When we think of the earliest vehicles, we immediately look at Henry Ford and his innovative Model T which was the most popular vehicle in the early 20th Century, but the history of the modern car goes back even further than that.
When you compare the earliest vehicles to today’s hybrid cars, the noisy, stinking, and slow automobiles are nothing like the sleek and almost silent models that are being produced by all the major manufacturers.
Every aspect of the modern vehicle is becoming quieter, more efficient, and built for safety with an eye on technology and innovation – from the engine to the tires. But how did we go from the Model T to the Tesla?
The Internal Combustion Engine
Some of the early work in self-propelled transportation came from the steam-powered tricycle that was invented by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1771. However, Nice phone and Claude Niepce can be credited with creating the first internal combustion engine in 1807 – although they put it into a boat.
Early pioneers of the automobile remained firmly European, with Karl Friedrich Benz credited with being the inventor of what we consider to be the modern car when he introduced the Motorwagen in 1885. William Maybach invented the Mercedes in 1901 for the company Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG).
For automobile producers in the US, the market was ready for cars – a larger land mass than Europe with more geographically isolated settlements meant an automobile would change their world. Henry Ford developed mass production methods that meant cars could be produced faster, and with less cost than they could in Europe.
This is one of the reasons that the Model T became the most popular motorcar in the US. Launched in 1908, by 1918 half of all cars on the road in America were Model T.
There were hundreds of automobile manufacturers in the US, but two world wars and the economic depression meant that most automobile companies went out of business, leaving just a handful. The ‘Detroit Big Three’ (Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler) managed to keep going, largely because they shifted to producing vehicles for the war effort.
Style Over Substance
In the post-war period, automobiles started to develop more design considerations and style became important. Closed bodies, drop-frame construction, and low-pressure balloon tires in the vehicles were produced in the same way up until the early 1950s.
General Motors shifted focus from producing cars that were functional to what is known as ‘planned obsolescence’ – encouraging customers to trade in their vehicles regularly for a new, more stylish, cosmetically different model. These new designs came out every year.
This trend for multiple models and options developing annually led to the downfall of the American-made car – producers began focusing on style over substance, creating cars that looked good but compromised hugely on important things like economy and safety. They became longer and heavier, with more ‘gadgets’, so they were much more expensive to purchase and operate.
Thankfully, the federal standards imposed on car manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s, coupled with the oil crisis made these overstuffed and unsafe vehicles much less popular.
Vehicle imports from Europe and Japan featured cars that were smaller and more compact, safer, and with better fuel economy – and they were also cheaper.
While the American producers struggled to compete with these attractive and well-priced foreign imports, it became obvious by the 1980s that a car being ‘American-made’ didn’t attract customers quite as reliably as a cheap and simple design.
In 1978, almost 13 million units of American-made cars were sold in the US. By 1982, this number had dropped to just under 7 million – and Japan had become the world’s leading auto producer, and it still is today.
The Future is Electric
Major vehicle producers are creating cleaner, quieter vehicles powered by electricity that do not suffer from a lack of performance, and while Tesla might be leading the charge for completely automated automobiles, we are living in a world of vehicle innovation that will change the face of cars forever.