- Historic Sites
Ten Innovations That Made History
The nuts-and-bolts perspective on how cars have shaped our lives
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
As with all such lists, some omissions were necessary, and as with all such lists, we will begin by apologizing for them. We limited our scope to things found in or on the car itself, so interstate highways, trailers, and the moving assembly line were not eligible. We looked for advances that made major changes in the way we use or think about cars, so some incremental improvements like fuel injection and shaft drive didn’t make the grade. And we left off most protective items, such as safety glass, sealed-beam headlights, seat belts, and air bags, partly because no single one seemed dominant and partly because motorists too often compensate for safety advances by driving faster and more recklessly.
Within these limits, then, and without any pretense of having the final word on the subject, here are our selections:
Once started, an automobile engine will run by itself, but it takes a powerful impulse to put all those pistons and shafts in motion. In the early days a driver provided that impulse by vigorously turning a crank. Besides requiring a lot of elbow grease, cranking could be dangerous: Leave the car in gear or forget to retard the spark, and you could easily end up with broken bones. Fortunately, today’s liability lawyers were not around to strangle the automotive industry in its cradle.
Inventors devised gadgets to ease the burden with compressed air, springs, levers, or acetylene explosions. None were very reliable. Electrical systems were more promising but impractically bulky. Then in 1911 Charles Kettering of Dayton, Ohio, figured out how to make a modest-size battery deliver a short burst of intense power, as he had done on a smaller scale for his previous employer, National Cash Register. His electric starter was introduced on the 1912 Cadillac, and by 1916 virtually every American car except the Model T had abandoned the crank.
Kettering’s self-starter dealt a deathblow to steam vehicles as well as electrics, whose chief advantage, before modern concerns with pollution, was their easy starting. It also made driving much less arduous, especially for women. In doing so, it opened motoring to a far wider audience and turned the family car into an ordinary household appliance.
If European cars are about elegance and Japanese cars are about dependability, American cars are about power. The simplest way to get extra power is to put more cylinders in the engine. Four was the early standard; as customers demanded additional oomph, manufacturers went to six, eight, or more. The more cylinders there are, however, the longer the crankshaft has to be, making it prone to vibration and twisting problems. But by lining up the cylinders in a V, four on each side, you can attach two of them to a single place on the shaft, which will need to be only about half as long.
The American V-8 engine appeared in 1907 and was made standard on Cadillacs in 1914, but it remained a luxury item until the 1932 Ford V-8, Henry Ford’s last great triumph. By casting the engine in a single block, Ford made big-car power cheap enough for anyone who could afford a new vehicle in the Depression (or steal one; the V-8 elicited fan mail from the outlaws John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow). Two-plus decades later the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air introduced the “small block,” a light, inexpensive overhead-valve V-8 that started the “muscle car” phenomenon. Its’ descendants still form the basis for today’s Chevys.
The visceral thrill of stepping on the gas and feeling the engine’s smooth, quiet surge of power lies at the heart of our century-long affair with the automobile. The V-8 engine fulfilled America’s democratic ideal by making that thrill available to everyone.
Early automakers concentrated on making cars go, not making them stop. Braking, after all, is simple; you just press something against the wheel rim. But mechanical brakes, with their wires and cables, broke down often and wore unevenly, making them pull to one side. Stopping a car took a strong forearm and lots of room.
In 1918 the airplane builder Malcolm Loughead (later changed to Lockheed) patented a braking system in which fluid transmitted pressure from the driver’s foot to all four wheels. The result was quicker, smoother stopping with no pull and fewer trips to the shop. Loughead’s system first appeared in the 1922 Duesenberg. In 1924 the Chrysler Six became the first production car to use it. Ford, as usual, was last to make the change, in 1939.