Automotive History: The Origins Of The Modern Car

There’s some basis to the notion that automotive evolution has slowed down, or is converging. Strip apart just about any of the ubiquitous fwd sedans that dominate the sales charts, and they look awfully alike under the skin: body structure, engine-transmission configuration, suspension, brakes, steering, safety features, emission controls, etc.  So where did they all originate? Let’s tear this best-selling Camry apart, and try to pinpoint the first use of all of its main features and systems. I’ll start with the main ones, but we’ll keep adding others as you identify them and their source. (Update: I’ll create a substantially revised version of this piece incorporating all the comments/additions. The open-source Origins of the Modern Car)

Body Structure: The monocoque/unibody was first employed by the 1922 Lancia Lambda. It dramatically lowered the car compared to the tall body-on-frame cars of the time, as well as making it a light and rigid structure.But the Lambda was an open car, and its body construction more resembled that of a boat.

The Citroen Traction Avant of 1934 arguably had the first true unibody. Chrysler’s 1934 Airflow is considered more of a BOF-unibody hybrid.

MacPherson Strut Suspension: MacPherson struts have come to totally dominate front suspension, thanks to their low cost. Earle S. MacPherson developed the struts for the still-born Chevrolet Cadet, but left GM for Ford in 1947 after the Cadet was cancelled. The French-built Ford Vedette of 1949 ( looking like a baby Mercury) had the first production struts. Like most things, MacPherson’s struts weren’t all-new, having been inspired by Fiat designs from the 1920s.

The Camry also uses a strut-type rear suspension, fulfilling MacPhersosn’s original design configuration for the Cadet, which also used struts front and rear.

Four-valve DOHC engine:  Peugeot’s L76 engine of 1912 was the first to utilize these two common hallmarks of modern engines. But this configuration was mostly the realm of racing and sports cars.

The 1973 Triumph Dolomite Sprint was the first “mass-produced” car with a four-valve DOHC head, although these weren’t exactly mass-ively common.

For that, one would need to look to Toyota’s legendary 4A-GE 1600 cc four of 1984, which also pioneered T-VIS, an early version of variable intake.

image: allpar

Electronic Fuel Injection: Bendix’ Electrojector (1957-1958), utilizing the latest in transistor elctronic circuitry, was set to premier in the 1957 Rambler Rebel. But difficulties in the system reacting quickly enough to its sensors caused driveability and there were serious reliability issues. It did find its way under the hood of thirty-five 1958 Chrysler products, all but one of which was converted to carburetors after similar issues bedeviled them. There’s one 1958 DeSoto still extant with a running Electrojector, in case anyone thinks the whole thing was a conspiracy theory.

Bendix sold it patents to Bosch, which spent the next decade making it work. The 1967 VW 1600 was the first production vehicle with the results of its labors. More than a few of those were converted to carbs too, but by their owners who failed to bone up on the L-Jetronic’s not all-that complicated mysteries.

Emission Controls: Catalytic converters go back some, but the key breakthrough was the three-way feedback catalytic converter, using an oxygen sensor (Lambda sond). Volvo introduced it on their 1977 MY 240, but the technology was by Bosch. Saab also introduced the technology about the same time. It quickly became the basis for substantially cleaner exhausts, as well as endless CELs, thanks to failing oxygen sensors.

Transverse front engine: Not just any transverse engine configuration, as DKW had that back in the twenties, and the BMC Mini had a version with the transmission in the sump. But the Autobianchi Primula of 1964 pioneered the configuration found in essentially all transverse fwd cars: the transmission in-line with the engine, and power then reversed back to the offset differential, with unequal-length drive shafts, thus inventing torque-steer.

Automatic Transmission: This one is both easy and hard. Oldsmobile’s 1940 Hydramatic was undoubtedly the first modern automatic, but it used a fluid coupling, not a torque convertor. There were many variations on this and the one and two-speed torque-convertor slush-boxes, but perhaps the first automatics to incorporate both the torque convertor and multiple modern gears were Borg Warner’s two different 1951 transmissions; the three-speed Fordomatic and the more complex Detroit Gear unit used by Studebaker. Chrysler’s 1956 Torqueflite, utilizing the simpler and efficient Simpson gear set, set the pattern for subsequent development.

So who had the first modern (more than two-speed) automatic in a transverse inline-with-engine configuration fwd car? The 1975 Golf/Rabbit? Or?

Rack and Pinion Steering: The basic concept goes back to some steam engines in the 19th Century. As to the first usage in an automobile, the trail gets a bit fuzzy. There’s some reference to BMW in the thirties, but the 1934 Citroen TA did have it, and until someone proves that wrong, it gets another nod.

Electric Power Steering: We can thank the oddly-shaped 1988 Suzuki Cervo for taking so much joy out of steering, although the latest (and best) versions of EPS is getting better.

Disc Brakes: Fredrick Lanchester’s patent for a disc brakes was granted in 1902, but not much really became of them due to numerous difficulties. The Crosley Hot Shot had caliper discs in the front, but were highly problematic, and most were swapped out.

The 1953 Jaguar C-Type was the first successful application of the caliper disc brake, and proved itself convincingly at the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Seat Belts: The first standard three-point belts were installed in the 1959 Volvo 122 (Amazon). The driving gloves were optional, though.

Anti-Lock Braking: (ABS, from the German Antiblockiersystem) There were numerous predecessors to the definitive four-wheel production system introduced on the Mercedes S-Class in 1978. Chrysler’s Sure Brake operated on all four wheels, but had only three channels (both rear wheels controlled by the same modulator), or were rear-wheel only (Lincoln, others), or dead-end technology. Mercedes’ system used the induction wheel sensors and four-channel system that became the basis of all modern braking control systems, including traction control and ESP/ESC.  Might as well lump them together, as they’re all off-shoots of that technology.

Air Bag: One of several technologies that were first developed in the US and perfected by Mercedes or other foreign companies. GM sold some 10,000 1974- 1976 cars with airbags, but in addition to their high cost, there were concerns about the risk of injury from their deployment, especially after some deaths as a result of that. GM’s air bags were designed to be used as a supplement to lap belts, as those airbag-equipped cars came specifically only with lap belts.

Mercedes’ key development was to design the second generation air bags to be specifically used in conjunction with shoulder belts, and to develop a pre-tensioning mechanism to the belts, thus reducing the likelihood of injuries from the rapidly inflating air bag. Mercedes introduced its SRS system them on the 1981 W126 S Class, and expanded their use across their passenger car line by 1985. The 1987 Porsche 944 turbo was the first car to have both driver and passenger car airbags as standard equipment.

Steel-belted Radial Tires: Invented by the Michelin Man in 1946, of course! Actually, an American, Arthur Savage, patented the radial tire in 1915, but it was never commercialized, and the patents expired.

So that covers at least some of the basic essentials to make a Camry what it is. Of course, there are countless other technologies too, from rear-view mirrors (1911 Marmon Wasp, above), interval wipers, back-up lights, etc. Never mind all the electronics. How about the first solid-state radio? Heater? Air conditioner? Add them in the comments, along with a picture (preferably), and we’ll create the mother of all cars, literally.