Sunday, April 22, 2007

Eras of Car Development

Veteran era

In My Merry Oldsmobile songbook featuring an Oldsmobile Curved Dash automobile and period driving clothing
In My Merry Oldsmobile songbook featuring an Oldsmobile Curved Dash automobile and period driving clothing

The first production of automobiles was by Karl Benz in 1888 in Germany and under licence to Benz, in France by Emile Roger. By 1900 mass production of automobiles had begun in France and the United States. The first company to form exclusively to build automobiles was Panhard et Levassor in France. Formed in 1889, they were quickly followed by Peugeot two years later. In the United States, brothers Charles and Frank Duryea founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1893, becoming the first American automobile manufacturing company. However, it was Oldsmobile who would dominate this era of automobile production. Its large scale production line was running in 1902. Within a year, Cadillac (formed from the Henry Ford Company), Winton, and Ford were producing cars in the thousands.

Within a few years, a dizzying assortment of technologies were being produced by hundreds of producers all over the Western world. Steam, electricity, and gasoline-powered autos competed for decades, with gasoline internal combustion engines achieving dominance in the 1910s. Dual- and even quad-engine cars were designed, and engine displacement ranged to more than a dozen liters. Many modern advances, including gas/electric hybrids, multi-valve engines, overhead camshafts, and four-wheel drive, were attempted and discarded at this time.

Innovation was rapid and rampant, with no clear standards for basic vehicle architectures, body styles, construction materials, or controls. Many veteran cars use a tiller rather than a wheel for steering, for example, and most operated at a single speed. Chain drive was dominant over the modern driveshaft, and closed bodies were extremely rare.

On November 5, 1895, George B. Selden was granted a United States patent for a two-stroke automobile engine (U.S. Patent 549160 ). This patent did more to hinder than encourage development of autos in the USA. Selden licensed his patent to most major American auto makers, collecting a fee on every car they produced.

Throughout the veteran car era, however, automobiles were seen as more of a novelty than a genuinely useful device. Breakdowns were frequent, fuel was difficult to obtain, and rapid innovation meant that a year-old car was nearly worthless. Major breakthroughs in proving the usefulness of the automobile came with the historic long-distance drive of Bertha Benz in 1888 when she traveled more than fifty miles (106 km) from Mannheim to Pforzheim to make people aware of the potential of the vehicles her husband, Karl Benz, manufactured, and after Horatio Nelson Jackson's successful trans-continental drive across the United States in 1903.

Brass or Edwardian era

T-model Ford car parked outside Geelong Library at its launch in Australia in 1915
T-model Ford car parked outside Geelong Library at its launch in Australia in 1915

Named for the widespread use of brass in the United States, the Brass or Edwardian era lasted from roughly 1905 through to the beginning of World War I in 1914. 1905 was a signal year in the development of the automobile, marking the point when the majority of sales shifted from the hobbyist and enthusiast to the average user.

Within the decade and a half that make up the Brass or Edwardian era, the various experimental designs and alternate power systems would be marginalized. Although the modern touring car had been invented earlier, it was not until Panhard et Levassor's Système Panhard was widely licensed and adopted that recognizable and standardized automobiles were created. This system specified front-engined, rear-wheel drive internal combustion cars with a sliding gear transmission. Traditional coach-style vehicles were rapidly abandoned, and buckboard runabouts lost favor with the introduction of tonneaus and other less-expensive touring bodies.

Throughout this era, development of automotive technology was rapid, due in part to a huge number (hundreds) of small manufacturers all competing to gain the world's attention. Key developments included electric ignition (by Robert Bosch, 1903) and the electric self-starter (by Charles Kettering, for the Cadillac Motor Company in 1910-1911), independent suspension, and four-wheel brakes. Leaf springs were widely used for suspension, though many other systems were still in use, with angle steel taking over from armored wood as the frame material of choice. Transmissions and throttle controls were widely adopted, allowing a variety of cruising speeds, though vehicles generally still had discrete speed settings rather than the infinitely variable system familiar in cars of later eras.

Exemplary cars of the period included the following:

  • 1908–1927 Ford Model T - The most widely produced and available car of the era. It used a planetary transmission and had a pedal-based control system.
  • 1910 Mercer Raceabout - Regarded as one of the first sports cars, the Raceabout expressed the exuberance of the driving public, as did the similarly-conceived American Underslung and Hispano-Suiza Alphonso
  • 1910–1920 Bugatti Type 13 - A notable racing and touring model with advanced engineering and design. Similar models were the Types 15, 17, 22, and 23.

Vintage era

1926 Austin 7 Box saloon
1926 Austin 7 Box saloon
Lineup of Ford Model As
Lineup of Ford Model As

The vintage era lasted from the end of World War I (1919) through the stock market crash at the end of 1929. During this period, the front-engined car came to dominate, with closed bodies and standardized controls becoming the norm. Development of the internal combustion engine continued at a rapid pace, with multi-valve and overhead cam engines produced at the high end, and V8, V12, and even V16 engines conceived for the ultra-rich.

Exemplary vintage vehicles:

  • 1922–1939 Austin 7 — The Austin Seven was one of the most widely copied vehicles ever serving as a template for cars around the world, from BMW to Nissan.
  • 1924–1929 Bugatti Type 35 — The Type 35 was one of the most successful racing cars of all time, with over 1,000 victories in five years.
  • 1927–1931 Ford Model A — After keeping the brass era Model T in production for too long, Ford broke from the past by restarting its model series with the 1927 Model A. More than 4 million were produced, making it the best-selling model of the era.
  • 1930 Cadillac V-16 — Developed at the height of the vintage era, the V16-powered Cadillac would join Bugatti's Royale as the most legendary ultra-luxury cars of the era.

Pre-War era

Citroën Traction Avant
Citroën Traction Avant

The pre-war part of the classic era began with the Great Depression in 1930 and ended with the recovery after World War II, commonly placed at 1948. It was in this period that integrated fenders and fully-closed bodies began to dominate sales, with the new sedan body style even incorporating a trunk at the rear for storage. The old open-top runabouts, phaetons, and touring cars were phased out by the end of the classic era as wings, running boards, and headlights were gradually integrated with the body of the car.

By the 1930s most of the mechanical technology used in today's automobiles had been invented although some things were later "re-invented", and credited to someone else. For example, front-wheel drive was re-introduced by Andre Citroën with the launch of the Traction Avant in 1934, though it appeared several years earlier in road cars made by Alvis and Cord, and in racing cars by Miller (and may have appeared as early as 1897).

After 1930, the number of auto manufacturers declined sharply as the industry consolidated and matured.

Exemplary pre-war automobiles:

  • 1932-1948 Ford V-8 - Ford introduced their powerful Flathead V8 in their mainstream model, creating a now-legendary car that dominated the world market much as the Model T and Model A had done in previous eras.
  • 1934–1940 Bugatti Type 57 — A high-tech and refined automobile for the remaining rich of the time, the Type 57SC has become the singular classic car.
  • 1934–1956 Citroën Traction Avant — The first mass-produced front-wheel drive car, built with monocoque techniques, was a technology masterpiece.
  • 1936–1955 MG T series — This sports car for the masses came to represent the European motoring experience, especially for American soldiers fighting in the war.
  • 1938–2003 Volkswagen Beetle — Perhaps the most-famous automobile of all time, it was a pre-war design that lasted through the modern era.
  • 1940–1997 Oldsmobile — General Motors introduced the first fully automatic transmission, Hydra-Matic, with the 1940 Olds. This option was an instant hit, and within ten years, virtually all American automobile manufacturers offered automatics, which soon would become almost universal among buyers. Oldsmobile, along with Cadillac, also offered the first modern high-compression, overhead-valve V8 engine starting with the 1948 models.

Post-War era

1953 Morris Minor Series 2
1953 Morris Minor Series 2
A 1950s Oldsmobile 88, with its high-compression Rocket V8
A 1950s Oldsmobile 88, with its high-compression Rocket V8
Jaguar E-type coupe
Jaguar E-type coupe
1985 Mini
1985 Mini

Automobile design finally emerged from the shadow of World War II in 1949, the year that in the United States saw the introduction of high-compression V8 engines and modern bodies from General Motors' Oldsmobile and Cadillac brands. The unibody/strut-suspended 1951 Ford Consul joined the 1948 Morris Minor and 1949 Rover P4 in waking up the automobile market in the United Kingdom. In Italy, Enzo Ferrari was beginning his 250 series just as Lancia introduced their revolutionary V6-powered Aurelia.

Throughout the 1950s, engine power and vehicle speeds rose, designs became more integrated and artful, and cars spread across the world. Alec Issigonis' Mini and Fiat's 500 mini cars swept Europe, while the similar keicar class put Japan on wheels for the first time. The legendary VW Beetle survived Hitler's Germany to shake up the small car market in the Americas. Ultra luxury, exemplified in America by the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, reappeared after a long absence, and GT cars, like the Ferrari Americas, swept across Europe.

The market changed somewhat in the 1960s, as Detroit began to worry about foreign competition, the European makers adopted ever-higher technology, and Japan appeared as a serious car-producing nation. General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford tried radical small cars, like the GM A-bodies, but had little success. Captive imports and badge engineering swept through the U.S. and UK as conglomerates like the British Motor Corporation consolidated the market. Eventually, this trend reached Italy as niche makers like Maserati, Ferrari, and Lancia were acquired by larger companies. By the end of the decade, the automobile manufacturing world was much smaller.

In America, performance was the hot sell of the 1960s, with pony cars and muscle cars propping up the domestic industry. In 1964 the Ford mustang hit the markets. The Mustang was the hot ticket and was one of the most popular car of the early 1960s. In 1967 Chevrolet released the Camaro to compete with the Ford Mustang. In 1967 Chevy came out with the Camaro Z28, so in 1969 Fords competitiveness went into gear and they came out with the Mustang Boss 302 and the Mustang Boss 429. But everything changed in the 1970s as the 1973 oil crisis, automobile emissions control rules, Japanese and European imports, and stagnant innovation wreaked havoc on the American industry. Throughout the decade, small imported cars outperformed large American ones, and the domestic auto industry began to fail. Small performance cars from BMW, Toyota, and Nissan took the place of big-engined cars from America and Italy.

On the technology front, the biggest developments of the era were the widespread use of independent suspensions, wider application of fuel injection, and an increasing focus on safety in the design of automobiles. The hottest technologies of the 1960s were NSU's Wankel engine, the gas turbine, and the turbocharger. Of these, only the last, pioneered by General Motors but popularized by BMW and Saab, was to see widespread use. Little Mazda had much success with their "Rotary" engines, but was critically affected by its reputation as a polluting gas-guzzler. Other Wankel licensees, including Mercedes-Benz and General Motors, never put their designs into production. Rover and Chrysler both produced experimental turbine cars to no effect.

A so-called yank tank in Havana, Cuba.
A so-called yank tank in Havana, Cuba.

Cuba is famous for its pre-1959 cars, known as yank tanks or maquinas, because before the Cuban revolution many rich US citizens lived there, but after the revolution the influx of cars stopped due to the US boycot, so people made sure to keep the cars they had in good condition.

Exemplary post-war cars:

  • 1948–1971 Morris Minor – A popular and typical post-war car exported around the world.
  • 1949–1968 Oldsmobile 88 — This model introduced the high-compression mass-produced V8 engine to the masses, ushering in the power wars that led to the muscle car era.
1968 (left) and 1969 (right) Oldsmobile 442s. Post-war American muscle cars with V8 engines.
1968 (left) and 1969 (right) Oldsmobile 442s. Post-war American muscle cars with V8 engines.
  • 1958-1967 Chevrolet Impala- An automobile that changed through the times, with incarnations as everything from lowriders to super street machines.
  • 1959–2000 Mini — This quintessential small car lasted for four decades and is one of the most famous cars of all time.
  • 1961–1975 Jaguar E-type —The E-type saved Jaguar on the track and in the showroom and was a standard for design and innovation in the 1960s.
  • 1962–1977 BMC ADO16 — This front wheel drive car dominated sales in the United Kingdom, but excessive badge engineering doomed the brands of the British Motor Corporation.
  • 1962–1964 Ferrari 250 GTO — The first supercar, the GTO was dominant in auto racing in the early 1960s.
  • 1966-1972 Dodge Charger star of the TV show Dukes of Hazzard and true a MOPAR car that evolved into one of the most powerful and desirable muscle cars ever, the 1969 Dodge Charger 500.
  • 1964–1970 Ford Mustang — The pony car that became one of the best-selling and most-collected cars of the era.
  • 1964–1974 Pontiac GTO — The archetypal muscle car went from being an option package to a high-performance model and back in just 10 years. A race car turned loose.
  • 1969-1980 Pontiac Trans Am- a muscle car that appealed to the masses and gave GM something to compete with Ford's Mustang. From about 1975 to 1980 they got an estimated around 18 miles to the gallon. The 1977 Pontiac Trans Am was the co star of Smokey and the Bandit next to Burt Reynolds
  • 1954-present Chevrolet Corvette — Born in the post-war era, the 'Vette is an American icon of automotive engineering.
  • 1969 Datsun 240Z — One of the first Japanese sports cars to be a smash hit with the North American public, it paved the way for future decades of Japanese strength in the automotive industry. It was affordable, well-built, and had great success both on the track and in the showroom.
  • 1975–1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Seventy-Five — One of the largest cars ever made. With the largest, least-efficient engine in modern times, it came to exemplify the American automobile industry's problems in the 1970s.

Modern era

1986 VW Golf Mk.2
1986 VW Golf Mk.2
1993 Ford Escort Wagon
1993 Ford Escort Wagon
1994 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight Royale
1994 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight Royale
ZJ Jeep Grand Cherokee
ZJ Jeep Grand Cherokee

The modern era is normally defined as the 25 years preceding the current year. However, there are some technical and design aspects that differentiate modern cars from antiques. Without considering the future of the car, the modern era has been one of increasing standardization, platform sharing, and computer-aided design.

Some particularly notable advances in modern times are the wide spread of front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, the adoption of the V6 engine configuration, and the ubiquity of fuel injection. While all of these advances were first attempted in earlier eras, they so dominate the market today that it is easy to overlook their significance. Nearly all modern passenger cars are front wheel drive unibody designs with transversely-mounted engines, but this design was considered radical just 20 years earlier.

Body styles have changed as well in the modern era. Three types, the hatchback, minivan, and sport utility vehicle, dominate today's market yet are relatively recent concepts. All originally emphasized practicality but have mutated into today's high-powered luxury crossover SUV and sports wagon. The rise of pickup trucks in the United States and SUVs worldwide has changed the face of motoring, with these "trucks" coming to command more than half of the world automobile market.

The modern era has also seen rapidly rising fuel efficiency and engine output. Once the automobile emissions concerns of 1970s were conquered with computerized engine management systems, power began to rise rapidly. In the 1980s, a powerful sports car might have produced 200 hp (150 kW)—just 20 years later, average passenger cars have engines that powerful, and some performance models offer three times as much power.

Exemplary modern cars:

  • 1974–present VW Golf — The exemplary modern compact car, with a square hatchback body, transverse straight-4 engine, and room for five passengers.
  • 1977–present Honda Accord sedan — This Japanese sedan became the most popular car in the United States in the 1990s, pushing the Ford Taurus aside, and setting the stage for today's upscale Asian sedans.
  • 1948-1999 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight — A classic example of the "traditional", full size, American sedan, which by the mid-1980s, no longer utilized body-on-frame architecture, rear wheel drive, or V8 engines.
  • 1983–present Chrysler minivans — The two-box minivan design nearly pushed the station wagon out of the market and presaged today's crossover SUVs.
  • 1986–present Ford Taurus — This mid-sized front wheel drive sedan with modern Computer Assisted Design dominated the American market in the late 1980s and created a design revolution in North America.
  • 1992-2005 Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision- These evolutionary styled cars shaped the future of passenger cars in the 90's. Chrysler introduced Cab forward styling on these cars 15 years ago. Even now car makers still use cab forward designs, especially on small cars like the Toyota Echo
  • 1975-present BMW 3-Series - A compact car that is the world's best selling sport sedan. It provides luxury and performance at prices that are not totally out of reach. These cars are very profitable.
  • 1993–present Jeep Grand Cherokee — The archetypal upscale SUV with four-wheel drive, V8 power, and a luxurious interior at a price reachable for the masses.