Few inventions in history have transformed our lives, culture, and environment as much as the automobile. Before 1900, most people spent their lives within a few miles of where they were born. Cars changed all that, allowing people to travel easily, with empowering freedom and autonomy. Henry Ford’s Model T—and factory assembly line—opened a world of mass production, echoed today in every sneaker and smartphone. During World War II, Detroit’s automakers helped secure Allied victory by transforming their factories into “arsenals of democracy,” producing jeeps, tanks, fighter planes and more. After the war, highways began encircling the globe, giving birth to suburbia, the Interstate, the road trip, the drive-in. Hollywood and TV heightened the fantasy, amplifying the endless allure of speed, racing, exploration and adventure.
Naturally, there’s a darker side: The 1.4 billion cars on the road today may reach 2 billion by 2035, most emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. While cars are exponentially safer than ever before, about 1.35 million people die on the world’s roadways each year. New technological revolutions seek remedies for those dark consequences: electric cars to beat back climate change and self-driving cars that might dramatically reduce collisions, deaths, and injuries.
Below is a timeline of the automotive revolution—an epic and literal reinvention of the wheel.
1886: Carl Benz Patents World’s First Automobile
MAHAUX CHARLES/AGF/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES
BENZ PATENT MOTORCAR 1886, THE FIRST CAR OF CARL BENZ, SEEN IN THE TRANSPORT MUSEUM, DRESDEN, GERMANY.
German mechanical engineer Carl Benz kicks off a transportation revolution when he applies for a patent for a “vehicle powered by a gas engine”—or what Mercedes-Benz now calls “the birth certificate of the automobile.” By July 1886, newspapers report public road sightings of the Benz Patent Motorwagen. The three-wheeled vehicle’s engine has just one cylinder, less than one horsepower and a 10-m.p.h. top speed.
1900: Porsche Shows First Hybrid Car at Paris World’s Fair
Nearly a century before the Toyota Prius, Ferdinand Porsche debuts Austria’s Lohner-Porsche, a radical hybrid car that generates electricity from two small gasoline engines to power its front wheels. Buyers of the pricey model—which costs $2,900 to $6,840, or $91,000 to $216,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars—include Emil Jellinek, whose daughter Mercedes became the namesake for Mercedes-Benz.
1903: Woman Invents Windshield Wiper. Industry Ignores Her.
Mary Anderson receives a patent for the first windshield wiper, a handle-operated, rubber-bladed system “to remove snow, rain or sleet” from the window of “modern electric motor cars.” (Yes, electric cars were a thing in 1903.) The Alabama native was inspired on a trip to New York, observing how streetcar drivers had to open windows to see ahead in poor weather. Not one automaker took an interest in this woman’s game-changing invention. But by 1922, Cadillac made windshield wipers standard on its cars.
1906: Newcomer Rolls-Royce Introduces ‘The Best Car in the World’
Rolls-Royce shows its 40/50, the prototype for its iconic Silver Ghost. It’s among history’s most famously durable, luxurious, and well-engineered cars—and the polar opposite of Henry Ford’s mass-market approach. The company hand-builds fewer than 8,000 copies of the Silver Ghost from 1907 to 1926, with the chassis alone (minus a custom body) costing $11,750, about $370,000 in today’s dollars.
1912: Cadillac Makes the Engine Crank Obsolete
Cadillac introduces the first electric starter on its Touring Edition, created by Charles “Boss” Kettering, a famous inventor and engineer. The starter eliminates the need for drivers to hand-crank cars to life—a process that led to broken arms and other injuries due to engine kickback.
1913: Henry Ford’s Assembly Line Starts Rolling, Brings Car Ownership to the Masses
PART OF THE PRODUCTION LINE AT FORD’S HIGHLAND PARK FACTORY, DETROIT, MICHIGAN, USA, C. 1914. THE FACTORY, 4.5 MILES FROM THE CENTER OF DETROIT, WAS THE FIRST TO MAKE USE OF ASSEMBLY-LINE TECHNIQUES IN THE PRODUCTION OF HENRY FORD’S FAMOUS MODEL T.
Determined to “build a motor car for the great multitude,” pioneering American car maker Henry Ford implemented the first moving automotive assembly line for his Model T, soon trimming its production time from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes. Bored by rote assembly-line tasks, workers quit en masse, and Ford institutes the $5-a-day, 40-hour work week in response, sparking a mass migration of job seekers to Ford’s gates in Detroit. Between 1908 and 1927, Ford builds 15 million Model T’s, changing the very fabric of industrial and agricultural America.
COURTESY HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF GREENFIELD
FREDERICK PATTERSON STANDING BESIDE A BARE PATTERSON-GREENFIELD AUTOMOBILE CHASSIS, PROBABLY FOR A LARGER TOURING CAR BODY.
1915: African American Car Company Sets up Shop
C.R. Patterson & Sons of Greenfield, Ohio becomes history’s first and only African American-owned car company, joining hundreds of scrappy start-ups as horse-drawn vehicles give way to combustion-engine automobiles. After founder C.R. Patterson, born into slavery in 1833, built a successful carriage-making firm after the Civil War, his son Frederick evolved the business to go horseless. And while the company hand-builds only a few dozen bespoke Patterson-Greenfield cars between 1915 and 1918, it goes on to successfully fabricate bodies for buses and commercial vehicles until the Depression.
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1934: Chrysler Airflow Streamlines Auto Design
Innovation is great but also requires timing. Chrysler arrives prematurely with its streamlined Airflow models, whose teardrop shape and forward-set cabin are inspired by aircraft and the first automotive wind-tunnel testing. The mold-breaking Airflows proved an epic sales flop, with production canceled after 1937. But other automakers quickly adopt many of its innovations, including all-steel bodies.
1934: The Citroen Traction Avant: From Gangsters to the Gestapo
The Traction Avant, the brainchild of French engineer and industrialist Andre-Gustave Citroën, is credited as the world’s first mass-produced, front-wheel-drive car. Styled by sculptor Flaminio Bertoni, the sleek, lightweight unibody Citroën also pioneers independent suspension and hydraulic brakes. In production for more than 20 years, it becomes an inseparable part of French identity, driven by infamous gangster Pierre “Le Fou” Loutrel and other unsavory yet colorful characters—as well as menacing Gestapo officers during World War II.