by Murray Jackson

Each new model year brings a fresh crop of automotive bells and whistles that carmakers promise will make your driving safer, easier or more fun. Automakers do little to dispel the notion that these features are fresh from the drawing board. But a look into the past reveals that today’s innovations are often old ideas that have been recycled and refined. Let’s examine the origins of a few.

When it was introduced for the 2000 model year, the Honda Insight’s hybrid gasoline and electric powertrain was at the leading edge of automotive technology. However, the hybrid-power concept can be traced back to the automobile’s infancy. Electric vehicles were the hot ticket in 1900 when Ferdinand Porsche worked for Vienna’s Lohner Company. Porsche refined Lohner’s electric cars by adding a gasoline engine that generated electric power used by motors at each wheel. The resulting hybrid-power, four-wheel-drive automobile was produced until 1906.

A decade later, the Woods Motor Vehicle Company in Chicago, Illinois, introduced its Dual Power model. In this design, an electric motor powered the car up to 15 m.p.h., at which point a gasoline engine kicked in to propel the vehicle to its maximum velocity of 35 m.p.h. An unrestored Dual Power can be seen in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

1966 Jensen FF
Click image to enlarge. Image courtesy of Tony Bailey’s Jensen Interceptor (1966-1976) SP, FF and Coupe Brochure Page

In recent years, anti-lock brake systems (ABS) have become the norm on cars, trucks and even semi-trailers. Looking back more than 35 years, we can see an early ABS system on the U.K.-built Jensen Interceptor FF model of 1966. In addition to ABS and a Chrysler V-8 engine, this gentleman’s express featured a Ferguson Formula four-wheel-drive system. Inspiration for today’ s all-wheel-drive Subaru?

Front-wheel drive now dominates the mainstream passenger-vehicle market. The 1978 Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon clones were the first North American subcompacts with transverse engines and front-wheel-drive, but examples of earlier FWD designs abound.

In Europe, the revolutionary 1934 Citroen Traction Avant pioneered front drive on a mass-produced family car. This model also featured unibody construction and torsion bar independent suspension.

On the North American scene, 1929 saw the announcement of two front-drive automobiles, the beautiful Cord L29 and the short-lived Ruxton. Over three decades later, General Motors converted the Oldsmobile Toronado (1966) and Cadillac Eldorado (1967) to front propulsion, a feat complicated by their massive V-8 engines.

1929 Cord L29
1929 Cord L29, Click image to enlarge (Photo: Bill Vance)

Today, front-wheel drive usually involves a transverse four-cylinder or V-configuration engine. The east-west placement of longer, in-line six-cylinder engines in FWD cars is, however, a bit of a challenge. Volvo’s use of this layout on its 1999 S80 model was considered noteworthy by many observers who had perhaps forgotten that it was first done in the U.K. in 1972. The vehicle in question was the rather unglamorous Austin 2200 model, a car that truly earned its nickname “land crab.”

Today’s Autostick, Steptronic and other manumatic transmissions allow reduced-effort driving or, when mood or circumstances dictate, full control of the transmission’s action. In fact, most automatic transmissions could be shifted manually, if desired, even General Motors’ early Powerglide two-speed. The specialized selector mechanisms in today’s manumatics are perhaps the real innovation but, again, there are precedents. Chrysler’s Slap Stick and Pontiac’s His and Hers Dual Gate shifters are two of many examples from the muscle car era.

Speaking of transmissions, the Corvette and Plymouth Prowler have used rear transaxles to improve weight distribution. Looking back, we can see an early example of this concept in the 1962 Pontiac Tempest. This inventive model, which would evolve into the legendary GTO muscle car, featured a rear transaxle, flexible driveshaft nicknamed “rope drive” and an engine created by slicing a Pontiac 389-cid V-8 in half.

Subaru has resurrected its Hill Holder clutch system for the 2003 Forester model. In use, the Hill Holder applies the brakes when stopped on an incline. This allows a restart without the rollback that causes trepidation in inexperienced drivers. An excellent system, but not exactly new. In 1936, Studebaker pioneered a similar system on its President model. Not surprisingly, given its function, it was also called the Hill Holder.

For decades, engine designers have boosted the power output of smaller engines by the simple expedient of bolting on a turbocharger or supercharger. Turbochargers have been more popular than superchargers in passenger cars, with some models such as the 1999 Volvo S80 T6 actually using twin turbos.

General Motors gets the prize for offering the first North American-built turbocharged passenger cars. The Oldsmobile F85 Jetfire Sport Coupe was released in April, 1962, and was followed one month later by Chevrolet’s Corvair Monza Spyder.

From the diminutive Suzuki Vitara to the massive Ford Excursion, sport utility vehicles have replaced minivans on many suburban driveways. But where did the idea originate? Arguably, Willys Overland’s Jeep division took the first steps in this direction. In 1949, Willys introduced the Jeep “463” model, an all-metal, fully enclosed 4×4 Station Wagon that was oriented more toward “utility” than “sport.” This somewhat rudimentary model and its Utility Wagon and Jeepster Commando Station Wagon successors evolved into the 1963 Wagoneer. The Wagoneer embodied the design characteristics of today’s SUVs and was the industry’s first example of four-wheel drive in combination with an automatic transmission. Honourable mention in this category must go to International Harvester for its 1956 Travelall and 1961 Scout.

The quest for lightness and strength has led to the use of a variety of exotic materials. Magnesium, titanium, plastics and carbon fibre have been tried, first on racing cars and then on production vehicles.

Interestingly, the search for alternatives to steel can be traced back to Henry Ford, among others. In 1941, Henry unveiled a “biological car” that had a body and other parts composed of various plant fibers including soybean. Soybean composite license plates were also used, in some areas, to conserve steel during World War II. Reportedly, goats found them rather tasty.

On the subject of body panels, those who find the Audi A8’s all aluminum body remarkable might note that the utilitarian Land Rover featured Birmabright aluminum alloy body panels from its introduction in 1948.

Today’s multi-function stalks combine controls for headlamps, dimmers, turn signals, cruise control, wipers and windshield washers in one convenient package. These standardized controls replaced individual switches previously found in a confusing variety of dashboard locations. Oddly, the 1976 Chevette econobox was one of the first North American cars to sprout a steering column “smart switch.”

Cadillac’s Twilight Sentinel system enhances visibility and conspicuity by switching headlamps on at dusk. Cadillac took the first step in this direction back in 1953 with its Autronic Eye. In that system, a dashtop-mounted sensor automatically dimmed the headlamps when it recognized the lights of an approaching vehicle.

The 1999 Cougar’s hatchback design marked a return to a body style that, for some years, found more favour in Europe than in North America. Looking way back, we can see one of the earliest North American uses of the hatchback concept in the 1949 Kaiser Traveler sedan. This ingenious station-wagon substitute had a rear hatch and a fold-down, rear-seat backrest, thus providing the maximum possible passenger and cargo flexibility.

The Mercedes-Benz SLK’s retractable roof was a considerable engineering accomplishment, but cars have been dropping their solid tops for years. In the mid-1930s, Peugeot offered a 402 model called Eclipse that featured a retractable hardtop. In 1957, Ford introduced the Fairlane 500 Skyliner. Dropping this model’s retractable roof into the trunk was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

In 1963, Studebaker offered a variation on the open-top theme with its Wagonaire station wagon. The rear section of its roof was designed to slide forward, just the ticket for transporting that new refrigerator. For the modern interpretation of this concept, watch for the 2004 GMC Envoy XUV’s power sliding rear roof.

Do you think the breathalyzer is a relatively new invention? In 1931, Rolla Harger, a biochemistry teacher at Indiana University, designed the original “Drunkometer.” Indiana soon became the first jurisdiction to use specifically designed equipment to measure drivers’ blood alcohol content.

When AM General transformed the Desert Storm HUMVEE for civilian use, it carried over the optional Central Tire Inflation System (CTIS) that allows the driver to adjust tire pressures at will. A recent concept? Not really. As far back as 1910, premium luxury cars offered optional transmission-driven air compressors so that drivers could attend to tire inflation needs. Cadillac’s optional engine-driven air compressor, introduced in 1912, became standard equipment on some models in 1915.

Dymaxion, Click image to enlarge

No description of early automotive innovations would be complete without mention of the Dymaxion and the Scarab, vehicles that truly demonstrated outside-the-box thinking. Famous for designing the geodesic dome, R. Buckminster Fuller also found time to consider the car of the future. His 1933 Dymaxion concept car was a real eye-opener. It had two wheels in front and one at the rear. The rear wheel steered and could turn through 180 degrees, providing excellent maneuverability. The car’s streamlined aluminum body contained a rear-mounted Ford V-8. Fuller claimed that it could manage 40 miles per gallon and had a top speed of 120 m.p.h., very impressive for its era. It was novel, to say the least, but only three were built.

William B. Stout of Detroit’s Stout Engineering Laboratories may have been one of Buckminster Fuller’s biggest fans because his 1935 Scarab prototype shared some of the Dymaxion’s features. Named for an Egyptian beetle, the Scarab also used a rear-mounted Ford V-8 in a unit-construction aluminum body laid over a tubular space frame. The aerodynamic but ugly body contained movable seats, a folding table and a rear couch. One of the nine Scarabs built can be seen at the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine.

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