Home   About   Timeline   The Book

Automobile - Timeline


Automobiles may not have been born in the 20th century, but they were not yet out of diapers when it began. Even after Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz introduced their improved fourstroke internal combustion engine, autos in both the United States and Europe were still poking along at a few miles an hour (a sizeable proportion of them still running on electricity or steam). They could boast no battery starter, roof, or windows and were priced only for the rich. Then Henry Ford fine-tuned the mass production of his Tin Lizzie and the world drove off into the age of affordable transportation—forever altering our notions of place, distance, and community.

  1901   The telescope shock absorber developed

C. L. Horock designs the "telescope" shock absorber, using a piston and cylinder fitted inside a metal sleeve, with a one-way valve built into the piston. As air or oil moves through the valve into the cylinder, the piston moves freely in one direction but is resisted in the other direction by the air or oil. The result is a smoother ride and less lingering bounce. The telescope shock absorber is still used today.

  1901   Olds automobile factory starts production

The Olds automobile factory starts production in Detroit. Ransom E. Olds contracts with outside companies for parts, thus helping to originate mass production techniques. Olds produces 425 cars in its first year of operation, introducing the three-horsepower "curved-dash" Oldsmobile at $650. The car is a success; Olds is selling 5,000 units a year by 1905.

  1902   Standard drum brakes are invented

Standard drum brakes are invented by Louis Renault. His brakes work by using a cam to force apart two hinged shoes. Drum brakes are improved in many ways over the years, but the basic principle remains in cars for the entire 20th century; even with the advent of disk brakes in the 1970s, drum brakes remain the standard for rear wheels.

  1908   William Durant forms General Motors

William Durant forms General Motors. His combination of car producers and auto parts makers eventually becomes the largest corporation in the world.

  1908   Model T introduced

Henry Ford begins making the Model T. First-year production is 10,660 cars.

Cadillac is awarded the Dewar Trophy by Britain’s Royal Automobile Club for a demonstration of the precision and interchangeability of the parts from which the car is assembled. Mass production thus makes more headway in the industry.

  1911   Electric starter introduced

Charles Kettering introduces the electric starter. Until this time engines had to be started by hand cranking. Critics believed no one could make an electric starter small enough to fit under a car’s hood yet powerful enough to start the engine. His starters first saw service in 1912 Cadillacs.

  1913   First moving assembly line for automobiles developed

Ford Motor Company develops the first moving assembly line for automobiles. It brings the cars to the workers rather than having workers walk around factories gathering parts and tools and performing tasks. Under the Ford assembly line process, workers perform a single task rather than master whole portions of automobile assembly. The Highland Park, Michigan, plant produces 300,000 cars in 1914. Ford’s process allows it to drop the price of its Model T continually over the next 14 years, transforming cars from unaffordable luxuries into transportation for the masses.

  1914   First car body made entirely of steel

Dodge introduces the first car body made entirely of steel, fabricated by the Budd Company. The Dodge touring car is made in Hamtramck, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.

  1919   First single foot pedal to operate coupled four-wheel brakes

The Hispano-Suiza H6B, a French luxury car, demonstrates the first single foot pedal to operate coupled four-wheel brakes. Previously drivers had to apply a hand brake and a foot brake simultaneously.

  1922   First American car with four-wheel hydraulic brakes

The Duesenberg, made in Indianapolis, Indiana, is the first American car with four-wheel hydraulic brakes, replacing ones that relied on the pressure of the driver’s foot alone. Hydraulic brakes use a master cylinder in a hydraulic system to keep pressure evenly applied to each wheel of the car as the driver presses on the brake pedal.

  1926   First power steering system

Francis Wright Davis uses a Pierce-Arrow to introduce the first power steering system. It works by integrating the steering linkage with a hydraulics system.

  1931   First modern independent front suspension system

Mercedes-Benz introduces the first modern independent front suspension system, giving cars a smoother ride and better handling. By making each front wheel virtually independent of the other though attached to a single axle, independent front suspension minimizes the transfer of road shock from one wheel to the other.

  1934   First successful mass-produced front-wheel-drive car

The French automobile Citroën Traction Avant is the first successful mass-produced front-wheel-drive car. Citroën also pioneers the all-steel unitized body-frame structure (chassis and body are welded together). Audi in Germany and Cord in the United States offer front-wheel drive.

  1935   Flashing turn signals introduced

A Delaware company uses a thermal interrupter switch to create flashing turn signals. Electricity flowing through a wire expands it, completing a circuit and allowing current to reach the lightbulb. This short-circuits the wire, which then shrinks and terminates contact with the bulb but is then ready for another cycle. Transistor circuits begin taking over the task of thermal interrupters in the 1960s.

  1939   First air conditioning system added to automobiles

The Nash Motor Company adds the first air conditioning system to cars.

  1940   Jeep is designed

Karl Pabst designs the Jeep, workhorse of WWII. More than 360,000 are made for the Allied armed forces.

Oldsmobile introduces the first mass-produced, fully automatic transmission.

  1950s   Cruise control is developed

Ralph Teeter, a blind man, senses by ear that cars on the Pennsylvania Turnpike travel at uneven speeds, which he believes leads to accidents. Through the 1940s he develops a cruise control mechanism that a driver can set to hold the car at a steady speed. Unpopular when generally introduced in the 1950s, cruise control is now standard on more than 70 percent of today’s automobiles.

  1960s   Efforts begin to reduce harmful emissions

Automakers begin efforts to reduce harmful emissions, starting with the introduction of positive crankcase ventilation in 1963. PCV valves route gases back to the cylinders for further combustion. With the introduction of catalytic converters in the 1970s, hydrocarbon emissions are reduced 95 percent by the end of the century compared to emissions in 1967.

  1966   Electronic fuel injection system developed

An electronic fuel injection system is developed in Britain. Fuel injection delivers carefully controlled fuel and air to the cylinders to keep a car’s engine running at its most efficient.

  1970s   Airbags become standard

Airbags, introduced in some models in the 1970s, become standard in more cars.  Originally installed only on the driver's side, they begin to appear on the front passenger side as well.

  1970s   Fuel prices escalate, driving demand for fuel-efficient cars

Fuel prices escalate, driving a demand for fuel-efficient cars, which increases the sale of small Japanese cars. This helps elevate the Japanese automobile industry to one of the greatest in the world.

  1980s   Japanese popularize "just in time" delivery of auto parts

The Japanese popularize "just in time" delivery of auto parts to factory floors, thus reducing warehousing costs.  They also popularize statistical process control, a method developed but not applied in the United States until the Japanese demonstrate how it improves quality.

  1985   Antilock braking system (ABS) available on American cars

The Lincoln becomes the first American car to offer an antilock braking system (ABS), which is made by Teves of Germany. ABS uses computerized sensing of wheel movement and hydraulic pressure to each wheel to adjust pressure so that the wheels continue to move somewhat rather than "locking up" during emergency braking.

  1992   Energy Policy Act of 1992 encourages alternative-fuel vehicles

Passage of the federal Energy Policy Act of 1992 encourages alternative- fuel vehicles. These include automobiles run with mixtures of alcohols and gasoline, with natural gas, or by some combination of conventional fuel and battery power.

  1997   First American carmaker offers automatic stability control

Cadillac is the first American carmaker to offer automatic stability control, increasing safety in emergency handling situations.


     Early Years
     Assembly Line
     Continuing Developments
     Essay - Donald E. Petersen

Copyright © 2024 National Academy of Sciences on behalf of the National Academy of Engineering.

Privacy Statement. DMCA Policy. Terms of Use.

Printer-Friendly Version. Text-Only Version. Contact Us.