A Complete Guide To The Biggest Automotive Inventions

The automobile has now been around for over 100 years. A short time for humans but long enough for cars. In the beginning, cars were no more than motorized carriages, but over the decades the car has developed significantly. Countless automotive inventions in the areas of driving, safety and comfort technology have made the car what it is today. Some manufacturers like to use these automotive inventions as a marketing tool, sometimes rightly so.

At this point, you are cordially invited to take a stroll through automotive history! I would like to go into what are probably the most important inventions in automotive engineering and, if possible, also look at their roots. I am sure you will be amazed as to which car manufacturer actually had one or the other automotive invention in the program first or what the origin of some inventions actually is.

So for starters, let’s dig deep into the mothballs of automotive history.

Who really invented the automobile assembly line production?

Ok, this isn’t exactly an innovation found in a car. However, assembly line production was probably one of the most important drivers of the spread of the automobile and the biggest automotive inventions. Without mass production and the associated falling prices and thus accessibility for normal income groups, the car would probably still be an expensive toy for the super-rich today. The first mass-produced car was the Ford Model T. The invention of assembly line production is still partially attributed to Henry Ford alone. However, this is not entirely true!

As with so many other automotive inventions in the automotive sector, someone just went there and refined the existing idea to the point where it works or works better than before. 

Henry Ford copied the principle of assembly line production from Ransom Eli Olds, who had previously produced his cars using an assembly line-like concept. Oldsmobile didn’t have automated assembly lines, but they still assembled their cars station by station, as is still the case today. Instead of an assembly line, employees had to push the cars from station to station. Ford took this concept from Olds and perfected it. Ford was deservedly very successful with it, but some of the credit also goes to Ransom Eli Olds. Without his idea, Ford might never have gotten to “his” assembly lines.

Who invented the V8 engine?

The first V8 engine goes back to a patent by Frenchman Leon Levavasseur. However, these engines were only used in boats or airplanes, if at all. At the beginning of the 20th century, Rolls Royce tried a V8-powered car, but only 3 examples were made and Rolls Royce preferred to produce in-line six-cylinder cars for their cars. Cadillac can boast of having the first mass-produced V8 engine. In 1914 a 5.4-liter engine was introduced, also known as the L-Head. A good 13,000 of these engines found their way into Cadillac cars. However, it was Henry Ford who helped the V8 engine to achieve its real breakthrough. In 1932, Henry Ford presented one of his last great automotive inventions, the Flathead V8. Introduced in the Model A, the engine quickly became very popular because it offered a lot of “bang for bucks” for the time. The famous gangster couple Bonny & Clyde is said to have even sent Henry Ford a letter thanking him for the powerful engine with which they were able to evade the police more than once.

Ford’s big competitor General Motors had already offered V8 engines for Cadillac and Chevrolet, but at least Chevrolet had quickly discarded the V8 and preferred to continue to use the in-line six-cylinder developed personally by Louis Chevrolet. One almost slept through the V8 trend in the mass market until Chevrolet developed the legendary small block for it in 1955. To this day it is considered the engine with the highest production volume of all time. Like the Ford Flathead, the Small Block was and still is popular because of its compact dimensions, its low weight, the simple and robust design and its performance (or the ease with which it can be tuned). To date, GM has produced well over 100 million small blocks and to this day the engines are built according to the basic recipe from 1955, albeit of course repeatedly adapted to technical progress.

Who invented the Wankel engine?

The Wankel engine is still an engine concept that stands out in comparison to the widespread piston engines. If the NSU Ro 80 is often referred to in Germany as the first car with a Wankel engine, it was actually a different NSU! The first Wankel car that went into series production was the NSU Spider. 3 years before the Ro 80, the Mazda Cosmo came onto the market with a Wankel engine, a concept that Mazda has not 100% said goodbye to today. Until 2010, Mazda had a rotary car in its range with the RX8. In contrast to NSU, however, Mazda got the problems that Wankel brought with it under control. But it must also be mentioned that Mazda relied on the further development of the Wankel principle, for which Hans Dieter Paschke was responsible. Rumor has it that Mazda is now working on a new Wankel engine.

Who was the first to implement and invent the ABS braking system?

Originally an invention from aircraft construction, ABS in automobile construction is considered to be one of the most important safety features of recent years. The first mechanical systems came onto the market in automotive engineering in the 1960s. At that time they were still mostly used in racing cars, or they were used in small series batches. The Jensen FF was the first road vehicle to have a mechanical ABS system. However, these systems never caught on in mass production because they were expensive and, above all, very prone to defects. ABS only made its breakthrough with modern computer-controlled systems as we know them today. As is so often the case, the idea originally came from aircraft construction! The first electronic ABS was used in the Concorde at the end of the 1960s. At the beginning of the 1970s, Chrysler and Bendix were able to introduce the first modern ABS system for passenger cars, which was called “Sure Break”. This system was used by the Imperial brand from 1971 and affected all 4 wheels. In the same year, Cadillac presented a similar system called the “Trackmaster”, which, however, only worked on the rear wheels.

If you really want to “experience” what a blessing ABS is for driving safety, we recommend a driving safety training course. There you will be shown very clearly how useful this automotive invention really is. In my opinion the most important automotive inventions of the last 30 years in the automotive sector.

Read our other articles on car brakes: Air in brake lines and the most common symptoms of worn-out brake pads!

Who invented the All-Wheel-Drive drivetrain?

All-wheel drive is also one of the automotive inventions that are surrounded by many marketing myths. Audi still claims to have been the inventor of all-wheel drive, but that’s not the case! The four-wheel drive principle is almost as old as the automobile itself. The first four-wheel drive cars were already around at the beginning of the 20th century. In my opinion, the most interesting solution to the four-wheel drive problem was definitely installing one motor per axle. However, the all-wheel drive had not really caught on at that time.

All-wheel drive was only popular with the military. One of the first and most widely produced four-wheel drive military vehicles was the Willys Jeep, which went into mass production in the early 1940s and it could be seen on almost every WW2 battlefield. The soldiers loved the Willys, as it was very good off-road for its time and was also quick on the move. In addition, it was light, which made it easy to transport and easy to repair since the jeep could be quickly fixed and put back on the road by simple soldiers, even in an emergency. One could describe the Willys Jeep as the forefather of all-wheel drive in automobile construction. In modern series automobile construction, as we know it today, all-wheel drive only came into use in the 1960s. Again it was the Jensen FF that can boast of being the first car to feature all-wheel drive. Almost 2 decades before Audi mind you.

Now, of course, Audi fans could throw in that the Jensen FF was only produced in small numbers and can therefore not really be classified as a production car. Fair objection, if the Japanese hadn’t been even faster. One year after the Jensen FF was discontinued, Subaru launched the Leone station wagon with four-wheel drive. A whole 8 years before Audi. And Audi can’t even claim third place in the race for all-wheel drive, because it belongs (actually, no joke!) to the Lada Niva, which went into series production in 1976. All-wheel drive is a good example of how clever marketing can bring you the fame you’re not entitled to. One could only give Audi credit for making the four-wheel drive “cool” in normal street cars through clever marketing.

Interested in 4-wheel-drive? Read our article on part-time 4WD.

Who was the true first inventor of seatbelts?

Another feature that is indispensable in modern cars! Seat belts have probably saved the lives of countless motorists to this day. The first seat belts are often attributed to Mercedes or Volvo. However, this is not true. The first series-produced safety belts actually appeared in 1948 on the Tucker Torpedo. The very first seat belt was installed in the Baker Torpedo in 1902. However, you can tick this off under “single piece”. For the first three-point belt, the Scandinavians can then stand on the winner’s podium again. Volvo first offered this in its cars in 1959.

Which cars first featured a full aluminum body?

Another thing that Audi prides itself on having been a pioneer in. As with all-wheel drive, history also proves that the aluminum body was actually something that was not pioneered by Audi. Rolls Royce built cars with aluminum bodies as early as 1906. Sorry, Audi.

Who invented and first integrated the electric car windows?

Probably one of the best and most common comfort extras that you no longer want to do without. Anyone who has ever had to wind down the windows in a panic in front of a multi-story car park knows how annoying manual window winders are. Like so many comfort-related automotive inventions in automotive engineering, this one originally comes from the USA. As early as 1938, Buick presented the first electric windows in the Buick Y, a beautiful concept car. The Y may not have gone into series production, but window regulators quickly found their way into series production!

Who invented the turbocharger?

Another of the automotive inventions that is often attributed to German car manufacturers. However, the turbocharger is as old as the combustion engine itself. Even Carl Benz experimented with compressed air to increase performance. However, a Swiss man called Alfred Büchi developed the first real turbocharger in 1905. He registered his invention for a patent in the same year, which is still the basis for most supercharged internal combustion engines today. As is so often the case, the first turbochargers were first used in aviation. The turbocharger was intended to compensate for the loss of performance due to the decreasing amount of air at high altitudes. Incidentally, the nitrous oxide injection, which was used in combat aircraft in the 1940s, goes back to similar consideration.

The first really successful use of a turbocharger was achieved by Büchi himself 20 years later when he achieved a performance increase of a good 40% with his turbocharger. For a long time, turbochargers were a foreign word in series automobile construction. Although Duesenberg and Mercedes already had cars with compressor technology in the 1920s and 1930s, the first turbocharged mass-produced vehicle did not appear until the early 1960s. Neither Porsche nor BMW was the first, but rather the rather conservative Oldsmobile brand! The Oldsmobile Jetfire was launched in 1961 and boasts of being the first mass-produced turbocharged car. Only a short time later, Chevrolet came around the corner with the supercharged Corvair, which gained notoriety through consumer protection lawyer Ralph Nader and his book “Unsafe at any speed”.

Turbochargers do come with a handful of problems. Read more about Turbocharger problems here.

The invention of Airbags

The invention of the airbag is still a subject of great debate among automotive invention enthusiasts. Many see Mercedes as the inventor of the airbag, but the Americans were actually faster here too. Like Ford with assembly line production, Mercedes went there and refined someone else’s idea. The result was first used by Mercedes in 1980. The original idea of ​​the airbag went back to a technology that had already found its way into various GM cars in 1974. To be fair, one has to say that the early airbag systems worked anything but perfectly, which is why GM took them out of the program again.

Who invented the onboard computer?

Modern cars would be inconceivable without the first onboard computers as early as 1977 at Cadillac. However, they could not do much more than the most rudimentary functions such as daily kilometers and fuel consumption. Here, too, many see Mercedes with their “trip calculator” as the inventor of the onboard computer. However, this came a little later. 

Who was the first to implement night vision into cars?

A technique that hasn’t really caught on to this day and about whose usefulness one can argue excellently to this day. At the end of the last decade, BMW and Mercedes brought night vision systems to their flagships, the 7 Series and S-Class, which were presented as a brand new innovations at the time. Surprisingly enough, Cadillac had already offered such a system in the 2000 DeVille.

Which car brand was the first to feature a navigation system?

The navigation system is an automotive invention that is becoming increasingly popular in modern cars. To this day, BMW claims to have invented the first navigation system in the BMW 7 Series in 1994. But is that really the case? No! The navigation system did not come from Europe! The first system that could be called a navigation system came out in 1981. Honda had developed this together with Alpine. Blaupunkt followed suit a few years later with “EVA” (Electronic traffic controller for motorists).

Now one could say that BMW had at least the first GPS-supported navigation system, but the same applies here: Wrong thinking! The Mazda Eunos Cosmo was the first production car with a GPS-supported navigation system. It came onto the market in 1990, 4 years before the 7 Series BMW. Toyota followed suit a year later and introduced voice output in addition to the color display. Incidentally, the GPS that we love so much today is a US development and (like so many innovations in automotive engineering, just think of aviation!) originally developed for the military. After the military stopped deliberately falsifying GPS signals in the late 1990s, nothing stood in the way of the navigation system spreading to the mass market.

Who invented fuel injection for internal combustion engines

The injection is probably one of the most important automotive inventions of the last few decades in the automotive sector, as it made it possible to noticeably increase the efficiency of internal combustion engines. It enabled more power with less consumption compared to conventional carburetor systems. The first (mechanical) injection systems were used in aircraft construction in the 1930s. Junkers and Daimler together with Bosch developed the first systems. In car manufacturing, on the other hand, it took a few more decades. Mercedes introduced mechanical injection in the 300SL as early as 1954. Chrysler presented the first electronic fuel injection 4 years later in the 300.

The injection did not become fully established in automotive engineering until the 1980s and early 1990s, as increasingly stringent emission regulations around the world made the use of cleaner injection necessary. In the US, fuel injection became widespread in the 1980s, while Europe collectively embraced fuel injection a decade later. With that, the carburetor was finally dead in modern cars. Although Chrysler experimented with electrically controlled carburetors for several years in the 1980s, the effort involved and the results achieved were in no way comparable to an injection system.

Fuel injections is our forte. Read more about fuel injector problems here.

Who started the phenomenon of diesel engines?

To this day, the VW Group is said to have invented direct injection for diesel and thus started the diesel wave. However, the credit for this invention goes to Italy! 2 years before the introduction at Audi, the first direct injection diesel engine already nailed its way into the history books in the Fiat Croma.

Read more about diesel engines here.

Who was the first to invent and introduce hydraulic brakes for cars?

The topic of brakes is a case in itself and a very exciting one at that. Cars have made huge strides, especially when it comes to brakes. While mechanically operated brakes were still used in the early days of the automobile, hydraulic brakes quickly became the norm. The first patent for this is almost as old as the car itself. The first patent was filed by Hugo Mayer as early as 1895. However, this invention went largely unnoticed. As with so many developments, the hydraulic brake first became popular in aircraft construction. In the early 1920s Malcolm Loughead received his patent for a hydraulically operated brake. Loughhead, by the way, was one of the co-founders of Lockheed Martin.

The first time a hydraulically operated brake was used in automobile construction was in 1921. At that time, Duisenberg had successfully used such a brake in racing. In series production, these were used for the first time 3 years later in the Chrysler B70. Another 2 years later, Triumph installed hydraulic brakes in a car for the first time and was the first European manufacturer. Mechanical cable brakes were on their way out relatively quickly. There were still a few cars with cable brakes, but these were in the minority. The most prominent car that was still on the road with the (even by the standards of the time) outdated cable brakes was the VW Beetle, the design of which originally dates back to the 1930s and which was already outdated when production started. The Fiat Topolino, developed at the same time, for example, already had hydraulically operated drum brakes.

Some people, however, still claim that mechanical brakes are less wear-resistant and easier to maintain, but that’s not the case. One of the main reasons why mechanical brakes were abandoned was the uneven braking effect and the high level of maintenance. Furthermore, significantly higher operating forces were required with a mechanical brake, which not only made operation unnecessarily difficult but also unnecessarily extended the braking distance. Small side fact: Cars have had to have 2 braking systems since the 1920s. These are known today as service and hand brakes 😉

Who invented the dual circuit braking system?

Another safety feature in the braking area, which appeared in the middle of the last century, was the dual-circuit braking system. It is not really certain who built the first system of this type. What is certain, however, is that this type of brake has been mandatory since 1967.

Who invented the automatic transmission?

We used to frown upon automatic transmissions, but it is also becoming increasingly popular with Europeans. The first torque converter automatics were already available in the 1920s, although GM only made the big breakthrough in the 1940s with its legendary Hydramatic transmission. As early as 1949, GM was able to announce the first milestone with one million Hydramatic transmissions. By now, at the latest, the automatic had finally established itself in the USA.

Fun fact: The production of civilian vehicles was interrupted by World War II, but the Hydramatic transmission ended up in tanks. After the war, GM advertised this transmission as “Battle-tested”. In the 1950s, Chrysler and Ford also followed suit with their own converter transmissions. Chevrolet introduced its legendary Powerglide 2-speed automatic transmission in 1950, which ended up in various Chevrolet models up until the 1970s. Due to its robust design, this gear is still popular with drag racers who modify the Powerglide to use this gearbox with very powerful engines.

In Europe, it took a few more decades. Mercedes, for example, only launched its first automatic converter in the 1970s. Before that, American gearboxes and self-developed semi-automatic transmission were used. Although there were already automatic transmissions before, these were almost always semi-automatic transmissions which still could not do without the gear stick. The VW Beetle is a prominent example of a semi-automatic transmission. An intermediate step was the automated manual transmission, which rarely if ever came close to a reasonable converter automatic. Either these were extremely unreliable or the gear changes were rough and uncomfortable.

Read more about automatic transmission:

14 Most common Automatic transmission problems

10 Reasons for a Hard Shifting automatic transmission

Who invented the power steering in cars?

Power steering is one of the automotive inventions that didn’t really have it easy. As early as 1926, the manufacturer Pierce Arrow began developing a system that would make it easier to steer trucks. It was the engineer Francis W. Davis who was able to present the first power steering. Shortly after completing his invention, he went to General Motors with his invention, where he improved it even further. However, his invention was not used there because GM was of the opinion that the system would be too complex and expensive for automobile production. Davis then switched to Bendix (the company still exists today!), an automotive supplier. Finally, power steering was first used by Chrysler in 1951. GM had also woken up to this point and in 1952 also presented power steering. This was used for the first time at Cadillac. Both systems go back to the preparatory work of Davis, whose patents had already expired at the time.

Conclusion

We hope you like this list and stories about the most popular automotive inventions. If you want to hear more, tell us in the comments below!