Automobile History & Timeline

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Some say the evolution of man is driven by war. Others say it's by art, morality or technology. But history is a cyclical thing, where a change in any one precipitates a change in the next, which drives another change in the former. To say that automobiles and automotive technology has shaped the world we live in today is certainly true, but modern automobiles are the culmination of a long series of changes in technology, culture and warfare over the centuries.

Genesis -- The First Automobiles

  • The very first self-powered vehicle capable of carrying human beings was the Cugnot Steam Trolley, a bizarre oddity produced in 1769. It used a massive steam boiler hanging out in front of what we'd call the front bumper today, driving the front wheel. Yes, the first car was front-wheel drive. The automobile might have remained an impractical novelty, had a man named John "Iron Mad" Wilkenson not invented the world's first machine tool in 1774. Wilkenson created his cylinder boring machine for the British military, to make for straighter, smoother cannon barrels. Wilkinson's machine not only gave the British a worldwide empire, it spawned an offshoot revolution in steam engine production. Now with smooth, standardized cylinders, James Watt could make powerful and efficient steam engines, and Francoius Isaac de Rivas could do the same with an internal combustion engine. In 1807, de Rivas used his smooth bores and a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen to create the world's first internal-combustion-engined automobile.

The 19th Century

  • This first half of this century focused mainly on steam trains, which technologically descended from the Cugnot Steam Trolley. Automobiles were a bit slow in coming, partly because roads barely existed, but mostly because England and America were both too busy fighting brutal wars to develop automobiles. But, once Napoleon and the Civil War were past, automobile technology began accelerating at an unprecedented rate. The latter two-thirds of this century were defined by three fiercely competing technologies: steam, internal combustion and electric power. Steam, a well-understood entity, was the first to hit the mass market with Amedee Bollee's 1873 steam "buses." The 1888 Flocken Elektrowagen showed the world that electric motors were viable powerplants, though battery technology of the day made them all but useless. Theoretically, that problem could have been solved long ago -- the hydrogen fuel cell, invented in 1838, was already a known and much respected quantity. But, it lacked the any-time power, practicality and easy refueling of the world's first practical production automobile: the 1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen.

1886 to Pre-War Era

  • If there was one particularly sad note of this era, it was that development of nearly every form of powertrain apart from gas and diesel died out. Steam, electric, ethanol, even hydrogen fuel cells and series hybrids -- in the form of the Porsche Mixte -- all existed in some stage of sales or development at the turn of the century. It was oil monopoly man J.D. Rockefeller who conspired to eliminate all competition and development of these technologies when he made gasoline near as cheap as tapwater. But, there was at least one upshot to the use of this now-standard fuel: almost every dime of research went into rapidly developing gasoline engines.

    This era saw the automobile evolve from an expensive toy for the super-rich, to everyday transportation for the masses. Of course, credit for that goes almost entirely to Henry Ford, who changed the world with his 1908 Model T and, perhaps even more importantly, the assembly lines upon which it was built. By the end of its production run in 1927, half the cars in the world were Model Ts. That forced other manufacturers to scramble to catch up, and it was only the Great Depression of 1929 that allowed them to do it. It's one of the ironic truisms of the world that luxury car sales go through the roof during depressions and recessions, which gave Ford's less price-efficient competitors -- like GM and Chrysler -- a chance to establish a foothold in the marketplace. Cadillac, Rolls Royce and Bugatti rose to prominence in the early 1930s. Even Ford got into the "bigger, faster and more luxurious" game, with his 1932 flathead V-8 Model B. However, it was a little German "people's car," commissioned by an evil dictator, that would rise in 1938 to steal Ford's "most popular car in the world" title.

WWII to Muscle Car Era

  • The Second World War effectively stopped all automotive development for about six years, as all resources were rerouted to the war effort. It wasn't until about 1948 that manufacturers came back to market with fresh designs and new engines to feed the screaming demand of moneyed soldiers and booming post-war industry. And that wasn't the only effect the war had on automobiles: unibody chassis, strut suspensions, superchargers and hydraulic, antilock brakes debuted during the post-war era, and all were derived directly from technology used in WWII aircraft. Former aircraft engineers also contributed to the designs of modern, high-compression, overhead valve engines like the Chevrolet small-block.

    Aircraft also played a massive role in design; by the early- to mid-1950s, scarcely a car could be sold in America without tailfins, "jet engine" intakes, or at least a little nose cone reminiscent of a B-36 nuclear bomber. It was during the late 1950s and early 1960s that the automobile industry effectively split in two: big, fast, American proto-musclecars like the Chevy Impala 409 and Pontiac Tempest, and smaller compacts meant to compete with a new wave of sporty, cool, efficient run-abouts from Europe.

Muscle Car to Emissions Era

  • To many, the 1960s represented something of a golden era for automobiles. In the early part of the decade, big, fast, V-8 sedans reigned supreme, but a number of smaller vehicles with alternative engine types were quietly sneaking up on them. Volkswagen had begun infiltrating the ranks, and so had its cousin, Porsche. Seeking to compete with Porsche on its own ground, Chevrolet introduced the rear-engine, air-cooled, boxer-six Corvair in 1959. The Corvair made waves, but nothing like the tsunami that Ford released in 1964; the Mustang, a re-bodied Falcon compact, was originally designed as a response to the Corvair, but its conventional layout, powerful engines and European style quickly ushered it to stardom.

    Chevrolet re-bodied its own compact the next year, creating Mustang's arch rival, the Camaro. Joined by the Plymouth Baracuda, these three cut heavily into the sales of Jaguar E-Types of the era in the United States, but Jags maintained a powerful cult status among movie stars and the painfully cool. Massive sedans were largely superseded in this era by compact and mid-sized offerings like the Chevelle and Charger, which offered a better power-to-weight ratio and much lower cost than luxury-laden land yachts.

Emissions Era to Modern Era

  • The muscle era's music died with a shriek after 1973, when new emissions regulations forced manufacturers to adopt band-aid fixes like low compression, smaller-displacement engines, and horsepower-killing emissions equipment like smog pumps and lead-pellet catalytic converters. On top of that, the OPEC oil crisis and rising insurance costs conspired to kill everyone's go-fast fun for a while. At one point, only a single car still carried the flag for big-block performance: the "Bandit" Trans Am. No doubt, these were dark days for performance -- but a new light was on the horizon, as manufacturers went into technological overdrive, coming up with new ways of meeting emissions and fuel economy standards while boosting horsepower, practicality and refinement.

    Antilock brakes made their first appearance in the 1971 Chrysler Imperial, and by 1975 were standard equipment on many models. Computers aided in chassis and suspension design; Chrysler used them to revolutionize the way cars were built, when it introduced the groundbreaking K-Car platform. But computers had at least as broad an impact under the hood. Electronic fuel injection hit the big time in the early 1980s, with the 5.0 Mustang, Corvette, Dodge's four cylinder engines and Buick's incredibly Grand National V-6 carrying the standard for electronic controls. The latter two also proved to the world the power of a technology once found on the Corvair: turbocharging. Turbos had been around for quite a while, but it took fuel injection to unlock its true performance potential; the two together proved to the nation that both were here to stay.

Modern Era

  • Computers came to define automotive design going into the 1990s. a new generation of computer-aided-design programs allowed manufacturers to build and test vehicles digitally; as a result, newer vehicles were stiffer, better handling, better riding and more aerodynamic than ever before. Ever since Ford's 1985 Taurus started the aero styling revolution, cars kept getting slicker and slicker until the Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler LHS -- originally based on the Lamborghini Portofino Concept -- brought aero design to its illogical extreme. In some ways, these cars and those like them played a role in ending the aero era, particularly when the PT Cruiser proved that people cared more about style than driving a giant wing. The New Mustang and Chrysler 300 put the final two nails in deliberately aerodynamic styling's coffin.

    Computers also revolutionized engine design, but not in the way you may think. Prior to 1996, manufacturers used whatever computer control systems they wanted to; this Wild West period of fuel injection came very close to killing private repair garages, hot-rodding and enthusiast tuning in general. But, in 1996, the Federal government mandated the universal use of Onboard Diagnostics, Series II protocol. This programming language was meant to help emissions inspectors, but had the side-effect of allowing private shops, garages and tuners to stay active in the industry.

Forward to the Beginning

  • Some say that the world of today is a new Golden Age, like the 1960s -- and that may be true, if you're looking at it from a performance and styling perspective. Today, you can buy a Corvette for less than $80,000 that would annihilate any 1960s LeMans champion. Your average Toyota offers standard equipment that a 1930s Bugatti owners couldn't even dream of, and a Honda Civic will out-handle any old Jag sports car. Oddly, fuel economy is one of the only areas in which we haven't seen any major gain since the 1980s. At least, until recently -- and that's what brings us back to the beginning.

    The early 2000s are more like the early 1900s than any other time in automotive history, and for good reason. A century ago, we abandoned promising technologies like steam, electric cars, hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells, and alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel because J.D. Rockefeller's oil monopoly made gas cheap. More than a century ago, new ideas in transportation were the order of the day; since Standard Oil, we've more or less just been refining the Model T. Maybe that makes cars like the Chevrolet Volt heralds of a new era, and the Tesla Model S ironically deserving of its name. After a century of internal combustion milestones, maybe the day has come for us to finally press the "reset" button on automotive development...looking forward to a new beginning.

  • Photo Credit karenfoleyphotography/iStock/Getty Images
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