There can be only a few people alive today who remember what motoring was like in the very beginning, when brakes were poor, where you had to crank the car to get it started and “luxuries” like a windscreen wiper on the passengers’ side of the car could not be guaranteed.
My, how things have changed. Today, even the most basic cars are fitted with the ‘extras’ that the 1920 motorist could only dream about.
Let’s go back to the beginning though.
The first true car was invented way back in 1886 by Karl Benz, it had three wheels and an internal combustion engine. The first mass produced car was the famous Model T Ford, these being made from 1908. At first, as mentioned above, these early cars could only be started with a crank handle, something that was not as easy as it sounds.
Many don’t know that the crank could at times kick back, sometimes with fatal results; one of the first such fatalities being a gentlemen called Byron Carter. I say gentlemen as his death was directly related to the fact that he stopped to help a lady who had stalled her car and could not restart it.
In this sad case, the crank kicked back, breaking Byron’s arm and jaw, his subsequent hospitalisation resulted in him catching pneumonia, which eventually killed him in 1908. Some good did come out of this though, as Byron was a friend of Henry Leland, who had already founded Cadillac in 1902. Henry decided that such things should not happen again and eventually by 1912 electric starter motors were being fitted to many models in the Cadillac range. The crank handle did not drop out of existence for many years though, as they were retained for the times the battery was flat or where for some reason, you could not start the car in any other way.
One of the next additions was strangely enough the cigarette lighter, followed by car radios in the 1930’s.
But what about all the other things that we take for granted now? It is a surprising fact that it was not until 1949 that you could use a key to activate the starter motor; before that it was down to pressing a button (funny to think that these days many cars have a ‘start’ button, this being seen as a innovation and something special!).
Electric windows, which are not even now fitted to every car, were first seen as far back as 1940 in the Packard 180 series. Saying that it took another 20 years (1960) before they were seen on most cars.
Power steering, so necessary today as our cars have such big wide tyres – and not so needed in the early days with their thin wheels – came into play in 1951.
One might think that air conditioning was a new innovation, not so, this first appearing in 1953, no doubt in the USA where AC was more important than in the UK, for obvious reasons.
You could well think the same thing about Cruise Control. The first variants of this were undoubtedly very simple, especially when compared to modern systems where the cars speed and distance to the car in front are controlled automatically. These first systems came into play in 1958.
Seat belts, which we all take for granted today in the UK did not actually appear until 1959, Volvo being the first to fit them. Today, they save countless lives around the world. In the UK, all new cars had to have front seat belts from 1968, but it was not until 1983 that it became law to use them. Attempts were made to get all to use them naturally first, but when the ‘clunk click every trip’ campaign in the 1970’s failed, there was no choice but to make this a legal requirement.
Windscreen wipers started out life as very much manual affairs (1903 being the first documented example), a lever being provided for the driver to operate, and even when they were powered by something other than arm power, they may well have only been fitted on the drivers’ side.
Soon, wipers were fitted to both sides of the windscreen and in 1969 intermittent versions appeared.
With the advent of the Cassette tape, it was not surprising that they were a ‘required accessory’ before long, so by 1970 cars were fitted with this new way of listening to music, a good thing when you consider how poor radio reception could be at that time.
Another innovation, one that again most of us take for granted, is that of Anti Lock brakes. ABS appeared in 1971, but again they were simple affairs, improving greatly over time with the introduction of electronic aids and stabilisation devices.
Worries about the emissions from cars is not new; catalytic converters being fitted from 1973. These have helped keep the level of harmful gasses down, but as we know still far too much CO, CO2 and Nitrogen dioxide are being pumped into the air, this causing big problems in cities around the world.
Over the next decades, digital dashboards appeared and the trusted cassette player was replaced by the CD. Another great step forward in safety was made in 1988, when airbags started to appear. Today we see them in just about every car, some having ones to the side as well as the front.
It should be noted that car safety took a massive step forward in 1997 when the Euro NCAP organisation was formed. It’s one aim was (and still is) to ensure that we all know just how safe that car we are buying is, and how well it protects the passengers in the event of a crash.
But to get back on the track of innovations. Parking sensors were first seen in 1992 (not quite the all around camera vision we can have today, but still good enough for the job), fully automatic parking arriving in 2003.
Since then more and more ‘driver assist’ features have been added, like ‘lane assist’ where the car warns you when you stray out of your motorway lane, inbuilt GPS and other systems, all being designed to make driving easier.
The self driving car cannot be that far away either…
As you can see, the car has changed dramatically since it first put rubber on the road, and if you are interested in the history of the British Motoring Manufacturing industry, there is one place you should not miss. It’s called the Great British Car Journey, where you can also find Drive Dads Car, a really special service where you can drive cars from the 1930’s and beyond, all of which means you can experience at first hand, just how much cars have changed over the years…