Automobile History

Automobile History


When was the first automobile built? Daimler and Benz are traditionally credited with building the first cars in 1886, but the French claim it was first built in 1884 by Delamare-Deboutteville. Still others claim it was built in 1860. It all depends on your definition of a car.

Contrary to popular belief, Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. He wasn’t even close. What Ford did was perfect the assembly-line technique, well after the turn of the century. This allowed him to lower the cost of the automobile drastically, bringing a rich man’s plaything within reach of the masses, thereby changing Western society. Reason enough to be famous.

In 1860 a Frenchman, Edouard Delamare-Deboutteville, did some experiments and filed some patents for a self-propelled car. In 1884 France built the world’s first car. However the first self-propelled automobile existed long before 1884.

Steam-powered stage coaches were in regular service between many towns in Britain from 1820 to 1840. They were built by such men as Goldsworthy Gurney, Walter Hancock, Ogle & Summers, Squire & Macerone, John Scott Russell and others.

Charles Dietz and his sons ran steam-driven road tractors hauling passenger carriages on routes around Paris and Bordeaux prior to 1850. And in America, steam coaches were built in the 1860 to ’80 period by Harrison Dyer of Boston, Joseph Dixon of Lynn, Mass., Rufus Porter of Hartford, Conn., and William T. James of New York City.

Amedee Bollee Sr. was the most remarkable of the steam-car pioneers. Heir to a bell foundry at Le Mans, he added mechanical workshops and built a series of advanced-design vehicles from 1873 to 1883. There was nothing particularly new or refined in his steam power systems, but his sense of vehicle architecture was superb. La Mancelle, built in 1878, had a front-mounted engine, shaft drive to the differential, chain drive to the rear wheels, steering wheel on a vertical shaft and driver’s seat behind the engine. The boiler was carried behind the passenger compartment. Bollee built a series of steam carriages with romantic names like Rapide and L’Obeissante (the Obedient One). His sons, Amedee Jr. and Leon, both became makers of gasoline-powered cars. Amedee Sr. also invented an independent front-wheel suspension system with upper and lower transverse leaf springs in 1878.

Use of steam power for road vehicles can be traced back to 1769, when a French artillery engineer, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, constructed a three-wheeled military tractor at the Paris Arsenal. It ran at a speed of 2 1/2 mph, but it was nearly uncontrollable and crashed into a stone wall during a demonstration.

Was this the birth of the car? It depends. The Cugnot vehicle can be regarded as the first automobile in the world, if the definition is broad enough. How should it be defined? By fuel, type of engine, drive system, seating capacity, speed or what?

When Daimler-Benz (makers of Mercedes-Benz cars) says that the automobile was invented in 1886 by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, it’s basing its claim on its own definition: a light carriage for personal transport with three or four wheels, powered by a liquid-fueled internal combustion engine. In doing so, the company ignores Daimler’s gas-powered motorcycle of 1885.

But even by that definition, the French have a prior claim: Belgian-born Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir, who settled in Paris and became a naturalized French citizen, invented his gas engine in 1858 and patented it in 1860. He used electric spark ignition, but the engine ran on stove gas and had no compression. It was shown to the press in a three-wheeled cart in 1860. A liquid-fuel version, with a primitive carburetor, was built in 1862 and installed in a three-wheeled wagon early in 1863. It is on record that it successfully covered the 11.2 miles from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont and back, securing its place in history as the first spark-ignition petroleum-fuel car to demonstrate its roadworthiness.

But Lenoir did not continue his work on cars. So we (and Daimler-Benz) can make the Lenoir claim void by narrowing the definition further. It doesn’t count as a car if you gave up. You must persevere, and your experiments must lead to actual car production. That’s what Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler did. Or did they?

From the experimental cars of Daimler and Benz it was indeed a short step to industrial production — but not in Germany. Daimler-Benz concedes that the first car manufacturers in the world were French; namely, Panhard & Levassor in 1889, followed by Peugeot in 1891. Since both were buying their engines from Daimler when production began, vital participation by the motor makers of Germany is implicit. At that time, Daimler was more interested in royalties and licensing fees for his engines than he was in actually building cars.

The French companies made each new car a little bit different from its predecessor for years. The first true production model was the Benz Velo of 1894. Benz built 134 cars to the exact same specification during 1895.

In the meantime, the French had invented motor racing: The Parisian daily newspaper Le Petit Journal sponsored a run from Paris to Rouen in 1894. The following year, a group of wealthy enthusiasts founded the Automobile Club de France, the first of its kind.

Daimler and Benz did not work in a vacuum; they were aware of many experiments going on at the time

  • Alphonse Beau de Rochas was a self-taught civil engineer working in a laboratory in Paris. In 1861, he was the first to spell out the sequence of the four-stroke cycle and provide a theoretical pressure diagram — but he never built an engine. He received French patent No. 52,593, dated Jan. 16, 1862.
  • Nikolaus August Otto was a merchant who dropped out of business to experiment with gas engines at the age of 22. He had an atmospheric gas engine running in Cologne in 1862 and began production, selling about 50 units a year. Realizing the value of compression, he also invented charge-stratification. His first experimental four-stroke engine ran in 1876, and his patent (No. 532) is dated Aug. 4, 1877. His small shop grew into Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz, where Gottlieb Daimler later worked as chief engineer.
  • Siegfried Marcus was a prolific inventor living in Vienna. He had a four-stroke engine running in 1870, using some sort of petroleum fuel and a 2-foot-high carburetor. Between 1870 and 1875, he is reported to have installed such an engine in a small wagon converted into a cart by removing the rear axle. The flywheel was its rear wheel. A four-wheeled Marcus vehicle is thought to date from 1875. The Marcus vehicle in the Vienna Technical Museum is dated 1888, but conforms to descriptions of the 1875 vehicle.
  • George Brayton of Boston, Mass., developed an engine with pre-compression, running on light petroleum fuel, in 1874 and it is considered the first safe and practical oil engine made. But for compression of the charge, it needed two outside pumping cylinders.
  • George B. Selden, a shrewd patent attorney from Rochester, N.Y., filed a patent for a “road engine” in 1879. Under the liberal patent laws of the time, he was allowed to back date his patent to 1877 and to amend and expand it frequently. When it was finally issued in 1895 it covered a front-drive, three-cylinder carriage with a transverse engine. Although he had never built a car, Selden used his patents to extract royalties from early American manufacturers on every auto they built.
    When Henry Ford refused to pay royalties, a famous court suit followed. During the long trial, the owners of Selden’s patent were finally forced to build a vehicle in 1904. Essential details in Selden’s patents had been left deliberately vague, and the car built in 1904 had much benefit from then-current technology. Despite all these loopholes, the “1877” Selden barely ran. The patent was finally shot down in 1911.

Those are uncontested facts. The trouble is that now the French want the world to believe it was Edouard Delamare-Deboutteville who invented the automobile, in 1884.

Deboutteville was 22 years old when he went to work in his brother’s textile plant just outside Rouen. A year later, in 1879, he invented a universal machine capable of cutting, milling, drilling, and turning. He became interested in the internal combustion engine primarily as a source of power to run the machinery in factories, and secondarily for propelling road vehicles. He was aware of the patents of Beau de Rochas and Lenoir, and also knew of Otto’s patent.

His first engine was a single-cylinder four-stroke unit, built early in 1883. It ran on stove gas, but Deboutteville had also created a carburetor for running on liquid (petroleum) fuels. The outstanding things about his engine were:

  • Coil-and-battery ignition, with a sparkplug.
  • Mechanically operated overhead intake and exhaust valves.
  • High compression ratio.

This engine was put in a three-wheeled vehicle that was destroyed in an accident. Undaunted, Deboutteville built a four-wheeled car with a two-cylinder engine. This design figures in the 1884 patent. The vehicle was a modified horse-drawn wagon, but the new engine was noteworthy for the following:

  • Pistons with rings
  • Provision for air- or water-heating of the carburetor
  • Air- or water-cooling of the cylinders
  • Speed control on the intake manifold
  • Exhaust muffler
  • Progressive clutch

It is certain that the car was built, but the evidence that it ever ran is weak. You’ll look in vain for any mention of a test drive in local newspapers. Deboutteville’s patent went unnoticed. It was never exploited at all.

A great pity, for Deboutteville’s proposed car was extremely well thought out. He had solutions to all the basic problems, but he had to give up his experiments to concentrate on making a living. Instead of developing the car, he removed its engine and put it to use in the factory. He became a manufacturer of industrial engines, but had nothing more to do with automobiles.

Both Daimler and Benz could have gained by reading the 1884 patent, for their first vehicles were very primitive in several regards. Daimler’s engine from 1885 was a vertical single-cylinder of 462-cc displacement, delivering 1.1 hp at 650 rpm. It had a suction-operated intake valve and hot-tube ignition. It had an evaporative “surface” carburetor, and the speed control was a butterfly valve mounted on the exhaust pipe. He did not design a car for it, but installed it in a horse carriage with a centrally pivoted front axle. And it did not run in 1886. The first test drive took place on Mar. 4, 1887.

Karl Benz spent many years developing the two-stroke engine before turning his attention to the four-stroke cycle in 1885. He put a slide valve on the intake port and fired its sparkplug from a high-tension coil. The mixture was produced in a surface carburetor, and he put a speed governor on the intake side. The single-cylinder Benz engine had 954-cc displacement and delivered 0.67 hp at 250 rpm.

The “car” Benz designed around the engine was a light three-wheeler with belt drive, which first ran on the streets of Mannheim in June 1886. Benz did not build a four-wheeled car until 1891. It was only after seeing the success of Peugeot and Panhard & Levassor that Daimler and his assistant, Wilhelm Maybach, began to think in terms of complete cars rather than just engines.

Was the automobile invented in France or Germany? The argument may never be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides. One thing to bear in mind is that the car is not one invention but a mechanical creation composed of hundreds, if not thousands, of inventions. In truth, we are still inventing the car, for the car is an ever-changing assembly of ideas, systems and parts. In the past 100 years, the French contribution to its advance has been as significant as that of the Germans.

American Automotive History


The first “car” built in America was a horse buggy with a 4-hp, single-cylinder engine, assembled by Charles and Frank Duryea in 1892-93. Their second car won America’s first auto race, a 50-mile, nine-hour marathon from Chicago to Evanston, Ill., on Thanksgiving Day, 1895.

Ransom Eli Olds built a three-wheeled steam car in 1891 and a gasoline buggy in 1897. By the turn of the century he was mass producing his curved Dash Oldsmobile, selling 2100 of them in 1902 and 5000 a year by 1904, when he left Oldsmobile to found the REO Motor Car Co. Henry Ford perfected the assembly line, but Olds had introduced mass production and popularly-priced cars to America.

The first practical, factory-produced automobiles were little more than motorized horse carriages. A tiny one-cylinder motor under the seat drove through a chain, and you steered with a “tiller,” like a coaster wagon. Nothing to it. It was enough to be getting around a little faster than a horse could take you. And the car didn’t get tired after a few hours.

Within a few years, automobiles had taken on the general configuration we know today. That is, a multi-cylinder engine in front, clutch and transmission under the front floor, shaft drive to a live rear axle, leaf springs on all wheels, foot-operated brakes, steering by wheel and gear linkages, and pneumatic tires. Advanced developments that came in this early period before World War I included electric starters, shock absorbers, four-wheel brakes, all-steel bodies, helical gears, pressure lubrication in engines, automatic spark advance, demountable rims and fabric cord tires.

Despite these early advances, there were some tough unsolved problems that made “automobiling” a definite challenge. Tires wore out fast and blew out at every opportunity. Gasoline was more like kerosene, and oil was like molasses. Cold-weather driving was hardly practical. Alloy steels weren’t very strong, so axles and springs frequently broke in deep ruts. The electric starter made it possible for women to drive — but they still had to cope with the balky transmission and heavy clutch. Electric cars were recommended for ladies.

Engine maintenance required constant attention. Valves needed grinding and rings and bearings needed replacement every few months. Sparkplugs and ignition points were iffy, even when new. Cylinder heads had to be removed to dig carbon out of the chambers, and oil sludge could be scooped out of crankcases by the handful. Actually, automobiles were rich men’s playthings in those early years.

Henry Ford’s famous Model T changed all this in the period around WWI and the early 1920s. Here was a car that combined most of the worst mechanical faults of its contemporaries — and yet it was a milestone development of automotive history. The secret: The first successful use of assembly line mass production. Ford popped out millions of the things over a 20-year period, with only minor changes in design. This not only brought the price down to where anybody could afford one, but it filled the junkyards with an endless supply of dirt-cheap interchangeable parts that you could bolt together to keep your T on the road indefinitely. Crude as it was, the Ford Model T literally put America on wheels.

The decade of the 1920s was a time of refining basic principles. Or, honing the crude ingredients into something resembling easy, comfortable dignified transportation. For instance, the introduction of the “ethyl” lead additive for gasoline in 1923: This allowed a two-point jump in compression ratios overnight, which helped both performance and fuel economy. The ’20s also saw the switch to closed sedan bodies for family cars, sometimes even with the luxury of a heater. A 6- or 8-cylinder engine rested on rubber mounts to reduce vibration, with hydraulic shock absorbers and low-pressure “balloon” tires to cushion the road. Other refinements that occurred in the ’20s included such things as automatic chokes, easy-shifting synchromesh transmissions, automatic chassis lubrication, power-operated windshield wipers, vacuum-assisted clutches and even the first crude experiments with power steering.

Ride improvements

Engineers remember the 1930s mainly for tremendous improvements in the ride quality of American cars. Two major breakthroughs brought it about: Engines were moved forward between the front wheels. This not only gave more passenger space, but the engine mass far forward smoothed out the pitch frequency. The car floated instead of bouncing. Another trick was independent front suspension on coil springs. Remember GM’s “Knee Action”? Getting rid of the heavy beam front axle not only reduced the oscillating mass of the front wheels for better ride, but eliminated shimmy and feedback in the steering. Cars had an entirely different feel overnight.

These changes also brought a revolution in body styling. Shortening the hood and moving the passengers forward allowed modern “fastback” lines, with grilled radiators and skirted fenders. Chrysler had a disastrous experience with aerodynamics in 1934 — its Airflow model just didn’t sell — but cars like the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr set styling patterns for years to come.

The modern-car image got another boost in 1939, when Oldsmobile introduced the first fully automatic transmission — a fluid coupling tied to a self-shifting, four-speed planetary gearbox. All you had to do was put the shift lever in DRIVE, step on the gas and go. The American family car was never the same after that. After WWII, automatic transmission development mushroomed in all directions — torque converters two-speed gearboxes, geared turbines. By the mid-1950s, automatics were ordered on the majority of all family cars.

Horsepower race

The ’50s also will be remembered for the horsepower race. After Olds and Cadillac introduced the modem shortstroke overhead-valve V8 engine in the late ’40s, the whole industry seemed to go crazy for performance, power, and luxury. Family cars were considered social prestige symbols in those days, so you needed a muscular engine to heft around all that chrome and sheet metal. Within 10 years, the typical car weighed over 2 tons and packed 300 hp in a big-inch V8 that gave only 10 or 12 mpg. The package also included an automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes. Not bad cars — but big and gaudy.

Auto enthusiasts like to remember the 1960s for 400-hp factory “muscle cars” and unrestrained industry wooing of a lucrative new youth/performance market. And there were some wild developments here. But it was also the decade when family automobiles were upgraded with such luxuries as air conditioning, power seats, power windows, individual bucket seats, automatic headlight dimmers and fold-down seats in station wagons.

Ride smoothness and silence were helped by the general adoption of coil spring suspension on all wheels, ultra-low tire pressures and isolating the body on a flexible perimeter frame that actually acted as a crude spring to soak up road harshness.

Federal regulations

The whole scenario changed in the 1970s. Suddenly, it was the federal government telling the companies how to design cars — in the form of tight laws to control exhaust emissions, and new safety standards to improve highway crash survival. New regulations came almost faster than the engineers could keep track of them.

When this trend was combined with the unexpected Arab oil embargo in 1973, the whole direction of auto design changed overnight. Long-range planning was impossible. Gasoline prices were doubling every few months. At the same time, federal emission standards often required engine modifications that hurt fuel mileage, while the new safety standards added economy-killing weight. For several years in the mid-’70s, U.S. automotive design was in a state of chaos.

However, Detroit has integrated traditional American luxury and gadgetry into smaller, lighter cars that can meet government and market requirements for fuel economy.

Take the recent trend to front-wheel drive with transverse engine placement. This gives maximum passenger and trunk space with minimum external size and weight. The strong trend to electronics is a natural result of exhaust emission regulations that have required sophisticated computerized feedback control of fuel metering. Federal emission and mpg standards have forced us to electronic — and tomorrow’s car will make the best of it. We haven’t seen anything yet!

Automobile Engine History

Asked which motor they preferred in a car, visitors to the first-ever National Automobile Show in New York city made the electric their overwhelming choice. Steam engines came in second. and trailing the field with less than 5 percent of the vote was the gas engine, which one critic predicted would never last.

“Noxious, noisy, unreliable, and elephantine, it vibrates so violently as to loosen one’s dentures. The automobile industry will surely burgeon in America, but this motor will not be a factor,” he wrote.

Others attending the show cited an additional reason for their displeasure — fear that these multifuel powerplants (they ran on stove gas, kerosene, naphtha, lamp oil, benzine, mineral spirits, alcohol, and a relatively new fuel called gasoline) would explode and shower them with shrapnel and flame. Show officials increased the public’s anxiety by summoning a standby bucket brigade whenever an engine was cranked. The year was 1900.

In 1903, to the surprise of most automobile observers (except those directly involved in engineering), a sharp rise occurred in the number of new cars outfitted with four-stroke internal combustion gasoline engines. By 1910, steam engines virtually disappeared as a vehicle powering agent. Electric motors hung on until 1915.

Forty years before and 20 years after the turn of the twentieth century are now known to have been the Golden Era in the development of the automobile gas engine. During this 60-year span, most concepts relative to gasoline engine development were conceived. Engines that have come along since have been refinements of those concepts, which awaited some technological break-through — either in fuel technology, metallurgy or machine tooling — to attain reality.

In 1860, Etienne Lenoir of France invented the first four-wheeled vehicle to be powered by a gas engine. It was a two-stroker that employed two concepts which are considered by some today as new — stratified charging of the fuel mixture by introducing air and gas separately into the combustion chamber, and water injection. Both methods were employed by Lenoir to keep his one-cylinder engine from knocking.

In 1906, Cosmopolitan magazine published a complete guide to the new “Gasoline Motor Cars.” Thirteen models had one-cylinder engines. 54 had two-cylinder engines, five were equipped with three-cylinder engines, and 59 sported four-cylinder engines.. The remaining vehicles included one with a V8 engine built in Redondo Beach California (it was called The Coyote), and a 40-hp, six-cylinder engine in a five-passenger car. The latter vehicle which sold for $2500, was manufactured by a motor company out of Detroit called Ford. It did not sell and was abandoned after two years.

Although the typical gas engine at the turn of the century was quite different from today’s engines, most modern powerplant technology had been tried by 1906. For example, the first en-bloc engine (one-piece cylinder block) had been made in 1896 by Charles B. King, but not even by 1906 had machining techniques reached a level that allowed such an engine to be manufactured inexpensively. Therefore, combustion chambers in the typical multicylinder engines were cast individually and bolted to the crankcase.

In 1906, science had not yet perfected a gasket capable of forming a seal between cylinders and cylinder heads. Thus, each cylinder had to have its head cast integrally, with intake and exhaust valves set in caps that were screwed into each head. They named this setup T-head, because the valves straddled the piston.

Each set of valves was operated by its own camshaft. The two shafts — one for intake valves and one fore exhaust valves — were located in the crankcase. They pushed up on long stems that lifted the valves off their seats. As the cam lobes moved off the valve stem tips, heavy springs caused the valve to slam shut.

Since the material that the valves were made of was relatively soft, this gave rise to a particularly bothersome situation. Valve life was numbered in hundreds of miles. But car manufacturers had a way around this — they equipped new vehicles with a spare set of valves! When a person got stuck at the side of the road, he unscrewed the valve caps from the cylinder heads to replace the damaged valves.

The T-head engine gave way to the L-head (also called the flat-head or side-valve) engine in which valves were placed on one side of the engine. The L-head dominated the scene for years. Ford used it on V8s until 1953. But waiting in the wings was another design, introduced in 1898 by Wilkinson Motor Car Co. — an engine that had the camshaft and valves in the cylinder heads. You know it as the overhead-cam (OHC) or overhead-valve (OHV).

During this Golden Era, other notable innovations bearing on the development of the gasoline engine took place. Then engine in the 1905 Knox was a horizontally opposed powerplant similar in makeup to one adopted 30 years later by Volkswagen for use in the Beetle. Like the Beetle engine, the Knox engine was aircooled. Corrugated pins surrounding the cylinders made it possible to obtain 32 square inches of heat radiating surface per square inch of outside cylinder surface.

Another noteworthy car was the 1906 Premier, with a four-cylinder vertical engine. It had a 4.25 x 4.25 inch (108 mm x 108 mm) bore and stroke, making it one of the earliest “square” engines. As late as 1953, C. F. Kettering, automotive genius and inventor of the electric self-starter, wrote: “The so-called square engine with the bore more nearly equal to the stroke in order to reduce piston speed brought us a considerable way down the path to the modern engine.” He was referring to engines in the 1949 Cadillac and Oldsmobile.

The early innovators were not adverse to shifting the engine from place to place. At first, it was put under the front seat. Then, it was moved under the hood. Some think it was not placed in the rear until VW did it with the Beetle. Surprise! in 1896, a car called the Hertel had an engine back there.

Most people today are familiar with front-wheel-drive (FWD) cars. Many probably think it is a new concept. Wrong! In 1900, the Pennington Car co. came out with a vehicle that had a gas engine driving the front wheels. This was not even the first FWD car. Electrics and steamers had been using FWD for years.

Coverage of this period would be incomplete without mentioning the 1908 Ford Model T, or Tin Lizzie. Its four-cylinder 20-hp engine was the first mass-produced, inexpensive powerplant to be en-bloc with an individual cylinder head. Perfection of a copper-asbestos head gasket was one of the key developments making this possible.

Engineers knew for a long time that they could theoretically design more efficient engines by increasing compression ratios. By squeezing the fuel mixture into a smaller combustion space before it was ignited, smaller, more powerful engines could be used. However, every time this was tried, engines reacted violently, knocking terribly. The problem was not the engine, but inadequacy of the fuel. So, until the mid-1920s, compression ratios of engines in cars sold to the public ran no higher than 4.3:1.

That limitation ended in 1923 when tetraethyl lead and improved refining methods gave gasoline antiknock qualities. This development allowed engineers to try certain mechanical improvements that increased engine efficiency still further without fear of knocking. Some of these improvements included redesigning combustion chambers, using differently shaped pistons, and bringing spark and valve timing into greater focus to attain maximum fuel combustion.

The search for better materials to withstand the increasing stress of higher speed engines became critical as more paved roads became available.

In the early days, when there were a limited number of dirt roads, heavy iron engines that lumbered along were met with little resistance by the automobile buyer. However, as more roads were opened to drivers and road conditions improved, driving became more popular and demand increased for lightweight engines that could take travellers longer distances economically.

The man who had most to do with the start of an automotive metallurgical industry in the United States was Elwood Haynes. Among his accomplishments were the development of cobalt, chromium and tungsten alloys; discovery of stainless steel; and introduction of aluminum into automobile engines.

In 1893, Haynes invented and built a rotary gas engine. Did you really think Felix Wankel was the first to do this in 1955?

In 1912, an ad for the Type 35 Mercer, which sported an in-line six-cylinder engine, made mention of a “large and perfectly balanced crankshaft to make the engine practically vibrationless.” The Mercer Automobile Co. recognized that as low-speed engines gave way to high-speed engines, vibration caused by crankshaft rotation was going to become troublesome.

Balancing the crankshaft became even more of a factor as the number of cylinders increased. In 1916, Packard introduced the first production 12- cylinder engine. To quell the effect of crankshaft vibration, Packard placed a small flywheel on the front end of the crankshaft that “slipped,” as necessary, to help smother torsional vibration produced by the shaft. This we now call a vibration dampener.

Cadillac refined crankshaft balancing still further. On its 1923 V8 engine, the company arranged the four crankshaft pins in two planes to balance out the vibration effects of the reciprocating pistons and connecting rods. The four-crankpin arrangement, like the vibration dampener, is still with us today, but they probably played their most important antivibration roles in the early 1930s, when some car companies strived to have an engine with the most cylinders. For example, there were the Cadillac, Marmon and Packard V16 engines and the Lincoln V12.

By 1934, public interest in these massive powerplants started to wane, leaving six- and eight-cylinder engines to reign for almost 50 years. Today, the Four has returned and now it looks like two- and three-cylinder engines may make a comeback. In other words, we’ve gone from the one-cylinder gasoline engine to 16 cylinders and back to four. Is the return of the one- cylinder only a matter of time?

“Firm offers two models of high-speed motor with twin intakes and exhausts.” This is not an ad for a modern Toyota 16-valve engine, but the way Automobile Topics described the four-cylinder, four-valve car engine made by Linthwaite-Hussey Motor Co. of Los Angeles. The year was 1916.

“The most marvelous automobile improvement yet invented,” another ad says. “Pull the little lever — your 12 is a 6; push the little lever, your 6 is a 12.” This was the way the Enger Motor Car Co. of Cincinnati described the 1917 Twin-Unit Twelve. By means of a small lever on the steering column, the driver was able to cut out six of the engine’s 12 cylinders to attain maximum fuel economy, and cut them back in just as quickly for maximum power.

The lever pulled the exhaust valves off their seats, so there was no compression in the cylinders. It also allowed a shutter to close the intake manifold feeding fuel to those six cylinders.

Are you surprised to learn that the 1981 Cadillac V8-6-4 engine wasn’t the first that could have the number of its cylinders regulated? If so, get ready for another surprise. Neither was the 1917 Enger. The distinction belongs to the Sturtevant 38- to 45-hp six-cylinder engine of 1905. Three of its cylinders could be shut down.

Another gasoline engine development worthy of mention is the 1924 Chrysler six-cylinder L-head, which incorporated a hemispherically domed combustion chamber designed to combat detonation, and the first replaceable cartridge oil filter. But don’t get the idea that this was the first hemihead engine. It wasn’t. As far as we’ve been able to determine, that distinction is reserved for the 1904 Welch Four.

Another car of the 1920s worthy of mention was the 1926 Cadillac V8, which introduced crankcase ventilation to get rid of contaminating agents that caused engine wear. This vent system, open to the atmosphere, continued until 1963 when positive crankcase ventilation (PCV), a closed system came into use.

Many engines of the 1930s introduced exhaust-valve seat inserts to overcome burning and pitting, hydraulic valve lifters and lightweight Babbitt metal bearings that were able to handle loads imposed by higher and higher engine speeds. And 1949 saw the introduction of lightweight, square bore-and-stroke, OHV, high-compression V8 engines by Caddy and Olds.

What of the future? What will gasoline engines be like? Let’s quote one of the most renowned auto experts: “With higher compression ratios, improved transmissions, new materials, new manufacturing techniques and so on, you can practically draw your own picture of the engine of tomorrow: smaller, lighter, more reliable, smoother and 50 percent more economical.”

The expert was Kettering. The year he made his prophecy was 1953. And if he were alive now to speak about the engine of the future, he would probably say the same thing.

Automobile Fuel System History

In 1896, an automotive development that did not receive headlines was announced. Dr. Wilhelm Maybach and Gottlieb Daimler of Germany had teamed up to build a motor car possessing a new device called a float-type spray carburetor — a “gadget” that’s still with us.

According to an 1898 issue of Automobil-Zeitung, a German automotive publication, the Maybach carburetor was “a major improvement over the brush-type atomizer and the wick carburetor.”

The atomizer was the carburetion device used on the first motor car equipped with a gasoline engine, built by Siegfried Marcus in 1875. Between Marcus and Maybach, Dr. F. W. Lanchester, a British automotive pioneer, built motor cars that used wick carburetors.

The rotary-brush atomizer used by Marcus was an integrated fuel reservoir and feed unit. As the pulley-driven brush revolved, it picked gas out of the reservoir and threw it into the air. The suction effect created by the pistons drew the mixture into the engine.

Lanchester’s wick carburetor improved on the atomizer. It consisted of several compartments. The bottom compartment held fuel. Wicks extending from a compartment above became saturated with fuel.

Getting vapors given off by the wicks to mix with air was achieved by drawing air into the compartment above the fuel storage area. The fuel/air vapors then flowed to the engine, passing first through wire mesh that served to filter out impurities. This was the world’s first carburetor fuel filter.

There’s a fact about filtration you may find interesting. Until refining methods were improved (about 1910), cars came equipped with swatches of chamois. These were used by car owners to filter impurities from gas before pouring it into the fuel tank. Before drive-in stations, gas was sold by hardware and drug stores.

Maybach’s float-type carburetor was, in retrospect, and invention of revolutionary proportions. Its survival for this many years tends to prove this. You probably know how it works: Gas from a fuel supply tank flows by gravity into the carburetor’s float chamber or bowl. As gas fills the bowl, it causes a float (Maybach used a float made of sheet metal) to rise. When the float reaches a certain height, it forces a needle valve to close, which halts the flow or fuel to the engine.

The float allowed Maybach to attain a consistent flow of fuel to the engine. Unlike the atomizer and wick carburetors, the float carburetor lessened the tendency of engines to flood.

Maybach’s carburetor possessed a second chamber called the mixing chamber. It was there that gas from the float chamber mixed with air. The mixture was drawn up into the engine as pistons dropping in the cylinders created a vacuum.

Note that the fuel mixture was drawn up into the engine. The Maybach carburetor was an updraft unit, an approach to carburetion that lasted until the late 1920s, when the first cam-operated mechanical fuel pump was invented. This invention permitted automakers to move fuel tanks to the rear of their cars and place carburetors high on the engine.

Between the gravity-feed system and the advent of cam-operated fuel pumps, fuel was pushed from a rear-mounted tank to the carburetor by air pressure. This required large vacuum reservoirs between fuel tanks and carburetors. It’s interesting to note what the 1928 edition of The Modern Gasoline Automobile had to say about a disadvantage of this system:

“The air pressure pump system often gives trouble, requiring a hand air pump near the driver in order to return to the garage.”

Automakers had to put hand pumps in cars. When the automatic air pump system failed — which it often did — a driver would use the hand pump to feed fuel to the engine.

As we said, the Maybach float carburetor was first used in a car built by Maybach and Daimler. This was before Daimler and Karl Benz joined forces to form the company that now builds Mercedes-Benz automobiles and produces Mercedes-Benz parts.

Do you wonder why the cars are called Mercedes-Benz and not Daimler-Benz? When Daimler and Maybach were associated, Emil Jellinek (who was the Austro-Hungarian consul in Nice, France) was a passionate client of Daimler cars which he successfully raced. He promoted Daimler cars with his friends as an “un-official” dealer. When he ordered a large batch of cars, he also suggested that Daimler change the name of their cars, taking into account the French hostility towards German products, stemming from the still-well-remembered Franco-Prussian war of 1870 (which France disastrously lost). Therefore, he suggested they use a French-sounding name. Since he represented a sizeable share of Daimler sales, Daimler obliged by giving their cars the name of Jellinek’s daughter: Mercedes. Since these cars won a number of races in France thus giving the newly named “Mercedes” a good reptation, Daimler decided to apply that name to their cars everywhere. The Mercedes name went with Daimler when he joined Benz.

As automaking took off, so did road building and development of more powerful engines operated at varying speeds. Fuel-on-demand became a critical factor that the original Maybach design couldn’t fulfill. Refinements came hot and heavy.

One of the earliest was through the efforts of two men — Butler of Great Britain and Venturi of Italy. They didn’t know one another. In fact, they lived 100 years apart.

In the 1790s, Venturi discovered that by reducing the bore of a pipe, he was able to increase the velocity of fluid and got it to break (atomize) into smaller particles. Around 1900, Butler applied the Venturi principle to a float-type carburetor. He narrowed its throat (or venturi, as we call it now). Doing this allowed greater protection against engine flooding.

Improvements to the Maybach design between 1900 and the late 1920s led to the jet-compensated carburetor, which is still with us. This unit uses jet circuits, air bleeds, vacuum-operated economizer valves and throttle-operated metering rods to attain the correct fuel/air ratios for various speeds and loads.

Other significant fuel-system developments were:

  • The first dash-mounted gas gauge by Studebaker in 1914.
  • The first carburetor air cleaner, introduced on the 1915 Packard Twin Six. The 1922 Rickenbacker used the dry-type air cleaner.
  • The first thermostatic automatic choke, which was introduced on the 1932 Oldsmobile. The design has remained basically the same to this day.
  • The first four-barrel carburetor — by Buick in 1941.

Back in 1910, Adams Farwell of Dubuque, Iowa, pioneered a non-carbureted fuel system called fuel injection, refined and adopted for diesel engines. But it wasn’t until after World War II that thought was given to putting it on spark-ignited gasoline engines.

In 1949, Automotive Digest said, “Some automotive men feel that fuel injection for passenger automobiles is nearing the climax in experimentation and may soon make its bow to the driving public.” What happened? Nothing — the carburetor remained king for another 35 years.

But as smaller engines and greater fuel mileage have become issues, fuel injection is, like so many other automotive inventions, an old development whose time has finally come. By 1986, practically all gasoline engines have electronically operated fuel-injection systems instead of carburetors. Bye-bye, old friend — it’s been fun.

Automobile Ignition System History

Early one September morning in 1908, Ernest Sweet, chief engineer for the Cadillac Motor Car Co., stepped off a train in Dayton, Ohio. He was met by an engineer who worked for National Cash Register.

In the five years he had spent at NCR, the younger man — he was 32 — had invented an electrically operated cash register that did away with hand cranking. He had also developed OK Charge Phone, the nation’s first “automated” credit checking system. This magnetic device, placed in a cash register, allowed a sales person to press register keys and transmit information about a charge customer’s purchase to a central office. Approval or disapproval was then telephoned back to the counter. The young man’s contemporaries thought him a genius.

However, Sweet was not in Dayton to discuss cash registers. At the urging of his boss, Henry M. Leland, he was there to test-drive a Cadillac Roadster owned by the NCR engineer. Leland had received a letter from the Dayton resident describing a “flawless” battery ignition system for motor vehicles. Magneto ignition was the standard in those days because battery ignition just did not work. Sparkplugs fouled, vibrators failed, and batteries often gave out after 500 miles. Brief encounters with battery ignition by other carmakers — Duryea in 1893, for example — caused them to return to the reliable magneto.

For the next eight hours, Sweet drove the Cadillac over the hills surrounding Dayton, putting the Roadster through every rigorous test he knew. As the young engineer had promised, the ignition system performed flawlessly. As a result of this test, Leland met the NCR engineer several weeks later at Cadillac headquarters in Detroit to personally hand him a contract calling for 8,000 of his battery ignition units — enough for every Cadillac that would be produced in 1910. The young engineer was Charles Franklin Kettering. In the years ahead, his influence on General Motors would rival even that of Leland.

What had Kettering done that allowed a battery ignition to perform reliably? To start with, he combined the standard four induction coils (one for each sparkplug) into one by placing them in a heat-resistant, solidly anchored, armored-steel box and connecting them in series. This did away with the nagging problem of rapid coil failure caused by vibration and heat, and also allowed conservation of power. Battery life was therefore extended.

Kettering also eliminated the individual vibrators (also called “tremblers”) – – one for each coil — that made and broke the circuit. He replaced them with a single master set of contact points connected to a condenser. The condenser drew excess current away from the points, contributing to their longevity.

Tremblers (steel springs) were susceptible to loosening by vibration. This required motorists to make frequent adjustments. The devices also quickly burned themselves to death as a result of electrical arcing. Kettering’s ignition produced a much hotter spark than ever before, using less battery current, which extended component life.

The contract Leland handed Kettering enabled him to quit NCR and begin his own business, which he called Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. — Delco for short. More important, the contract put Kettering’s mind solely on perfecting what was to be the standard auto ignition system — one that’s still with us today — and on development of the self-starter.

Yet, when the 1910 Cadillac Model 30 hit the showrooms, customers found that it possessed two independent ignition systems — the much-heralded Delco and the standard magneto, installed just in case.

Although it was only another two years before dry cells were replaced by storage batteries, it was quite a while longer before storage batteries attained any degree of reliability.

As late as 1935, some manufacturers were still placing magnetos into cars. But, for all intents and purposes, the end of the magneto came with the end of the Model T Ford in 1927. Ford refused to trust battery ignition for the Model T, even after the development of more reliable storage batteries. So, every Model T came with a self-starter and battery for “modern starting,” and a hand crank that sprung the magneto to life if the self-starter or battery failed.

Equipment leasing is often used in manufacturing, it is possible it was used in the manufacturing of these ignition systems.

Four basic systems

There have been only four basic auto ignition systems during the last 100 years — hot tube, magneto, battery and computerized — plus a number of oddball variations. As late as 1924, systems using lighter flints and moving files (sometimes attached to the piston) were being tried. Engines in which sliding valves exposed the fuel mixture to a pilot light had proved dangerous, and the hot tube finicky.

The hot tube was just that — a closed metal tube that projected from the cylinder and was heated red hot by a sort of Bunsen burner. Because it was always hot, ignition took place as the compression rose — there was no “timing” as such.

The advantage of a spark ignition is that, not only can you time it, but the flame doesn’t blow out when you drive fast. The earliest sparks were produced by a tiny generator that employed permanent magnets and was therefore called a magneto.

Although several inventors are credited with developing magneto ignition, Siegfried Marcus was issued a patent in 1883 for a “magneto-electric ignition system.” It proved to be the basis for an automotive ignition system that lasted until battery ignition took over.

Marcus’s system used two contact points installed inside the cylinder: one was stationary, the other, movable. The stationary point was connected to the magneto, or generator. The movable point was mounted on a small plate. As the plate moved, it brought the two points into contact. At this moment, an external pushrod operated by the camshaft interfered to break the circuit and produce a spark.

The Marcus low-voltage make-and-break ignition system served well as long as motor cars were driven at low speeds by single-cylinder engines. But, as multicylinder engines became popular and roads improved, the need for an ignition system that could deliver a steady stream of sparks became apparent. The result was a jump-spark system that used induction coils, tremblers and sparkplugs.

Some of those plugs were ingeniously designed to compensate for fouling, which was frequent. They carried over to battery ignition systems.

One popular type had an insulated knob at the top that was connected to a small metal rod. It allowed the motorist to adjust a secondary gap, which could be viewed through a window in the plug’s top section. Fiddling with this gap was said to blast away deposits.

Another type was a priming plug. The driver opened a small valve on the plug that allowed gas in a reservoir to drip through the plug itself and into the cylinder. There was, however, a problem: If the motorist didn’t close the priming valves tightly before starting, the engine either flooded or, if ignition did take place, was transformed into a flame thrower. Then there was a plug with electrodes at both ends. If the motorist experienced plug failure, he simply unscrewed a terminal cap, turned the plug end for end, reattached the terminal cap was to the fouled end, and he had a fresh plug ready to go.

There have been many other ignition developments over the years — spark advance components, for example. The first manual spark advance system was brought out by Packard in 1901. For years after, drivers controlled spark advance by a lever on the steering wheel hub. Studebaker pioneered the vacuum advance in 1930, and Chrysler installed the first combination vacuum and centrifugal advance unit in 1931. During the 1980s, on-board computers took over the job of spark advance. A computer can generate three-dimensional timing “maps,” as opposed to the old, two-dimensional curves.

In l961, the Delco Division of General Motors announced an ignition system that eliminated contact points and condensers by using electronic circuitry. At the time, Herman Hartzell, Delco’s chief engineer, said the new breakerless system was being studied with an eye toward installing it on trucks, tractors and heavy-duty stationary engines. Chrysler made a similar system standard equipment in 1972, and “pointless” ignition became universal.

Two years ago, a new computerized system reared its head-probably the most revolutionary development in ignition since 1908. Introduced by Buick driven off the external water pump. on its 3-liter V6 engines, it eliminates the mechanical distributor entirely. Sensors on the engine detect crankshaft angle and, therefore, piston position. This information is fed to the engine-control computer which, at the right moment, triggers one of three coils in a black box. Each coil fires two sparkplugs simultaneously, one near the end of a piston’s compression stroke, igniting the air-fuel mixture, and the other near the end of the opposing piston’s exhaust stroke, where it fires harmlessly. Each pair of plugs fires once for every crankshaft revolution.

Variations of GM’s ignition are likely to show up on all gasoline engines of the future, replacing distributors just as the Delco breaker point system took over from the magneto.

Automobile Electrical System History

When Allesandro Volta invented the storage battery in 1796, he had no idea he was inventing the modern automotive electrical system. Volta made his discovery 89 years before the first car was offered for public sale. It was another 25 years before the storage battery got even a passing nod from some automakers.

Between 1885 and 1910, most cars having gas engines did not need storage batteries because they had no devices that required electricity. Ignition was left to the nonelectrical hot tube; later to the magneto, which was a self-generating mechanism.

Until 1908, motorists warned pedestrians to “move it” by shouting or by pressing a pedal to clang a bell. Neither method was as raucous as the electric horn, which got its name, the Klaxon, from the Greek word klaxo, meaning “to shriek.”

Between 1908 and 1911, the few autos that had Klaxons used dry cells to operate them. However, dry cells wore down quickly and had to be replaced, which was expensive.

By 1911, storage batteries had attained a degree of reliability exceeding that of dry cells; they lasted at least a month. Then, they could be recharged and put back into service, unlike dry cells, which were discarded. This degree of reliability was due in large measure to research and development done by the electric car industry, which needed good batteries so that its vehicles could compete with gas- and steam-engine models.

The few manufacturers who adapted the storage battery to work the Klaxon then looked around to see what else they could do with the excess current the storage battery provided — and found electric lights.

The first electric lights were introduced on the 1898 Columbia. This was an electric car with storage batteries. Manufacturers of cars with gas engines had another way to produce light. This was with the Prest-O-Lite tank, introduced in 1904. It was a steel cylinder containing pressurized acetylene gas that was fed to headlamps and ignited by flame.

Other manufacturers revived the dynamo, which had been around for some time. (Today we call the dynamo the generator, but in those days most called magnetos “generators.”) The battery then didn’t have to be taken out of the car every month for recharging.

A problem still presented by those first dynamo-equipped cars was battery overcharging. However, this trouble was resolved with the development of a variable speed regulator by DELCO. It was first used in the 1912 Cadillac, which displayed another feature that set the auto industry on its head: the self-starter.

Once they adopted the self-starter, auto manufacturers had to adopt the battery/generator system to work the starter. However, the system put out a much more current than the starter, lights and horn needed, and carmakers realized they could harness this current experience. and use it for igniting the fuel mixture. The magneto then became obsolete.

Self-starter beginnings

The self-starter came about by accident — literally. In the winter of 1910 on a wooden bridge on Belle Island Mich., a Cadillac driven by a woman stalled. Not having the strength to hand crank the engine herself, she was forced to wait on the bridge in the cold until help arrived.

In time another motorist, also driving a Cadillac, happened along. His name was Byron T. Carter, and he was a close friend of the head of Cadillac, Henry M. Leland. Carter offered to start the woman’s car, but she forgot to retard the spark and the engine backfired, and the crank flew off and struck Carter in the face, breaking his jaw.

Ironically, moments later another car carrying two Cadillac engineers, Ernest Sweet and William Foltz, came along. They started the woman’s car and rushed Carter to a physician, but complications set in and a few weeks later Carter died.

Leland was devastated. He called a special conference of his engineers and told them that finding a way to get rid of the hand crank was top priority.

“The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can help it,” he announced.

Self-starters for automobile engines had been tried in the past. Some were mechanical devices, some pneumatic and some electric.

But all attempts at finding a self-starter that was reliable, efficient and relatively small had failed.

When the Cadillac engineers could not come up with a workable system, the company invited Charles F. Kettering and his boys at DELCO (still independent of GM) to take a hand. Kettering presented the device in time for its introduction in the 1912 models.

The Kettering solution

Kettering’s unit was a combination starting motor and generator equipped with an overrunning clutch and reduction gear. Gear teeth engaged the flywheel to provide a reduction of about 25 to 1 between the starting motor and crankshaft, allowing sufficient torque to crank the engine successfully. GM brass didn’t trust the new system at first and demanded a backup magneto and hand crank.

As public confidence in the reliable battery/generator/self-starter system soared, it soon replaced the magneto in all GM cars. GM enjoyed a sales boom, and the remainder of the auto industry soon adopted the system. Of the 462 models shown at the 1911 New York Auto Show, only 19 had battery/generator systems, and they all had backup magnetos. Of 119 makes displayed at the 1924 New York Show, 110 had storage battery/generator systems and self-starters.

Other electric milestones

Here are some other electrical system “firsts”:

In 1915, the Forrest Co. of New York City thought it had found a better way to keep a storage battery filled with water. Called the 20th Century Automatic Water Filler, the device consisted of a one-pint aluminum water container screwed to the firewall. Water flowed from it through rubber tubes to the battery, which in those days was usually mounted beneath the front seat or floor. Water entered the battery through hard rubber caps that contained float valves to halt the flow when the cells were filled.

In 1939, the first sealed-beam headlamps were introduced.

During World War II, the military needed an electrical generating unit that could provide more current than the d.c. generator. They found it with the a.c. (alternating current) generator, commonly called the alternator.

In 1949, Chrysler Corp. became the first to offer a combination key-operated ignition and starter switch. Previously, the starter was operated by a separate button on the dash or by a button on the floor above the accelerator pedal. Starting a car with the floor mounted starter was sometimes a challenge: your left foot was on the brake pedal, heel of your right foot on the accelerator, and the toe of your right foot pushing on the starter. Don’t press down too hard on the accelerator or you will flood the engine, but be ready to give it some gas when the engine starts and you release the starter button.

In 1960, the alternator for civilian vehicles arrived none too soon: The number of electrical devices manufacturers put on cars by then began to strain the limits of the d.c. generator. The first car manufacturer to make the alternator available in a production vehicle was Chrysler Corporation in the 1960 Valiant using an alternator built by Essex. By 1961 all Chryslers had an alternator. In the following year GM had them, too.

In 1971, Pontiac introduced a completely sealed storage battery that required no water during its lifetime. It had side terminals that the company claimed stayed completely corrosion-free. In time, the battery was to be named the Freedom Battery.

Automobile Brakes History

Amajor test of brake systems took place in 1902 on an unpaved road in New York City called Riverside Drive. Ransom E. Olds had arranged to test a new brake system against the tire brake of a four-horse coach and the internal drum brake of a Victoria horseless carriage. His Oldsmobile sported a single flexible stainless-steel band, wrapped around a drum on the rear axle. When the brake pedal was applied, the band contracted to grip the drum.

A vast improvement on brakes was born, one that would pave the way for the systems afterwards. The repercussions of which spread to every facet of the industry, even something like being able to compare car insurance without the advancements in brakes that have taken place.

Olds had entered his car in the Blue Ribbon Contest, a 100-mile race scheduled for August and wanted to be sure his external brake was a match for the Victoria’s expanding-shoe internal drum design and the coach’s tire brake — a pad that was applied to the tire by a long lever. Although it ground down solid rubber tires pretty quickly, the tire brake was popular on carriages and many early autos.

From a thunderous speed of 14 mph, the Oldsmobile stopped in 21.5 ft., the Victoria in 37 ft. and the horses (which may not have been going 14 mph, but had no engine braking to aid them) in 77.5 ft.

The Oldsmobile went on to win two of nine blue ribbons awarded in the race. The car’s braking system made such a big impression on other manufacturers that by 1903 most had adopted it. By 1904, practically all car makers were building cars with an external brake on each rear wheel.

Almost at once, the external brake demonstrated some serious flaws in everyday use. On hills, for example, the brake unwrapped and gave way after several seconds. A driver unlucky enough to stall on a grade soon found himself rolling backward.

For this reason, chocks were an important piece of on-board equipment. It was a common sight to see a passenger scurrying from inside the car with wood in his hands to block the wheels.

There was another drawback to the external brake. It had no protection from dirt so its bands and drums quickly wore. A brake job every 200 to 300 miles was considered normal.

The problems associated with the external brake were overcome by the internal brake. As long as the brake shoes were under pressure, they stayed against the drums to keep the car from rolling backward on hills. And, since brake parts were inside drums and protected from dirt, drivers could go over 1,000 miles between brake overhauls.

The drum brake, as it is now known, became all-dominant in the United States. In Europe, particularly in Great Britain, it had to share the stage with disc brakes. Disc brakes became more or less standard on European cars during the ’50s, about 20 years before they were adopted by American manufacturers in 1973.

This is ironic, because the spot-type disc brake is an American invention. In 1898, Elmer Ambrose Sperry of Cleveland designed an electric car having front-wheel disc brakes.

He made a large disc integral with the hub on each wheel. Electromagnets were used to press smaller discs, lined with a friction material, against spots on the rotating disc to bring the wheel to a stop. Springs retracted the spot discs when current was interrupted.

Meanwhile in Great Britain, a patent was issued in 1902 to F. W. Lanchester for a nonelectric spot disc braking system that’s similar in principle to what we have today. The biggest problem that Lanchester encountered was noise. Metal-to-metal contact between his copper linings and the metal disc caused an intense screech that sent chills through anyone within earshot.

The problem was solved in 1907 when Herbert Frood, another Englishman, came up with the idea of lining pads with asbestos. The new material was quickly adopted by car manufacturers on both drum and disc brakes. Asbestos linings also outlasted other friction materials by a wide margin. The 10,000-mile brake job had arrived.

As roads improved and cars began to be driven at high speeds, manufacturers recognized the need for even greater braking power. One solution to the problem became apparent during the Elgin road Race of 1915. A Duesenberg took the flats at 80 mph, then screeched to a virtual crawl to negotiate the hairpin curves. Duesenberg’s secret for such magnificent braking power was to simply use an internal brake on each front wheel as well as each rear wheel.

In 1918, a young inventor named Malcolm Lougheed (who later changed the spelling of his name to Lockheed) applied hydraulics to braking. He used cylinders and tubes to transmit fluid pressure against brake shoes, pushing the shoes against the drums. In 1921, the first passenger car to be equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes appeared — the Model A Duesenberg.

Carmakers as a group were not quick to adopt hydraulics. Ten years after the Model A Duesie, in 1931, only Chrysler, Dodge, Desoto, Plymouth, Auburn, Franklin, Reo, and Graham had hydraulic brakes. All the others still had cable-operated mechanical brakes. In fact, it was not until 1939 that Ford finally gave in, becoming the last major manufacturer to switch to hydraulic brakes.

The basic braking system we have today was pretty much in place by 1921, including a refinement some regard as contemporary — power assist.

Power assist, technically, dates back to 1903 when a car called the Tincher used air brakes. But the first car to be equipped with a vacuum-operated power booster similar to those we have today was the 1928 Pierce-Arrow. It used vacuum from the inlet manifold to reduce the physical effort needed to apply brakes. Vacuum boosters from then to now have similar designs.

The first widespread deviation from vacuum power assist came about in 1985. Some ’85 GM cars use an electrically driven brake booster, which is smaller and lighter than the conventional vacuum booster, giving an all-hydraulic system. Some cars with antilock brakes also use all-hydraulic systems.

The first car to have self-adjusting brakes was the 1925 Cole. The prototype for today’s systems appeared on the 1946 Studebaker. The mechanism by Wagner Electric Co., consisted of an adjusting wedge under the influence of a tension spring. As linings wore, a plug receded to move a pin and lever against the spring. This forced the adjusting wedge against brake shoes, which expanded to keep linings at a preset distance from the drums.

As for the antilock (antiskid) units now available in the U.S., they are hardly new. The first practical antiskid braking system, named Maxaret, was developed in 1958 by the Road Research Laboratories in Great Britain and was first applied to the Jensen FF sports sedan in 1966.

Three years later, in 1969, the Lincoln Continental Mark III was equipped with an Auto-Linear antilock unit developed by Kelsey-Hayes. Sensors on the rear wheels transmitted signals to a transistorized “computer” behind the glove box. The computer controlled a vacuum-operated valve on the rear brake line to modulate pressure to the rear brakes when the sensors told the computer that the brakes were locking.

Cost and some technical problems caused the shelving of this unit. But now, updated versions that give four-wheel skid control are offered on almost every car model, although initially they were available only on high-end cars like Lincoln and Mercedes, and a few European cars.

Computerized brakes notwithstanding, there is a piece of advice about using brakes that’s as relevant today as it was in 1909 when it was first published in The American Cyclopedia of the Automobile:

“Good driving in traffic is shown by making the minimum use of brakes. The strain on passengers amounts to intense nervousness when the car is constantly driven so that the least alteration of direction or of pace on the part of any vehicle ahead results in the violent application of the brake.”

And so it will always be.

Automobile Suspension History

On a summer day in 1904 a young man by the name of William Brush helped bring about the modern automobile suspension system. Driving his brother Alanson’s Crestmobile, Brush was rolling along too fast for the unpaved roads of the day and went into a curve at 30 mph. The car’s right front wheel skittered onto the dirt shoulder and whammed into a deep rut. Almost at once, the wheel started to shimmy violently. The undulations of the jarred right front elliptic leaf spring had sent shock waves across the solid I-beam axle to the left side of the vehicle. This set the entire front of the car to vibrating furiously. Brush was caught unawares and lost control. The car crashed through a barbed-wire fence, hit a ditch and overturned in a cow pasture.

Several hours later young William ‘fessed up to Alanson, whose demeanor switched from stern to thoughtful, since he was trying to design a better car. That car, dubbed the Brush Two-Seat Runabout, finally appeared in 1906. It featured a revolutionary suspension system that incorporated two innovations never before assembled together: front coil springs and devices at each wheel that dampened spring bounce — shock absorbers — mounted on a flexible hickory axle.

Some European car makers had tried coil springs, with Gottlieb Daimler in Germany being the leading exponent. However, most manufacturers stood fast with leaf springs. They were less costly, and by simply adding leaves or changing the shape from full elliptic to three-quarter or half elliptic, the spring could be made to support varying weights.

Leaf springs in one form or another have been used since the Romans suspended a two-wheeled vehicle called a Pilentum on elastic wooden poles. The first steel spring put on a vehicle was a single flat plate installed on carriages by the French in the 18th century.

The venerable leaf spring, which some manufacturers still use in rear suspensions today, was invented by Obadiah Elliot of London in 1804. He simply piled one steel plate on top of another, pinned them together and shackled each end to a carriage.

The coil spring is not a spring chicken, either. The first patent for such a spring (British patent No. 792) was issued to R. Tredwell in 1763. The main advantage of coil springs was that they did not have to be spread apart and lubricated periodically to keep them from squeaking, as leaf springs did.

Model T Ford leaf spring
Model T Ford leaf spring

Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T Ford featured old-fashioned leaf springs with a novel twist — he used only one spring at each axle, mounted transversely, instead of one at each wheel. Ford’s adaptation of high-strength vanadium steel from a French racing car allowed him to save weight and cut costs in many areas of the Model T without compromising its durability.

With the exception of a car here and there, independent coil spring front suspension remained in limbo for 25 years after the introduction of the Brush Runabout. Then suddenly in 1934, General Motors, Chrysler, Hudson, and others reintroduced coil spring front suspension, this time with each wheel sprung independently. In that year, most cars started using hydraulic shock absorbers and balloon (low-pressure) tires. Coupling a solid front axle with shock absorbers and these tires really aggravated front end shimmy. Suspending each wheel individually lessened the effects of spring bounce.

Not all cars used coil springs at first. Some had independently suspended leaf springs. But soon after World War II, all manufacturers switched to coil springs for the front wheels.

Buick became the first U.S. manufacturer to use back-end coil springs in 1938. Manufacturers have switched back and forth from model to model between leaf and coil springs since then. Generally, large, heavy cars are equipped with leaf springs, while small light cars have coil springs.

Independent rear suspension became popular on the rough, twisty roads of Europe because it can offer improved ride and handling. The cheapest method is the swing axle, for which early VWs were infamous. The differential is bolted to the frame, with constant-velocity joints on each side. However, as the wheels bounce over bumps, the tire camber and rear track change radically, causing some handling quirks. In extreme maneuvers, an outside wheel can actually tuck under the car, causing it to flip.

Axles with joints at both ends do a better job of keeping the wheels upright in a turn, and an amazing variety of control arms have been used to meet this end. Trailing arms, once popular, sometimes allowed trailing throttle oversteer — lift your foot off the gas pedal in a turn and the rear wheels shift slightly, throwing the car into a skid. Modern designs use up to six control links at each wheel to prevent such erratic behavior as bump steer and trailing throttle oversteer.

Air suspension, which Lincoln ballyhooed for some models in 1984 was introduced in 1909 by the Cowey Motor Works of Great Britain. It did not work well because it leaked.


The first practical air suspension was developed by Firestone in 1933 for an experimental car called the Stout-Scarab. This was a rear-engined vehicle that used four rubberized bellows in place of conventional springs. Air was supplied by small compressors attached to each bellow. As you might imagine, the air bag suspension was an expensive setup — still is, in fact.

The first automobile to use torsion bar suspension was the 1921 Leyland. Most of the credit for the wide acceptance of torsion bars in Europe goes to Dr. Ferdinand Porsche who made it standard on most of his cars, beginning with the 1933 Volkswagen prototypes. By 1954, 21 makes of European cars were equipped with torsion bars.

By contrast, in America, only Chrysler went the torsion bar route on its large-sized cars. Despite its excellent ride qualities, high cost has limited its acceptance in this country.

A renowned British surgeon, who had been knighted by Queen Victoria, was convinced of a direct relationship between sound health and driving a car. Dr. William Thomson’s observations were made in a 1901 edition of the Journal of Medicine where he stated:

I have found my drives to improve my general health. The jolting which occurs when a motor car is driven at fair speed conduces to healthy agitation that acts on the liver. This aids the peristaltic movements of the bowels and promotes the performance of their functions.

Manufacturers of cars either did not read Sir Thomas’s report or did not care for his views, because soon afterward they began using shock absorbers to suppress vehicular jolting.

Since early motor cars were limited to much the same speed as carriages, leaf springs for them could be made of the right proportion to provide relatively jolt-free rides. As roads were improved and speeds shot up, a 1909 edition of Automobile Engineering noted:

When springs are made sufficiently stiff to carry the load properly over the small inequalities of ordinary roads, they are too stiff to respond readily to the larger bumps. The result is a shock, or jounce, to the passengers. When the springs are made lighter and more flexible in order to minimize the larger shocks, the smaller ones have too large an influence, thus keeping the [car] body and its passengers in motion all the time. These two contradictory conditions have created the field for the shock absorber.

The first shock

The first recorded use of a crude shock absorber is the invention by one A. Gimmig in 1897. He attached rubber blocks to the top of each leaf spring. When the suspension was compressed sufficiently, the rubber bumpers hit bolts that were attached to the frame. Rubber bump stops are still used in many modern suspensions, but their effect on ride control is minimal.

The first true shock absorbers were fitted to a racing bicycle in 1898 by a Frenchman named J. M. M. Truffault. The front fork was suspended on springs, and incorporated a friction device that kept the bike from oscillating constantly. In 1899, an American automobile enthusiast named Edward V. Hartford saw one of Truffault’s bikes win a marathon race at Versailles. Hartford immediately recognized the automotive potential of the friction device.

Hartford and Truffault got together and by the next year Hartford had outfitted an Oldsmobile with a variation of Truffault’s device. This first automobile shock absorber consisted of a pair of levers that were hinged together with a pad of rubber placed at the pivot point. One of the lever arms was attached to the frame, while the other was bolted to the leaf spring.

A bolt placed at the hinge point could be tightened or loosened to increase or decrease the friction, providing a stiffer or softer ride. The Truffault-Hartford unit was, therefore, not only the first automotive shock absorber, but also the first adjustable shock.

Hartford brought the car to America, where he opened his own plant, the Hartford Suspension Co., in Jersey City, New Jersey. His first big contract came from Alanson P. Brush, who installed shock absorbers along with front coil springs on the 1906 Brush Runabout. The ride given by the car was called “magnificent” in a critique written by Hugh Dolnar for Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal.

From then on shock absorber designs came fast and furious.

Gabriel Snubbers

This consisted of a housing that contained a belt wound into a coil. It was kept under tension by a spring. The housing was fastened to the frame and the outer end of the belt was attached to the axle to limit the degree of rebound from a jolt.

The Gabriel Co. started operation in 1906 making accessory auto horns. The founder, Claude H. Foster, named his firm after the horn-tooting angel Gabriel. When the pushbutton horn came along in 1914, it killed the Gabriel and all other body-mounted horns. Foster looked for a product to keep his company in business and came across the Snubber.

Equalizing springs

These were auxiliary coil springs used in addition to the leaf spring. Since each spring had a different harmonic frequency, they tended to cancel out one another’s oscillations. But they also added to ride harshness and soon fell out of favor.

Air springs

Air springs combine spring and shock absorbing action in one unit and were often used without metal springs. The first one was developed by Cowey Motor Works of Great Britain in 1909. It was a cylinder that could be filled with air from a bicycle pump through a valve in the upper part of the housing. The lower half of the cylinder contained a diaphragm made of rubber and cord which, because it was surrounded by air, acted like a pneumatic tire. Its main problem was that it often lost air.

The newest air spring, developed by Goodyear, is found on some late-model Lincolns. Like the ones that have preceded them, these ride-on-air units are more costly than conventional springs and hydraulic shock absorbers.

Hydraulic shock absorbers

M. Houdaille of France gets credit for designing the first workable hydraulic shock absorber in 1908. Hydraulic shocks damp spring oscillations by forcing fluid through small passages. In the popular tubular shock, a piston with small orifices is attached to the chassis and a cylindrical oil reservoir is attached to the suspension or axle. As the suspension moves up and down, the piston is forced through the oil, resisting the action of the spring.

One-way valves allow different orifices to be used to control suspension jounce and rebound. This is called a double-acting shock. The latest wrinkle is to add a chamber of compressible gas at one end of the fluid reservoir to cushion the damping action.

Monroe built the first original equipment hydraulic shocks for Hudson in 1933. By the late 1930s the double-acting tubular shock absorber became common on cars made in the United States. In Europe, lever-type hydraulic shocks prevailed into the ’60s. They resembled the Hartford friction shock, but used hydraulic fluid instead of a friction pad.

MacPherson struts

With the advent of front-wheel-drive cars, manufacturers in the 1970s and ’80s started using MacPherson struts. MacPherson, a GM engineer, developed this unit in the 1960s. It combines the coil spring, hydraulic shock absorber, and upper suspension arm into a single compact device. The main advantage is that it allows the necessary space for positioning the front-drive transaxle.

Several Japanese cars now feature struts with shock valving that can be adjusted from soft to firm by electric motors while the car is moving. The driver has a choice of three settings, but a signal from the speedometer usually overrides the manual control at highway speeds to set the shocks on firm.

The Nissan Maxima for 1985 sold in Japan had electronically controlled shocks that automatically provided a soft, medium, or firm ride depending upon road conditions, speed, and driving style. A sonar unit under the bumper monitored the road surface, while other sensors checked speed, acceleration, steering angle, and brake use.

Data were fed to a central processing unit that decided if you were driving gently or aggressively, then activated shafts in the shock absorbers that altered the size of fluid passages.

The Lotus Active Suspension System does away with springs and shock absorbers altogether. Eighteen motion sensing transducers send data to four computer-controlled hydraulic rams. The system distinguishes roll, dive, jounce, and bump. Valves in the rams adjust the ride accordingly. These valves can change position as much as 250 times per second.

The Lotus system has the uncanny ability to keep a car level in a tight turn or even bank it toward the inside of the turn, rather than leaning to the outside as other cars do.

Automobile Body & Chassis History

Unlike the first engine and chassis builders, who had no precedents to follow, the first auto body engineers represented an old established craft. It mattered little to them whether vehicles were to be propelled by a gasoline engine, electric power, or steam. Their task was the same as in the days of chariots: to construct a conveyance that would carry people.

The body builders contended that if carriages were good enough for horses, they were good enough for engines. They were even given carriage names — phaeton, brougham, tonneau, landaulet, and wagonette.

Don’t get the idea that early body engineers were a stodgy conservative bunch. When it came to trying new structural concepts and materials, they were as radical as the engine and chassis guys — so much so, in fact, that practically every body structural technique in use today had been tried by 1920, even gluing bodies together.

In 1984 Volvo announced the use of epoxy to tack-weld body parts together, thus reducing the number of conventional spot welds from 4000 to 500. But Volvo is not No. 1 in the use of glue for this purpose. Body engineers used casein to hold early wooden body members together on the Cadillac, Columbia, Locomobile, and Peerless of 1898 to 1904 among others.

If we had to pick the two most revolutionary events in the development of the auto body, we would select the transition from wood to metal and the development of quick-drying lacquer — events that occurred 25 years apart.

The wooden body panels of those early cars restricted body designers. Wood can only be steamed and bent into simple curves. When applied to wooden frames, the body panels of one make of car looked pretty much like those of any other make.

When sheet steel and aluminum came along in 1900, this sameness in appearance started to change. New metalworking techniques were perfected — drop-hammering and power-hammering in the 1900 to 1910 era, hydraulic stretching around 1920, and drawing and stamping around 1935. As each occurred, metal panels began taking on new, novel shapes. The first U.S.-built auto to sport a steel body was the 1901 Eastman Steamer, the first to have an aluminum body was the 1902 Marmon. Both were built with all-wood frames to which metal panels were pinned.

The wood frame/metal panel arrangement lasted about 10 years. Then, wood frames reinforced with steel to give the car body greater rigidity came along. Called armored wood, it saw its first use as framing to hold the steel body panels of the 1911 Hupmobile. Built by Edward Budd, the Hupp body was the traditional design for the day — a touring (open) car.

Closed cars were available from about 1900 on, but they found few takers since they cost about 20 percent more than open vehicles. To protect passengers in open vehicles, several automobile accessory companies made lots of money selling folding, cape and canopy tops.

The closed car, or sedan, became less expensive and more attractive soon after World War I thanks to Budd, who devised ways to cut the manufacturing cost. In 1919, Dodge brought out the first closed car with steel frame members and body panels.

The development of quick-drying lacquer that could be sprayed on occurred in 1924. It, more than any other development, ushered in the era of mass auto production. Until then most auto bodies were finished with paint and varnish, which took weeks to dry. Some old timers remember the days when new cars were lined up for miles along Detroit’s Woodward Avenue waiting for “that damn varnish to lose its tackiness.” Meanwhile, the production lines slowed to a crawl. There was just no more room to put cars.

Lacquer cut the drying time first to days — then to hours. Developed by Duco, its first use was on the 1924 Oakland. Oakland was the original division of General Motors that later became Pontiac.

Unity Forever

On a late October afternoon in Detroit in 1915, an auto body engineer by the name of H. Jay Hayes was presenting a talk before the annual conference of the Society of Automobile Engineers. Hayes represented the Ruler Auto Co., and recounted in rather humdrum fashion the development of the auto body.

During a pause in his speech, a voice boomed, “What do you think about the moot theory of combining the body and frame into one unit?”

The voice got attention of everyone in the audience. They waited with interest to hear Hayes’ response. The combined body-frame theory had been bandied about for almost 10 years, but no car company had developed a cost-effective way to turn theory into reality.

Hayes presented a 15-minute dissertation on the virtues of unitized body construction — what we call today unibody or unit body construction. He explained to his fellow engineers how, by making the car smaller and lighter, it was possible to overcome the two main disadvantages of combined body and frame construction: excessive cost and body vibration.

Hayes then dropped a bomb by announcing that the following week his company was going to put on sale 3000 vehicles with unitized bodies. The car was called the Ruler Frameless.

As Hayes had promised, the vehicles appeared on the market without framing. Instead, body members were fashioned into tubular form to give metal the rigidity it needed to do without a frame. The engine and suspension members rested on a platform.

Other Notable Events

Here are some highlights in body evolution:

  • In 1897, a car named the Hugot hit the street with a wicker body. The nameplate and body soon became basket cases.
  • Aluminum and steel started vying to replace wood body panels as early as 1900. At the time, sheet aluminum was more expensive than steel, and cast aluminum brackets more expensive still. Thus was born the first car caste system. Cars having sheet steel body panels were manufactured for the masses, while those with aluminum body panels were made for the rich.
  • The first ever Cadillac, the 1902 model, sported patent leather fenders.
  • In 1903, a car that was called the Bates seemed to offer significant improvement in the way the body was attached to the frame rails. Engineers fitted the transverse rear frame girder with hinges, so the body could be attached with two slip-on security bolts. By slipping out the bolts, the body could be swung back easily so mechanics could have better access to the under parts of the vehicle.
  • Hinged side doors — two of them — became popular in 1905; four of them started to become popular in 1913, although they were available in 1910.
  • In 1922, the Auburn came out with the first X-member frame. The structure provided a major stride in torsional stiffness and cut down on vibration.
  • Some called it J.J.’s joke — the patent acquired by John Joseph McGuire of Yonkers, New York, on Oct. 24, 1922. But it turned out to be one of the most unique body ideas in automotive history. Based on the 1903 Bates idea of a bolt-on-bolt-off body, McGuire’s vehicle was an all-in-one car. Within minutes, whatever body was on the chassis could be unbolted, lifted off and replaced with a different body — limousine, 4-door closed sedan, 4-door open touring sedan, 2-door coupe, or 2-door roadster.
  • The first production wood-body station wagon was the 1923 Star. The first all steel-body production model was the 1935 Chevy.
  • Called pants at first, fender skirts were first used by Frank Lockhart in a 1928 Stutz racer.
  • Credit for the first modern hardtop convertible goes to Chrysler — with a 1946 model. But the first hardtop retractable convertible was invented by B. B. Ellerbeck in 1931.
  • The Kaiser Darrin and Chevy Corvette share the honor of being the first production sports cars with fiberglass bodies — in 1953 — but Ford built a fiberglass prototype as early as 1938.
  • Lotus introduced its “backbone” chassis on the 1962 Elan. A central steel box section carried the engine, drive shaft, and suspension. The fiberglass body was bonded (glued) to this steel frame.
  • Lotus was first to build a unit body structure using the lightest and strongest materials available — a combination of Kevlar and carbon fiber-reinforced resins. This structure significantly reduced noise and vibration.

Automobile Drivetrain History

Getting power from the engine to the wheels of an automobile has provided a seemingly endless challenge for rear-wheel-drive, front-wheel-drive, 4-wheel-drive, front-engine, rear-engine, and mid-engine cars, longitudinal, transverse, vertical, slant, and flat engines, plus an amazing array of hardware in between. George Selden’s notorious 1877 patent was for a front-drive carriage with a transverse 3-cylinder engine, anticipating the Chevy/Suzuki Sprint by over a century. When it comes to car designs, there are very few new ideas, just progressively successful adaptations of old concepts.

The heart of the drivetrain is the transmission. Because gasoline engines develop their torque over a very narrow speed range, several gears are needed to reach useful road speeds. (Steam engines and electric motors can be used in cars with no transmissions.)

The modern transmission was introduced by a pair of Frenchmen — Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor — in 1894. The engineers had invited the press to a demonstration of “the most revolutionary advancement to date in the brief history of the motor car industry.” Unfortunately, the engine in their demo vehicle died, and they were reduced to giving a chalk talk on multi-geared transmission theory to a bored press corps.

One 19th-century newsman reported their invention as “more hocus-pocus from charlatans trying to cash in on the public’s fascination with the new motor car.” Maybe the inventors should have skipped the tech talk and just used the description later attributed to Panhard: “It’s brutal, but it works!”

Cars of the time transmitted engine power to the wheels in a simple fashion that was easy for non-engineers to visualize. The engine drove a set of bevel reduction gears that drove a shaft and pulley. Leather belts extended between the pulley and geared wheels on an axle. One wheel, the small one, got the car going by meshing with a ring gear on one of the driving wheels. The big wheel then took over to get the car to hustle along at a top speed of 20 mph. If the car encountered a hill that it did not have the power to climb, the driver would come to a dead stop so he could engage the small wheel.

Thus did British auto pioneer F. W. Lanchester describe the transmissions in his cars: “One belt-driven HIGH gear that will go over everything and one bel-driven LOW gear in case the car had to climb a tree.”

It was not until a year after their disastrous news conference that Panhard and Levassor regained their reputations. At this time, they had their first car ready for the press to drive. With it, they changed a lot of minds.

That 1895 Panhard-Levassor was revolutionary — not the transmission alone, but the whole drivetrain layout. In fact, it has served as the prototype for most vehicles built in the 90 years since then. Unlike other cars of that day, it possessed a vertically mounted engine in the front of the vehicle that drove the rear wheels through a clutch, 3-speed sliding gear transmission and chain-driven axle. The only modern features missing from the setup were a differential rear axle and driveshaft. These came along three years later, in 1898, when millionaire-turned-auto-hobbyist Louis Renault connected a vertical engine with transmission to a “live” rear axle by means of a metal shaft.

The live rear axle — which Renault adapted from an idea developed in 1893 by an American, C. E. Duryea — was called the differential rear axle. It used a number of gears to overcome the problem of rapid tire wear, which resulted on turns with the “dead” axles used by all other carmakers. “Differential” referred to the ability of the unit to turn the outer driving wheel faster than the inner driving wheel, eliminating tire scuffing in turns.

By 1904, the Panhard-Levassor sliding gear manual transmission had been adopted by most carmakers. In one form or another, it has remained in use until recent times. Obviously, there have been improvements, the most significant being the invention of a synchronizing system that permits drive and driven gears to be brought into mesh with each other smoothly without gear clashing. This system allows both sets of gears to reach the same speed before they are engaged. The first of these synchromesh transmissions was introduced by Cadillac in 1928. An improvement to the design patented by Porsche is widely used today.

Between the time the sliding gear-transmission was introduced and the perfection of the synchromesh, there were other attempts at making it easier for the driver to shift gears. One was the planetary transmission in the 1908 Model T Ford. It had a central gear, called the “sun” gear, surrounded by three “planet” gears. Today, planetary gears are more widely used in automatic transmissions than in manual.

Some pretty elaborate planetary manual transmissions did evolve, however. One was developed by Walter Wilson and was called the Wilson Preselector. It came along in 1930.

This gear system, which used four individual planetary gearsets, allowed the driver to preselect one gear ratio by moving a small lever on the steering column. the driver could then “order up” the particular preselected gear by depressing a foot pedal. This caused a camshaft to disengage one gear and simultaneously allow the preselected gearset to engage.

All transmission designs since the Panhard-Levassor unit have had one goal in common — to make shifting easier. Obviously, the easiest to shift transmission is the automatic. It’s strictly an American innovation.

The first automatic was invented in 1904 by the Sturtevant brothers of Boston. It provided two forward speeds that were engaged and disengaged by the action of centrifugal weights without need for a foot-operated clutch. As engine speed increased, the weights swung out to engage bands — first the low-gear band and then the high-gear band. The unit failed because the weights often flew apart.

The next significant attempt at an automatic transmission was by Reo in 1934. Called the Reo Self-Shifter, it was actually two transmissions connected in series. For ordinary driving, one unit upshifted itself automatically in relation to car speed through the engagement of a centrifugal multiple-disc clutch — much the same idea used by the Sturtevants. The second transmission was shifted manually and was used only when a lower gear was needed.

In 1937, Oldsmobile came out with a four-speed semi-automatic transmission called the “Automatic Safety Transmission” (AST). The driver depressed the clutch pedal and shifted into reverse or into one of two forward ranges: Low or High. Once in Low, the transmission shifted automatically from first to second; when in High, it shifted from third to fourth. Changes within each range were automatic by way of oil pressure and two hydraulically operated planetary gearsets. The shift points were preset according to the vehicle’s speed. This AST transmission, an $80 option, was installed on about 28,000 1938 Oldsmobiles. The “safety” aspect referred to the claim that the driver could keep focused on the road rather than be occupied shifting. The significance of the AST is that it was the forerunner of the GM Hydra-Matic transmission which Oldsmobile introduced in 1939 and made available on the 1940 models. In 1938 Buick introduced a five-speed semi-automatic transmission in the Special, but it was so prone to trouble that it was dropped the following year.

The Hydra-Matic consisted of three planetary gearsets that were operated hydraulically. A fluid coupling was used to connect the engine and transmission. Credit for perfecting the fluid coupling goes to Chrysler, which developed the concept in 1937. However, Chrysler did not make use of it until 1941, when the Chrysler Fluid Drive transmission was introduced. This was not an automatic unit, but a standard transmission with a fluid coupling, not a clutch.

By 1948, the automatic transmission had evolved into the hydraulic torque converter that we know today coupled to a planetary geartrain. The first to use the converter was Buick. In 1948 Buick offered the Dynaflow fully automatic transmission as a $244 option on the Roadmaster. Within three years, 85 percent of Buicks had the Dynaflow. The Dynaflow was the model for present-day automatic transmissions. Others soon followed with similar units — Chevrolet Powerglide, Fordomatic and Merc-O-Matic in 1950; and the Chrysler M-6 Torque Converter Automatic in 1951.

These are some other interesting developments in the history of transmissions and drive units:

  • In the early days of transmissions, leather-lined, multiple-disc, oil-bathed clutches were in common use. Although the first use of a dry single-plate clutch was by Duryea in 1893, it was not until 1921 that a design was developed that would not burn out in a few hundred miles, thanks mainly to Englishman Herbert Frood, who perfected more durable friction materials.
  • Universal joints were first introduced on the 1902 Peerless. The 1908 Franklin was the first car to use roller-bearing U-joints. The 1930 Hupmobile pioneered needle-bearing U-joints, which is the point where we stand today.
  • Although differential locks were first used on a steam lorry in 1903 to provide wheel traction on slippery roads, it was not until 1956 that the first production limited-slip differential for a popular car was produced by Studebaker.
  • In 1906, Otto Zachow and William Besserdich of Clintonville, Wisconsin, built a car with the first successful 4-wheel-drive unit. A year later, they began a company called the Four Wheel Drive Auto Co.
  • In 1913, Packard made a milestone step in differential development with the introduction of a spiral-bevel ring and pinion set that cut the noise level produced in the rear axle. In 1926, with the introduction by Packard of the hypoid gear rear axle, noise ceased to be a problem altogether, unless the differential was going bad.
  • In 1934, automatic overdrive was introduced on the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow.
  • The latest development in transmission seems to be the continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT. The CVT is driven by a metal link belt. We’ve come full circle in 100 years, back to the belt-drive!

Automobile Accessories History

Lemuel Bosco of Akron, Ohio, spent $5 for an antitheft device that was supposed to lock the Splitdorf ignition switch of his car, but it did not stop a thief. He broke it off and took Bosco’s Mercer for a joyride. The cops found the car undamaged, but Bosco was mad and vowed it would not happen again. Thus was born the Bosco Collapsible Driver. When inflated and propped behind a steering wheel, it looked like Charlie Chaplin, right down to moustache and derby. When the mannequin was not needed, it was deflated and stored under the seat. Standing a foot away from a car, no thief could tell that the rubber dummy was not a real man — or so the ads in auto accessory manuals of 1910 would have you believe.

The Bosco Collapsible Driver Co. collapsed in two years, because it did not take even the dumbest thief long to realize that the guy who was sitting behind the wheel never even twitched, which meant he was either dead, in a coma, or not for real.

The Bosco dummy was one of countless inventions that never made it as auto accessories. It was not as practical as others that became popular and offered motorists additional comfort, convenience, or safety.

Many automotive components we now regard as necessities started life as accessories. They include headlamps, headlamp dimmers, turn signals, backup lights, windshield wipers, horns, jacks, speedometers, temperature gauges, rear-view mirrors, even bumpers and trunks. In most cases, an item’s transition from accessory to necessity was interrupted by a period in which it was offered as an option by the carmaker.

Today, it’s hard to believe that even the headlamp took these three steps, but it did. Some owners of the earliest cars took the candle lamps off their horse buggies and put them on their horseless carriages. they served as beacons to warn other drivers of an approaching vehicle, but they were not bright enough to light the road.

It is alleged that the first true headlamp was a kerosene lantern in the hands of a farmer. In 1887, a driver who had failed to make his destination before nightfall found an accommodating farmer who guided him by lantern light to his house. That farmer became the first “headlight.”

Soon after, someone got the bright idea of offering motorists detachable oil lamps. Placed in silvered reflectors and outfitted with stands and handles, they could also serve as sources of light to repair flat tires at night. It was only a year or so afterward that carmakers started offering oil lamps as options.

As roads improved and night driving became commonplace, cars were fitted with acetylene tanks to feed gas to headlamps. The acetylene flame was not as easy to blow out as candle flames or oil lamp wicks.

Then came electric head and tail lamps, introduced on the 1898 Columbia Electric Car. The main reason makers of gasoline buggies started putting batteries into their vehicles was to power electric headlamps.

Early electric headlamps were blinding because they could not be “dipped” when cars approached one another. This drawback gave rise to the accessory dimmer. The forerunner was the so-called depressible headlight, which was introduced by the Guide Lamp Co. in 1915. It allowed a motorist to swivel headlamps vertically by loosening and tightening clamps, but he had to get out of the car to do this.

Depressible headlamps became practical in 1917 when Cadillac “automated” them. The lamps were placed on a trunnion. A bar extending to a lever on the steering column let the driver raise or lower reflectors.

In 1925 the depressible headlight became obsolete when the Guide Lamp Co. introduced the 2-filament headlight bulb. Switching between low and high beam was accomplished through a switch on the steering column. In 1927 the dimmer switch was moved to the floor, where it stayed for about 50 years until it was moved again — to the steering column!

Another safety-oriented lighting system involved keeping the headlights or other front lights constantly on even during the day in order to help to prevent possible accidents because oncoming traffic can be seen. On December 1, 1989, Canada became the second country after Norway to require daytime running lights on all new passenger vehicles. In other countries the implementation of DRLs has had mixed response.

Another noteworthy lighting feature that started as an accessory and ended up as a necessity was the flashing turn signal, introduced by the Protex Safety Signal Co. in 1920. But the idea was proposed (sort of) in 1916 when C. H. Thomas of Norristown, PA, wrote to Popular Mechanics describing an invention — a battery and electric bulb attached to a glove so drivers could see hand signals at night.

Flashing turn signals were first offered as an option by Buick in 1938, but only as rear flashing lights. In 1940 the flashing signal was extended to front lights, and the signal switch was given a self-canceling feature.

Austin had a different approach to signal lights. When the signal lever was activated by the steering column, a lighted lever popped out of either side of the B-pillar indicating the direction of turning.

While most automakers installed signal light indicators in the dash, Cadillac put them on the front fenders. More recently, upscale cars and trucks have put a signal light in the edge of the external mirrors.

The bumper is another piece of equipment that was an accessory before motorists considered it a necessity. Two pages were devoted to it in the 1922 automobile supply catalog of The Charles William Stores of New York, which claimed that, “Bumpers are cheap collision insurance.” Priced at about $8 each, bumpers were clamped or bolted onto the front and rear of the car. Two or three years later, carmakers made bumpers standard.

Mail-order windshield wipers in the same catalog consisted of a rubber squeegee that was clamped to the top of the windshield frame. The driver moved this squeegee back and forth by hand, using a crank inside the car. At 89¢, this was the cheap model. If a guy was in the bucks, he could buy an automatic windshield wiper for $4.75 that “will work of its own accord so you can keep both hands on the wheel to control your skidding, sliding car.”

The vacuum-powered unit, connected to the intake manifold by a rubber tube, had a major drawback. When the throttle was wide open, such as going up a hill, engine vacuum dropped and the wipers either slowed to a crawl or stopped altogether. Electric wipers did not do this, but when carmakers finally made windshield wipers standard, they fitted cars with vacuum models because they were cheaper.

The first law requiring motor cars to have an audible warning signal was passed in France in 1899. In the U.S., the factory-installed electric horn or Klaxon did not become popular until about 1915. Before then the horn was an accessory a motorist bought from an auto supply dealer. He could get any sound that pleased him — squawk, toot, whistle, chime, or siren.

The era of the electric horn started in 1908 when the Lowell-McConnell Manufacturing Co. of Newark, New Jersey, purchased the rights to an electrically operated signalling device. F. W. Lowell, founder of the firm, called it a Klaxon, from the Greek word klaxo, which means to shriek. Soon, road signs warning you to “Sound Your Klaxon” were erected at sharp curves so that oncoming vehicles will be aware of your presence.

As recently as 1932, trunks were literally that — separate cargo chests that motorists bought and strapped to the rear of their cars. Later in the 1930s, cars were designed with a hump in the rear, allowing carmakers to build in luggage compartments.

The first recorded use of the rear-view mirror was the one Ray Harroun had on his Marmon Wasp when he won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. The adaptation allowed Harroun to ride alone in his car, while other drivers needed riding mechanics to tell them when cars were on their tails or coming up alongside. By eliminating the observer, Harroun made his car slimmer, more aerodynamic and lighter.

Capitalizing on Harroun’s success, the Marmon Auto Co. started to put rear-view mirrors on all its 1912 models. Other manufacturers followed suit. In 1940 the Guide Lamp Co. offered an accessory rear-view mirror that could be adjusted for day or night driving.

Here are some other accessories that made it to the big time:

  • The 1903 Tincher introduced the motoring public to air-boost (power) brakes. It was not an option either, but standard equipment. But then, the Tincher sold for $5000 — about ten times the price of the average car of the day.
  • The first adjustable driver’s seat was offered in the 1914 Maxwell. The 1921 Hudson had sliding bench seats as standard equipment. Buick, in 1946, gave motorists the first optional 2-way power seat, and the 1953 Lincoln had the first optional 4-way power seat.
  • In 1921, an innovator by the name of Wills Sainte Claire mounted a bulb on the rear of his car and wired it to a switch on the car’s transmission, so it glowed when the car was shifted into reverse. Thus, the backup light was invented and sold as an accessory until federal law made it mandatory in the 1960s.
  • The 1923 Springfield sedan is credited with being the first car to offer a radio as an option. Radios did not become popular until the early ’30s, when they finally lost their reputation as a driver distraction.
  • The 1928 Studebaker gave us the first windshield defroster; the 1937 Studebaker, the windshield washer.
  • The 1939 Packard ushered in air conditioning.


All the accessories up to now may pale by comparison to those coming in the future. With the explosion in electronic technology, the world of automotive accessories promises to be more exciting than ever. Stereo systems with CD players and MP3 connections, video displays, heads up displays, remote starters, radar detectors, GPS are hot accessories today.

The Etak computer can map out trips and display a car’s location on a cathode ray tube along with the best way to get from one place to another — just like in commercial jets. Speaking of jets, did you hear about the idea of putting black boxes into cars similar to aircraft flight recorders, so courts can determine who’s at fault in accidents? It’s possible now, but likely to be as popular as The Bosco Collapsible Driver.