Many "modern" features are much older than you think
The starter button? Nope, not new ...
The start button
Here's why it worked ...
The car radio
Making keyless better ...
Extended-range electric cars
Everything old is new again. It’s true in fashion and music, and sometimes, it’s true about cars, too. There are a few things you’ll find on your vehicle that you might think are recent developments, but some of them have been around for quite a while. We’ve compiled a list that may surprise you!
Honda made a huge deal out of the F1-style engine start button installed in the S2000 when that roadster was introduced for 2000. It was quick, it was sharp, and it was cool: you jabbed the dash, and everything roared to life. It was so awesome that other manufacturers were quick to jump on it, and today, pushbutton start is a standard or optional feature on almost all models, even entry-level ones. But wait … it isn’t new.
At one time, almost all cars had starter buttons (that’s a 1947 Cadillac in the photo). Firing one up was a two-part deal: first you inserted and turned the key, which started up the ignition, and then you hit the button, which activated the starter. The button was on the dash on most cars, but on some, it was under the throttle, and you started the car while pumping the gas.
In 1949, Chrysler introduced an all-in-one ignition, where you just turned the key to get everything going. Drivers loved its simplicity, and automakers rushed to add it, advertising this “modern” system that was so much better than a button.
Originally, gasoline-powered cars had to be manually cranked to start them, which could be a difficult and dangerous task. If the engine backfired, the heavy crank could spin. One did, killing Byron Carter, a good friend of Cadillac founder Henry Leland.
Leland vowed that his company would solve the problem, and in 1912, it introduced the self-starter. By the end of the decade, virtually every gasoline-powered vehicle sold in Canada and the U.S. had one, and drivers were pushing buttons instead of cranking their engines.
What’s a car without tunes? It’s believed the first car radio ever displayed, at an exhibition in Missouri in 1904, didn’t even handle voices, just radio signals. In 1919, an amateur radio magazine reported on someone who put poles on his car’s bumpers and strung six wires between them to pick up signals, and soon, radio journals were filled with similar stories.
You could order a radio in your 1922 Chevrolet for $200—the car itself was only about $850—and the antenna looked like a metal fence and covered the whole roof. Some 34,000 cars were equipped with radios in the U.S. in 1930; by 1947, it was more than 7 million.
They’re a “new” feature on a few premium models, but it might surprise you how old the concept really is: Cadillac introduced it in 1952. Called the Autronic Eye, it was a device located on the driver’s side of the dash.
When it detected oncoming headlights, it turned off the high-beams, and then turned them back on once the traffic had passed. It was a $53 option on a car that averaged about $4,300. It was also available on Oldsmobile for 1953, and on Buick for 1958. (In the photo, it’s on the very left-hand side of the dash.)
Pushing a button from across the parking lot and watching your car pop its locks seems high-tech, but it’s been possible for some three decades. Back in 1983, inserting a key was still how you opened almost every vehicle, but there were a few—including the Mercury Cougar and Renault Alliance—that could be optioned with a keyless system that used an infrared beam. You had to order the optional power locks first, of course. A year later, DENSO introduced a radio-wave system. Within five years, keyless entry was a popular option.
The early keyless systems had a major drawback, though. The keyless fob contained a code that matched the code in the car’s computer, and the doors opened when the driver hit the button and sent the matching code to the car. Thieves would use “code grabbers,” which read and identified the code, and would then send the same code to the car to unlock it.
A “rolling code” system was introduced in the 1990s, which changed the code each time the keyless fob button was pushed. Thieves could still identify the code, but if they tried to use it, it was now superseded and wouldn’t open the doors.
Back in the 1930s, you could buy a device that tapped into the speedometer cable and came with several rolled-up paper maps. To go on a trip, you inserted a map and then started driving, and it rolled along in its holder as you drove. Meanwhile, the electronic stuff started a little later. Honda experimented with a gyroscope system in 1977, and offered it as a dealer option in the 1981 Accord. That system used road patterns and distance to pinpoint the car’s location.
In 1985, navigation company Etak worked with GM on a system that used dead reckoning to calculate direction using previous positions. These early maps were stored on cassette tapes, and then in 1985, on a CD. In 1990, Pioneer claimed the title of world’s first GPS car navigation system.
While a few entry-level models still use drum brakes on their rear wheels today, most vehicles use disc brakes on all four wheels, since they stop better and dissipate heat faster. At one time, almost all cars had four-wheel drum brakes, but in 1975, government safety standards mandated that all front brakes had to be discs.
They’d been around for a while: they were patented by British engineer Frederick Lanchester in 1902, and first used on his Lanchester car in 1903. Modern materials weren’t available and the pads wore out very quickly, and so disc brakes remained extremely rare until about the 1950s.
Anti-lock brakes, which rapidly engage and release the brakes to prevent them from locking up, date back to the late 1920s. However, they were initially developed for airplanes, where the components were too large and complicated to be used on automobiles. In the 1960s, anti-lock brakes appeared on the British Jensen FF and the Ford Zodiac, but the systems were expensive and not terribly reliable.
In 1971, Chrysler introduced its “Sure Brake” computerized system, developed with Bendix, on its top-line Imperial, while General Motors offered its “Trackmaster” anti-lock, which worked only on the rear brakes, as an option. The first completely electronic, four-wheel, multi-channel system was developed by Bosch and introduced as an option on the 1978 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and then on the BMW 7 Series. Electronic stability control, which uses the ABS sensors, appeared in 1995.
While they weren’t an overnight success, airbags have been around since the 1950s. John Hetrick in the United States, and Walter Linderer in Germany, both had patents by 1953 for inflatable bags that prevented occupants from striking the dash in a collision. Unfortunately, they lacked a reliable way to deploy them (one option required the driver to set it off manually if it looked like a collision might occur!).
The missing link, a crash sensor that ignited the bags when the vehicle hit something, was developed in 1968 by American engineer Allen K. Breed. Ford experimented with airbags in 1971, and in 1973, Chevrolet offered them as an expensive and rarely-ordered option on fleet vehicles. Front airbags became mandatory in the U.S. in 1999. You might be surprised to know that they’re not required in Canada. Instead, there’s a frontal occupant safety standard; automakers meet it by using airbags.
When you get into a collision, your car’s body folds up around the passenger cabin to deflect and dissipate the crash energy that can injure or kill you. Originally it was believed that a strong, rigid body offered the most protection.
But Mercedes-Benz engineer Béla Barényi didn’t, and in 1951, he received a patent for a vehicle design that incorporated a passenger safety cell surrounded by a body that would crumple around it. The company introduced the system in a production vehicle with its 1959 220 SE (pictured). It took a little longer for North American automakers to catch on; they started incorporating crumple zones in the 1970s.
Packard was one cool car company in 1940 when it introduced the first factory air conditioning system. It was called the Weather-Conditioner and it was an extra $275. It was far from perfect: it was bulky, its components took up much of the trunk, and it didn’t have a thermostat.
Nash, which owned refrigerator company Kelvinator, was the first to put all of the a/c components under the hood in 1954, and the first to have a single lever to switch from hot to cold air.
The Leaf and the i-MiEV are old news, since electric cars were among the earliest automobiles you could buy. Some of the models available were the Riker, founded in New York in 1896; the Baker (pictured as a 1908 model), first built in Cleveland in 1899; and the American Electric, also founded in 1899 in Chicago. When wagon company Studebaker decided to start building automobiles in 1902, it initially made only electric ones.
Battery vehicles were popular because they were simple to start, unlike gasoline engines that had to be cranked. Their drawback was their range, something that’s still an issue more than a century later.
No, the Chevrolet Volt’s basic design isn’t new either. In 1911, there was a car called the Galt—named for Galt, Ontario where it was created—that used its two-cylinder gasoline engine like a generator to create power for its electric motor. It was an experimental car and only two were built.
From 1915 to 1922, you could buy an Owen Magnetic, built in Pennsylvania. It used a six-cylinder gasoline engine that powered its electric transmission, eliminating the need to shift gears. What is actually new in the automotive world? Not that much, it seems.