20 Automotive Firsts

Car Parts Genie dig through the history books to bring you 20 notable automotive milestones.  From the first to the fastest – we take you back to school on some of the most important cars ever made.

1) First Fully Functioning Automobile – 1885

The 1186 Benz Patent Motorwagen is widely acknowledged as being the first vehicle that was designed to be propelled by a motor.  Karl Benz applied for the patent in January 1886 which was then granted in November of the same year.

This three wheeled automobile consisted of steel tubing and woodwork panels and had its engine mounted on the rear.  Drivers couldn’t expect much of a comfy ride as a result of the steel spoked wheels which had solid rubber tyres.There was no gearbox to speak of as the unit at the bask consisted of a single speed belt system. Below you will see a video of the Benz being ‘fired up’.

The 1186 Benz could be the ‘Genesis’ for all future automobiles and set the blueprint for things to come.

2) First Front Engine Rear Wheel Drive Layout – 1895

The front engine, rear wheel drive (FR) layout was the traditional automobile layout for the larger part of the 20th century with more modern designs using a front engine, front wheel drive layout.  The first automobile to make use of the FR layout was the 1895 Panhard et Levassor. Below we have a video of its engine being brought to life.

3) First Use of Pneumatic Tyres – 1895

The first pneumatic tyre was produced in 1895 by the famous Michelin brothers, Andre and Edouard.  The first automobile to be fitted with these tyres was the Peugot “L’Eclair”.

4) First use of Electrical Lighting – 1898

Electric lights were first introduced to automobiles with their inclusion on the 1898 Columbia from the Electric Vehicle Company.  This was an electric car with mounted storage batteries.  The use of electric lights did not become widespread for a long time mainly due to the limitations of being able to produce dynamos which were small and powerful enough to power the lights.

5) First Steering Wheel – 1900

You would have thought that something as elementary as a steering wheel mounting would have been evident in the first automobiles every built.  This was not the case and the first instance of the steering wheel we know today was unveiled in 1900 on a Packard Model C.

Packard automoblies were the first to bring in several innovations into their cars such as the first production 12 cylinder engine and air conditioning in a passenger car.  This model C was a step up from the previous model B, being more powerful and capable of a top speed of a dizzying 25mph.

6) First Four Wheel Drive Vehicle – 1900

Ferdinande Porsche was responsible for the world’s first four wheel drive automobile.  This was an electric vehicle which had a separate motor driving each of the four wheels.  It was the star of the show at the World Exhibition in Paris where it was displayed in 1900.  When we think of four wheel drive vehicles we tend to think of off road sports utility vehicles.  In this respect the first ‘hill climbing’ four wheel drive vehicle with an internal combustion engine was the Spyker 60 HP which was built by Dutch brothers Jacobus and Hendrik-Jan Spiker.

7) First Speedometer – 1901

The turn of the century seemed to be a rich period for innovation in personal transportation.  In 1901, Oldsmobile were the first company to offer a speedometer in their Curved Dash Runabout car.

 8) First Production Automobile – 1901

The Oldsmobile Curved Dash also has the honour of being the first production car, being as it was mass produced on an assembly line from 1901 and through to 1907.  The runabout model was able to seat 2 passengers amd at the time cost $650 due to so many being built (19,000 were made in total)

9) First Modern Hybrid Car – 1904

It could be argued that the very first hybrid car was actually built in 1899.  This car was called the System Lohner-Porsche Mixte (again made by Ferdinand Porsche) and made use of a gasoline engine in order to supply power to an electric motor which turned the cars front wheels. The first hybrid production cars were launched when Henry Ford opened the first car assembly line in 1904.  These hybrids tended to be more expensive than the ‘normal’ gasoline cars and as such their popularity suffered a decrease.

10) First use of Aerodynamic Design- 1921

The first use of aerodynamic design in an automobile was seen in the Rumpler Tropfenwagen.  Edmund Rumpler was an aircraft designer, however after the liquidation of his company he turned his hand to automobiles.  The Tropfwagen was the world’s first streamlined car and boasted a drag coefficient of only 0.28.  This figure supposedly wasn’t bettered until 1988 when Volkswagen released their Passat model.

11) First in Car Radio – 1922

The Ford Model T was a revolutionary car for many reasons.  Generally regarded as being the world’s first affordable automobile, the Model T opened up the possibility of personal transportation to the common man.  This was thanks to Henry Ford’s innovation of production line construction as opposed to individually built vehicles.

Innovation was not just limited to the production process as there were great leaps forward in terms of comfort – the Model T was the first car to feature an in car radio, the first of which was fitted to the passenger door by the 18 year old George Frost who was then President of the High Lane School radio club.  The first commercially produced car radio arrived several years later in 1927 and by 1933 it is thought that there were over 100,000 cars in the USA which were fitted with a radio.

12) First use of Car Seat Belts – 1948

Whereas Swedish company  Saab were the first to introduce car safety belts fitted as standard in 1958, the first seat belts featured in the 1948 Tucker Convertible.  This car was built with safety in mind and pioneering features such as the safety glass windshield set the standard for all future cars.

13) First use of Car Air Bags – 1973

The Ford Company built an experimental fleet of cars which had airbags in 1971, however the Oldsmobile Toronado was the first car intended for sale the general public which contained a passenger airbag and actually appeared in the 1974 model.  General motors later followed suit and offered airbags in full sized Oldsmobiles and Buicks in 1976 and 1976.

14) First Mass Produced Hybrid Car – 1997

The idea of a hybrid car left untouched for the best part of 100 years until 1997 with the launch of the Prius by Japanese car company Toyota.  Its popularity saw it being introduced worldwide in 2000 and went on to sell in over 70 countries, with the largest takeup being in Japan and the United States.

15) First Coupe Convertible – 1934

Peugot introduced the first ever car to have an electric folding roof in 1934 with the unveiling of its 401 Eclipse model.  This car was very much ahead of its time and it took Ford over 20 years to incorporate the idea with its Fairline 500 Skyliner.  The Peugeot 401 Eclipse is a very rare car as only 79 were ever built, however the technology was incorporated into its 301 and 601 models.

16) First Hatchback Car – 1953

The Aston Martin DB2/4 was a replacement for the DB2 and made a number of significant changes.  Space was made for 4 seats, the roof was subtly altered to leave more headroom and the engine had been replaced with a more powerful 125 horsepower Vantage engine.  More significant was a top hinged hatchback, which was the first of its kind on any vehicle.  The DB2/4 made it’s debut at the London Motor Show in 1953, setting a trend for all future ‘hatchbacks’.

17) First Production Car to Achieve 200 mph – 1987

The first ever road legal production car to hit the 200mph mark was the legendary Ferrari F40 which went into production in 1987.  This 480 horsepower supercar was super light, weighing in at around only 1080kg.  Nothing was spared when it came to weight, with even the paintwork being super thin.  The Ferrari F40 set a new standard and for all subsequent performance cars to be considered supercars.

18) First Carbon Fibre Monocoque – 1993

The McLaren F1 is an extremely special car for many reason, one of which being that it was the first production car to use a carbon fibre monocoque chassis.  The brainchild of Gordon Murray, the car was heavily influenced by McLaren’s Formula 1 know-how.  No expense was spared in the design and construction of the vehicle – gold foil was even used as a heat shield.

Only 64 McLaren F1s were ever made, each with slightly different modifications with one more being kept in McLaren’s London showroom for a decade before finally being sold, taking the total up to 65.

19) First Production Car Equipped with GPS Navigation – 1995

It’s amazing to think that satellite navigation has been with us for well over a decade, with the first production car to make use of GPS being the 1995 Oldsmobile 88.  Whilst the technology was a revalation, the equipment wasn’t terribly accurate despite costing a little under £2000.  As you might have expected, early GPS navigation systems were very limited with simple 2D displays and little in the way of points of interest.

20) First Production Car to use all LED Headlamps – 2008

Whilst it might not be a very exciting claim (even though it is a world first), it does give us an excuse to feature a picture of the stunning Audi R8.  This car is 4 years old now but it still turns heads on those rare occasions that you see one roaring through town.  The R8 was based on the Lamborghini Gallardo platform and its construction makes use of a highly advanced space frame aluminium monocoque.  The attention to detail is stunning with each of the 5000 unique parts being assembled by hand whilst 95 lasers inspect the car to ensure that all of the measurements are within 0.1mm of the programmed specification.  Little wonder that the factory can only produce 8-15 cars per day.

Image credits

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    One Response to 20 Automotive Firsts

    1. Hi,

      Really enjoyed your post! Liked the mix of historical and modern firsts. I love the names of the historic cars ‘motorwagen’ is a very imaginative one!


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