, to provide adjustable and safe heat for the first time.
3. Mass-made front-wheel drive – 1931 DKW F1
Driving the front wheels was nothing new, even by the 1930s. The concept had been established as early as 1899, with Aussie Henry Sutton’s Autocar.
Fast forward three decades and many manufacturers were trying to make front drivers, including Citroën, whose Traction Avant is usually incorrectly credited as being the first mass-produced front-wheel-drive model.
In fact, the Germans got there first, as Auto Union member DKW – better known to that point for making motorcycles – produced more than 4000 of its F1 (F for ‘front’) model between 1931 and 1932.
4. Hatchback body style – 1938 Citroën 11CV Commerciale
The advantages of a hatchback body design are clear to see, which makes it all the more baffling that it took so long for it to hit showrooms in appreciable numbers.
The first factory-produced hatchback model, made in more than single figures, was a version of the Citroën Traction Avant called the 11CV Commerciale, back in the late 1930s.
The French firm had traders in mind, who would benefit most from easy access to the rear.
A French maker was once again at the fore when hatchbacks found renewed favour in the 1960s.
The first ‘modern’ hatchback as we know it was the Renault 16. Launched at the 1965 Geneva show, it would go on to achieve Car of the Year status. A host of clones soon followed and the rest is history.
5. Automatic transmission – 1939 Oldsmobile
We’d prefer to change our own ratios, most of the time, anyway, but there’s no denying the convenience of an automatic which, for many, makes sense.
‘Stick’, or manual transmissions, traditionally have never been as popular in the USA, so it’ll come as little surprise to learn that the first widely available automatic transmission came from America.
Just as with most of our other trendsetters in this list, GM’s 1924 automatic transmission wasn’t the first of its kind – that had been developed by the father of the motor car, Karl Benz, way back at the turn of the 20th century.
GM’s ‘Hydra-Matic’ self-shifter was the first mass-produced and adequately working auto transmission when it was fitted to the 1939/’40 Oldsmobile.
6. Air conditioning – 1940 Packard Clipper
As you’ll no doubt have noticed, there’s a trend developing here... If a comfort option was made anywhere, it seems to have been figured out first in the USA.
That’s likely due to the fact that, other than the financial Armageddon that followed the Wall Street Crash, America was experiencing a boom for much of the first half of the 20th century.
Its new wealthy and middle classes wanted more and more comfort, especially in their cars. If you happened to live in Florida or California, that meant a cool cabin.
Naturally, the first proper car air-conditioning system didn’t come cheap, but, then again, if you were a Packard customer in 1940, cost wasn’t really an issue.
Cadillac and Chrysler customers would have to wait until 1941 to experience the same cool breeze on their faces.
7. Power-assisted steering – 1951 Chrysler Imperial
With greater weight comes greater effort behind the wheel, which wasn’t much of a problem in the early days of motoring, but by the 1930s, the effort needed at the helm of many US-made machines was already beginning to get unmanageable.
For commercial and military vehicles, it was bordering on intolerable, which is why Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company engineer Francis Davis devised the first practical hydraulically assisted steering system in 1926.
Despite his system seeing service during the Second World War, the costly and complicated hydraulics weren’t deemed to be affordable for road cars.
That was until Chrysler picked up on Davis’ then-expired patents and reverse-engineered its own system, which made its debut on the 1951 Imperial and was added to Cadillacs a year later.
8. Mass-produced glassfibre body – 1953 Chevrolet Corvette
Returning US servicemen and women from the Second World War raved about the simple joys of European sports cars, especially those made in the UK.
The likes of MG and Jaguar did much to promote lightweight and fun roadsters in the USA and so, back in America, car companies took notice. The export business was keeping British makers afloat and Chevrolet for one wanted in.
Its answer was the six-cylinder, two-speed automatic Corvette of 1953.
This slightly limp first attempt didn’t really set the US buying public alight – just 300 were made in its first year and only 183 of those sold – but it was soon to be vastly improved.
What did set the Corvette apart, and has done ever since, was its beautiful and glassfibre bodywork.
9. First production sports car with fuel injection – 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL
Direct injection (squirting fuel into the cylinders) had been employed since the 1920s in diesel engines – 1930s in the aero industry – but road-car makers hadn’t managed to get it right until Mercedes-Benz in 1955.
The complication of setting up a mechanical system to deliver the right amount of fuel at precisely the right time, under all engine loads, was a mighty challenge, and it was one Mercedes and Bosch took on.
The advantages of fuel injection are myriad over traditional carburation, but essentially it comes down to better performance and greater economy – though only the first one really mattered in the 300SL.
Bosch had already made a system for Goliath in 1952, but this wasn’t very reliable. Pairing up with Mercedes-Benz race engineers, for its second attempt, finally cracked it.
10. First mass-produced model with disc brakes – 1955 Citroën DS
This is one of the most controversial ‘firsts’ in automotive history.
The fitting of disc brakes can be attributed to all manner of makers and models from Elmer Ambrose Cleveland’s 1898 system to the patented 1902 Lanchester design.
Many more attribute the adoption of the technology to the 1949 Crosley, but none of these early designs actually worked consistently – most were retro-fitted with drums – so tracing the true pioneer becomes harder still.
Jaguar, together with Dunlop, famously produced the world’s first effective disc-brake system when it added the tech to its Le Mans-winning C-type in 1952. But this was a race car, so it still doesn’t count...
Which leaves the Citroën DS. This innovative and stylish Citroën employed disc brakes, as we’d recognise them, on its front axle from 1955; nearly a decade before discs became a common sight.
11. First car with cruise control – 1958 Chrysler Imperial
In the second appearance of our old friend the Imperial, Chrysler marketed engineer Ralph Teetor’s ‘Speedostat’ system rather misleadingly as ‘auto pilot’.
Teetor allegedly developed the system because he was sick of his driver’s lack of ability to maintain a constant speed on the highway.
Though this was the first recognisable modern cruise-control system – designated as such by Cadillac soon after its introduction – there had been many efforts at throttle automation going back to the age of steam.
Teetor was in fact beaten to the cruise-control craze by two other US inventors: Frank J Riley in 1950 and Harold Exline in 1951.
But neither of these systems made it beyond being fitted to cars owned by their inventors or close friends.
12. The three-point safety belt – 1959 Volvo PV544
Though safety is rarely seen as sexy, its milestones in motoring have not only made cars safer across the world, but have also saved millions of lives.
Probably the most important of these – alongside such things as crumple zones and airbags – is the three-point safety belt.
Nils Bohlin isn’t exactly a household name, but chances are his invention has kept you and your loved ones safe. He came up with the deceptively simple design that changed the world after joining Volvo from Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (Saab), where he worked on catapult seats and pilot safety.
His three-point belt design was first seen in the Volvo PV544 and Amazon in 1959, but Volvo also released the patent worldwide at the same time, allowing all drivers to benefit.
13. First mass-market turbocharged car – 1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire
For decades, American performance-car makers took a no-frills approach to more power; ever greater displacement.
By the early ’60s, this was getting silly, with engines of 7 litres or more downing fuel like it was going out of fashion. Something had to change and long before fuel crises forced makers to think again, GM was innovating its way off the displacement-hike merry-go-round.
It turned to an aerospace technology that you may have heard of: turbocharging. It’s become the default route for boosting power (quite literally), but the Jetfire and its fellow GM cousin the Corvair were first.
The Jetfire used the 215cu in V8 (the one Rover later bought) and a single Garrett T5 turbo with methanol injection, to get around detonation, due to the motor’s 10.25:1 compression.
Except the methanol injected mix called Turbo Rocket Fluid was stored in a remote pressure vessel that owners rarely bothered to check or refill.
14. First performance four-wheel drive – 1966 Jensen FF
The name Ferguson is usually associated with agriculture, with good reason, too.
Irishman Harry Ferguson revolutionised that industry by creating his three-point linkage on what many consider to be the first modern farm tractor.
He also built and flew his own aircraft and dabbled in four-wheel drive. The latter came to the fore in 1950 when he set up Harry Ferguson Research Ltd to develop a family car with four-wheel drive.
To that point, driving multiple axles had been limited to military vehicles only, but Harry’s mate and racing driver Tony Rolt convinced his engineer and businessman buddy that the system was ideal for performance motoring.
Once the system proved itself, it was incorporated by Jensen on a four-wheel-drive version of its Interceptor in 1966.
As if this wasn’t innovative enough, Jensen added a Dunlop-developed anti-lock braking system, too, making the Jensen FF (Ferguson Formula) the first production model to feature both four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes.
15. First traction control system – 1971 Buick Max-Trac
Traction control is a modern invention, right? Wrong. Buick offered the first commercially available traction-control system way back in 1971.
Available as an option on most of its range, commonly fitted to the Riviera, this clever yet simple set-up could detect rear-wheel spin and interrupt the ignition to regain traction.
A front-wheel speed sensor was linked to a transmission-output sensor via a little red electronic control box and, crucially, the system could be turned on and off via a dashboard control switch.
So, in effect, much like a modern system, just made 40 years earlier.
16. First hot hatch – 1971 Autobianchi A112 Abarth
This is another endlessly debated topic, where fans with an axe to grind like to champion a particular model over all others, but the simple fact is that there are loads of elements that make up a hot hatch and therefore several potential firsts.
The original Mini, for example, had many of them, except for the all-important hatch (clue’s in the name).
Arguably the first to combine all elements we now recognise as hot-hatch cornerstones was 1971’s Autobianchi A112 Abarth.
It was small, with front-wheel drive and a tuned engine that made it fun to drive.
The larger Simca 1100Ti also has a strong claim, but one thing’s for sure, the first hot hatch was not the VW Golf GTI – that model was merely the catalyst for world dominance.
17. First petrol-injected turbo engine – 1973 BMW 2002 turbo
As we know already, there had been turbocharged machines made before this BMW (though admittedly not many), but the 2002 turbo was the first to combine fuel-injection and turbocharging.
That important distinction makes this blown classic BMW’s engine the first truly modern powerplant. In fact, today it’s a struggle to find a model on sale that isn’t powered by a fuel-injected four-cylinder turbocharged engine.
Back in the early ’70s, however, the name of the game wasn’t merely economy, fun was deemed to be equally important.
The featherweight 2002 turbo weighed a smidge over 1080kg and that meant it was good for 60mph in under 7 secs – serious performance then and still impressive now.
18. First mass-produced four-valve engine – 1973 Triumph Dolomite Sprint
Peugeot is credited with introducing the world to its first four-valve, four-cylinder engine in the famous French firm’s 1912 Grand Prix car.
The technology was forged in the crucible of racing where it remained out of reach for mere mortals until well into the middle of the century.
The famous Lotus 907 engine (commonly called the Twin-Cam) and Ford’s Cosworth BDA (fitted to the Escort RS 1600) arrived in the 1960s, but both were found powering expensive or limited-production motorsport machines.
The first mass-market four-valve engine that you could realistically hope to own was therefore the clever slant-four found in the Triumph Dolomite Sprint.
Unlike almost all other 16-valve cylinder heads, Triumph and Coventry Climax engineers decided to activate half the valves via rockers, rather than deploying a second camshaft.
It was simpler and cheaper and worked well, winning Triumph a design council award. In addition, the ‘Dolly’ Sprint was the UK’s first production model to sport snazzy alloy wheels as standard.
19. Airbag – 1973 Oldsmobile Toronado
There’s a reason why our heading is singular, rather than plural.
The first use of an automotive airbag was just the one, but perhaps not the one you’d expect... The front passenger of the 1973 Oldmobile Toronado would be protected by the newfangled, rapidly inflating bag, but the driver wasn’t.
By 1975 the airbag was optional on most Olds, Buick and Cadillac models, this time for both front-seat occupants but, by some odd quirk of US safety legislation, the life-saving technology wouldn’t become mandatory for a further 23 years.
20. First in-car navigation – 1981 Honda Accord (Electro Gyrocator)
Today we take navigation aids as a given, but before the world of satellite navigation, we all had to rely on maps.
Arguing over the best route or whether you were lost was a rite of passage for all families in the ’80s and ’90s, but not if you lived in Japan...
Honda introduced its ingenious navigation device way back in 1981, without a single satellite involved. The Electro Gyrocator relied on a number of speed and direction sensors to plot the driver’s position on an acetate overlaid map, that then illustrated a scrolling dot on its small CRT screen. Primitive now, but utterly space age in the early 1980s.
21. First diesel to match petrol – 1982 Peugeot 305
The diesel engine was invented by Rudolf Diesel back in 1893 and proved to be a successful workhorse by 1895. That said, it wouldn’t find its way into passenger cars (in any great numbers) until the 1950s.
Even six decades after its introduction, the compression-ignition engine’s inherent roughness and relatively low output (except for torque) still made it unsuitable.
Incidentally, that first mass-produced diesel-powered car was Peugeot’s 403. The same French firm showed an affinity for the technology and stuck with it, eventually resulting in the first mass-market model powered by a diesel engine with performance to match its petrol-powered contemporaries.
That car was the 1982 Peugeot 305, powered by the nifty and long-lasting XUD turbodiesel, providing 0-60mph and top-speed figures on par with its petrol contemporaries; though its economy figures were considerably better.
22. First mass-market multi-link rear suspension – 1982 Mercedes-Benz 190
Multi-link rear suspension has a number of advantages over cheaper, more conventional arrangements, proved by decades of motorsport wins.
Grip under all suspension loads and ideal geometry are key to the success of this system, which keeps rear-wheel movement to an absolute minimum.
The expense of making a commercially viable set-up was daunting, but it was one that Mercedes-Benz embraced in the early 1980s.
The bill for the 190’s development, plus its new factory, came to a staggering 2 billion Deutsche Marks, but numerous other Mercedes-Benz models would go on to benefit from that clever new suspension, so it was money well spent.
23. Keyless entry – 1983 Renault Fuego
Another little ‘modern’ convenience we all take for granted is ‘plipping’ the fob to lock and unlock our cars. There was a time, not all that long ago, when that function seemed like science fiction.
Incidentally, the story goes that we call it plipping because it’s a contraction of the inventor’s name, engineer Paul Lipschutz – Renault even used the phrase ‘Le Plip’ in its marketing literature.
Lipschutz was an employee of the Neiman Lock Company, which made its name by, among other things, making steering locks.
The first use of Lipschutz’s remote-locking device was on the 1982 Renault Fuego.
24. Touchscreen controls – 1986 Buick Riviera
Despite being fitted to everything under the sun today, from your washing machine to your wristwatch, the touchscreen isn’t the most ergonomic solution to controlling well, anything – just ask Buick.
It spent inordinate amounts of time and money fitting the world’s first production-car touchscreen to its 1986 Riviera, only for customers to complain that it was too distracting.
Fast forward three decades and we’re seemingly stuck in a touchscreen nightmare that would reduce former Buick engineers to a cold sweat.
Today, hundreds of functions can be accessed via big distracting screens, rather than simple buttons you could operate by touch. Progress, eh.
25. Electronic stability program (ESP) – 1995 Mercedes-Benz S600 Coupé
As we’ve seen already, traction control and ABS systems have been around our cars for a lot longer than most people think, but until the mid-’90s, there wasn’t a governing system that combined the two.
The first system to take these safety critical systems and add a clever yaw sensor was fitted to the Mercedes-Benz S600 Coupé.
As is often the case with new tech, the Mercedes-Benz flagship showcased where the rest of the world would follow. Linking ABS and ASR (Mercedes’ traction control) with a new ESP system that could detect a vehicle’s rotation around its axis was a stroke of genius.
There were also lateral-speed and steering-angle sensors which all combined to allow the processor to decide when to apply millisecond braking to avoid a spin.
Clever stuff that’s fitted as standard to almost every new car today.