Car History Timeline: From 3-Wheeled Buggies to Self-Driving Vehicles
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 girdling 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.
Jan. 29, 1886: Carl Benz Patents World’s First Automobile
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.
Nov. 10, 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 interest in this woman’s game-changing invention. But by 1922, Cadillac made windshield wipers standard on its cars.
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Dec. 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.
Dec. 1, 1913: Henry Ford’s Assembly Line Starts Rolling, Brings Car Ownership to the Masses
Determined to “build a motor car for the great multitude,” pioneering American car maker Henry Ford implements 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.
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, builds a successful carriage-making firm after the Civil War, his son Frederick evolves 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.
READ MORE: One of the Earliest US Car Companies Was Founded by a Formerly Enslaved Man
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 prove 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.
May 1938: Hitler Launches the Volkswagen Beetle
Inspired by Model T inventor Henry Ford, Adolf Hitler conceives an affordable “people’s car” for the masses. He enlists carmaker Ferdinand Porsche, whose design consultants include Austrian Erwin Komenda and Hungarian Béla Barényi; the latter drew the Beetle’s iconic bubble design in 1925. Hitler lays the foundation stone for the Beetle factory in Wolfsburg, Germany in May 1938, but only 600 cars are built before the factory switches to wartime production. Despite any lingering Nazi associations, postwar America falls hard for the resuscitated Beetle, with a boost from ingenious advertising. By the late 1950s, the Beetle is a smash hit around the world. The ’60s brings the Beetle its lasting Flower Power association that defies the car’s fascist roots. All told, VW builds 23 million Beetles, more than any nameplate in history, before production ends in 1999.
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Nov. 14, 1940: Willys-Overland Delivers First-Ever Jeep
With war looming, the U.S. Army seeks bids from 135 automakers to design a “light reconnaissance vehicle” that could handle tough military duty. Only three companies respond: Ford, Bantam and Ohio’s Willys-Overland. Completing its design in a remarkable 75 days, Willys delivers its prototype “Quad”—named for its four-wheel-drive system—and goes on to build nearly half of the 700,000 Jeeps used between 1941 and 1945, before switching to civilian production. The popular Jeep Wrangler is a direct descendant of the Willys Jeep.
READ MORE: How Detroit Factories Retooled During WWII to Defeat Hitler
May 11, 1947: Enzo Ferrari’s First (Red) Car Debuts
Legendary race car company founder Enzo Ferrari calls his seminal 125 S a “promising failure” after its racing debut at Italy’s Piacenza circuit. The voluptuous red roadster goes on to win six of its next 13 races, with 117 horsepower from a V-12 engine that becomes a Ferrari signature. Only two 125 S vehicles are ever built.
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1948: From the Ashes of World War II Comes the Tailfin
Rises Harley Earl, the larger-than-life father of modern auto styling, takes his team to a Michigan air base to see the P-38 Lightning fighter before World War II. The trip percolates with designer Frank Hershey, who begins sketching and modeling finned rear fenders reminiscent of aircraft and undersea creatures. The 1948 Cadillac’s purely decorative tailfins spark a car design phenomenon. America’s finned flourishes reach near-ridiculous proportions by the late 1950s.
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June 11, 1955: Mercedes 300 SL Crashes Horrifically at LeMans
In racing’s deadliest day, French driver Pierre Levegh crashes his Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR during the prestigious 24 Hours of LeMans Formula One race. The Mercedes’ split engine plows through the crowd, and its buzzsawing hood decapitates dozens of spectators. The magnesium alloy “Elektron” body burns white-hot for hours, even as the race continues to its tragic finish. Levegh and 83 spectators are killed, with 120 injured. Several countries, including France and Germany, ban auto racing until safety standards improve. Mercedes will not race again for more than 30 years.
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Aug. 13, 1959: Volvo Offers Drivers Their First Chance to Buckle Up
Nils Bohlin—an ex-aviation engineer who worked on flight ejection seats—develops a V-shaped, three-point front seat belt for Volvo. The automaker’s first customer is the Swedish buyer of a PV544 sedan. Yet the groundbreaking safety device takes years to gain widespread use, and the U.S. doesn’t mandate seat belts until 1968.
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Aug. 26, 1959: The Mini Revolution
Sir Alec Issigonis, the Mini’s Greek-born designer, creates the pint-sized charmer—first sold as the Morris Mini-Minor and Austin Seven—in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis, which disrupted global oil transport. But the Mini soon sparks a phenomenon for more than fuel sipping, winning rally races worldwide and finding celebrity owners such as the Beatles. The Mini’s space-saving, engine-sideways layout, with front-wheel drive, becomes the basis for tens of millions of modern cars and now SUVs.
Sept. 12, 1963: Porsche 911 Introduced at Frankfurt Motor Show
Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche, grandson of the company founder, designs a sports car called “901” at its unveiling, with a distinctively tapered roofline and an air-cooled, six-cylinder engine at the rear. Peugeot’s insistence that it holds rights to car names with “0” in the middle leads Porsche to switch the name to 911. Countless achievements later, including more than 100 class wins at the 24 Hours of LeMans annual Formula One race, the 911 remains surely the world’s most iconic sports car. The distinctive silhouette endures through eight generations of redesigns. Porsche builds its one millionth 911 in 2017, and says that 70 percent of all 911s are still on the road.
April 17, 1964: Ford Mustang Sparks Beatlemania-Style Frenzy
With Walt Disney cutting the ribbon, Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca unveil the Ford Mustang at the New York World’s Fair. Designed as an affordable answer to European sports cars, the Mustang (base price: $2,368) garners 22,000 orders on its first day, and sells 1 million units in 18 months. The Mustang phenomenon quickly births “pony car” rivals like the Chevrolet Camaro. Racing legend Carroll Shelby lends performance cred by engineering high-powered versions. Steve McQueen cements the muscle-car legend in 1968, chasing bad guys in his Boss 302 Mustang in Bullitt.
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Nov. 30, 1965: Unsafe at Any Speed Published
When a young, crusading attorney named Ralph Nader writes his landmark broadside against the auto industry, Unsafe at any Speed, safety standards for cars are virtually nonexistent. Within 10 months of the book’s publication, President Lyndon Johnson creates the agency that would become the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Resulting safety rules require automakers to steadily adopt seat belts, air bags, electronic stability controls and now automated emergency braking. Deaths in automobile crashes plummet from 5.3 deaths per 100 million miles of travel in 1965, to 1.1 as of 2019.
1968: Florida Man Pioneers Airbag Tech, Makes a Fortune
Allen K. Breed’s affordable, $5 crash sensor leads to the first electromechanical air bag system. Five years later, General Motors offers the first passenger airbag on its Oldsmobile Toronado. Breed Technologies becomes one of the world’s leading suppliers of safety systems.
Dec. 31, 1970: Clean Air Act Begins Scrubbing Skies
With environmental consciousness and activism sweeping America—including the first Earth Day—the battle against smog and other air pollution takes off when President Richard Nixon signs the Clean Air Act, and soon creates the Environmental Protection Agency. Automakers are forced to adopt their first pollution requirements, with catalytic converters that (temporarily) strangle power and kill the Muscle Car era, but dramatically reduce smog-forming emissions. In its first 20 years, the EPA reports, the Act prevents more than 200,000 premature deaths and nearly 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis.
July 31, 1971: First Lunar Rover Cruises the Moon
Three Lunar Roving Vehicles remain on the moon, left behind after successfully navigating the dusty surface on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions. Built by Boeing, the foldable, lightweight, battery-powered Rover—a dune-buggy-like vehicle that reached a maximum speed of 11.2 mph on its final mission—extend the range of astronauts in their bulky space suits. Four flight-ready LRVs were built, at a cost of $38 million.
READ MORE: The Amazing Hand-Made Tech That Powered Apollo 11’s Moon Voyage
March 5, 1981: McLaren Creates First Carbon-Fiber Race Car
The McLaren MP4/1 rolls out of its garage with a lightweight, ultra-strong carbon-fiber chassis. Within one season, it renders its rivals in Formula One obsolete. McLaren further revolutionizes the world of streetgoing supercars in 1992 with the $815,000, carbon-fiber based F1. Today, carbon fiber is a critical component for high-end racing and supercar manufacturing.
Oct. 1997: Toyota Prius Becomes Fuel-Sipper Supreme
First launched in Japan, the frumpy Prius doesn’t look groundbreaking, despite its tagline: “Just in time for the 21st century.” But the fuel-saving, shoebox-shaped Toyota sparks a sales sensation. Rival automakers scramble to create their own gas-electric hybrids. Prius chief engineer Takeshi Uchiyamada rises to become chairman of Toyota’s board of directors in 2013.
2005: Bugatti Veyron Becomes World’s Fastest Production Car
Reviving a once-glorious but moribund brand, the Volkswagen Group’s Bugatti Veyron 16.4 shocks the world with its 987-horsepower, four-turbo, 16-cylinder engine. The $1.9 million earthbound missile is the first car with 1,000 European PS (or 987 horsepower), and reaches an improbable 249-mph top speed.
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Dec. 2008: A Robotic Prius Delivers Pizza
Built by 510 Systems, a California start-up, the Toyota Prius-based “Pribot” executes the first autonomous drive on public roads, delivering a pizza in a televised stunt. A police escort leads the Lidar-mapped Toyota over San Francisco’s Bay Bridge because the car can not yet sense surrounding traffic. The Pribot hatches a fleet of Google’s self-driving Priuses, helped birth Google’s StreetView and greatly advances the science of autonomous transportation.
June 12, 2012: Tesla Model S Disrupts Fossil-Fueled Industry
Elon Musk’s first car is the Tesla Roadster, based on a Lotus Elise chassis, heavily reengineered to run on electricity. But the Model S sedan is the world changer: With its slinky shape, moonshot acceleration and revolutionary tech, Musk’s upstart has global automakers tearing up product plans and realizing that electric cars are the future, not a fad.
Nov. 15, 2020: Lewis Hamilton Takes Record 7th Formula One Title
The brilliant Lewis Hamilton equals Michael Schumacher with his record seventh Formula One championship, driving his Mercedes-AMG to his 94th lifetime win on a wet and treacherous track at the Turkish Grand Prix. F1’s only Black driver marks his historic season with high-profile Black Lives Matters activism, including convincing Mercedes to paint its cars black rather than its traditional silver.