Evolution and revolution in the auto industry
A long and winding road ...
The Rearview Mirror
The Steering Wheel
The road from Karl Benz’s first three-wheeled motorized wagon of 1886, to the computerized cars of today, has been a long and gradual process. But along the way, there were some inventions that rapidly moved the automobile along in its journey—or, in some cases, are just plain neat. We’ve collected ten of them…come and see!
Early gasoline cars had to be cranked to start them, which could be difficult and sometimes even dangerous. Even though electric cars didn’t have much range, they were still popular, because you just pushed a button to start them. Several inventors were working on the self-starter, but it was Cadillac that came through, first equipping its cars in 1912. Virtually every car had a self-starter by 1920, and the 1924 edition of the New York Auto Show was the first with nothing but gasoline-powered vehicles, which now started easily and could go much farther than a battery car.
While no one’s sure who first put a mirror on a production vehicle—and it appears some horse-drawn wagons might have had them—the only car in the first Indianapolis 500 of 1911 equipped with one was the Marmon Wasp that won the race. That might have been a coincidence, since it vibrated so much that driver Ray Harroun probably didn’t see much. But it was an early safety device, although there’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, of at least one police department that wanted them banned because drivers would be able to see the cops behind them and take evasive action.
Early cars were steered with a tiller or lever. It worked, given that the vehicles didn’t move very fast, and pointing them in the general direction of where you wanted to go was usually sufficient, but improved automobiles needed better steering. The first record of a steering wheel was on a French-built Panhard et Levassor that raced in an endurance trial in 1895. On that car, the steering column stuck straight up, but by 1898, it was tilted toward the driver. The American-built 1903 Thomas appears to be the first with a steering wheel that could be tilted up from the column, which made it easier for drivers to get in.
The earliest auto occupants were open to the elements, with perhaps only a buggy-style canvas roof over top. Renault built the first completely-enclosed car in 1899, the Voiturette Type B, an odd-looking creature that resembled a phone booth on wheels, but closed cars remained rare and expensive until after 1910. Even then, they used canvas inserts over a wooden-framed roof. GM introduced the first one-piece, all-steel roof, dubbed a “Turret Top,” for 1935—and which was so strong, apparently, that you could dance on it.
The earliest motorists used what horse-drawn wagons used: candles, or lamps that ran on oil or acetylene. Electric cars could use electric headlights, but they didn’t hold up well to being jostled around, and they ate into the car’s battery range. Some aftermarket companies offered electric light sets, possibly as early as 1908, but Cadillac set the standard in 1912 with an integrated battery-generator system that fed electricity to the lights, as well as to the car’s new self-starter.
The invention of safety glass was actually an accident. French chemist Edouard Benedictus patented it in 1910, after he dropped a test tube that had held a nitrocellulose mixture and discovered that the coating inside held the shattered glass together. Safety glass was expensive, and cars used plate glass until the 1930s—endangering motorists in collisions if they fell onto broken shards—but today, laminated and tempered glass is a requirement in all vehicles.
The earliest cars used wheels that rode on iron rims or solid rubber tires. Air-filled tires already existed, starting with a tube tire invented by Robert Thompson in 1845, and later a bicycle tire created by John Boyd Dunlop in 1888, but they weren’t yet feasible for cars. In 1891, a cyclist visited Edouard Michelin’s rubber factory in France to buy materials to repair his Dunlop tire, which was glued to the rim. Michelin subsequently invented the detachable tire, and in 1895, was the first to put pneumatic tires on a car. Michelin would also patent the radial tire in 1946.
Mary Anderson watched streetcar drivers struggling to see through their windshields in the rain, and in 1903, she patented a rubber blade on a lever that swiped across the glass, although her patent expired before she could make any money from it. Trico lays claim to the first mass-produced, commercially-available rubber windshield wiper, called Rain Rubber, introduced in 1917, as well as the first automatic wipers, which ran off engine vacuum, in 1921. The company also introduced the first dual wipers that worked in unison, in 1929, and in 1936, the windshield washer.
Heaters had been around for a while, either as factory equipment or as aftermarket accessories, when air conditioning made its debut as factory equipment on the 1940 Packard. Called Weather-Conditioner, it was $275, about 15 per cent of the car’s price. It was bulky and didn’t work all that well. Nash did better with its 1954 system, the first with all of the components under the hood and with a single control lever, since it also owned the refrigerator company Kelvinator. It was the increasing availability of a/c, along with higher-speed highways, that helped lead to the temporary discontinuation of convertibles in the U.S. in 1976.
ABS not only provided drivers with a new safety system, but has also become the basis of other systems, including electronic stability control. It was originally developed for aircraft in 1929, and then used on trains, but the system was too bulky for cars, and only worked well when braking in a straight, smooth line. A car application was developed for the 1966 Jensen FF, but it was an expensive, small-volume car. Chrysler, Ford and GM had rudimentary systems by the early 1970s, but it was Mercedes-Benz and Bosch that created the modern electronic, multi-channel, four-wheel system and optioned it on the 1978 S-Class. It became standard on all Mercedes cars in 1984, while the 1986 Corvette was the first North American car with standard ABS. And who knows what game-changing invention will come up next?