13 milestone moments in American carmaking

The automobile has come a long way since the time of four-cylinder engines that topped out at 40 mph. In 2022, a few taps on your phone can unlock a fuel-efficient hybrid that plays your favorite music with no cords involved. It’s sorcery, by comparison.

13 milestone moments in American carmaking

The automobile has come a long way since the time of four-cylinder engines that topped out at 40 mph. In 2022, a few taps on your phone can unlock a fuel-efficient hybrid that plays your favorite music with no cords involved. It’s sorcery, by comparison.

The journey to our modern, connected cars is marked by unexpected innovation and major technological leaps — and American companies were at the forefront of many of those advancements. Below, read about some of the most significant milestones driven by American automakers and inventors over the last 120 years.

Mary Anderson invents the windshield wiper

In the early 1900s, Alabama entrepreneur Mary Anderson identified the need for a solution we now take for granted: a gadget that removes rain and snow from our car windshields. Her “window cleaning device” was awarded a 17-year patent in 1903, but the automotive industry felt wipers were unnecessary to include with early consumer vehicles. It wasn’t until 1922 — after Anderson’s patent expired — that Cadillac became the first company to make them standard. Anderson passed away in 1953 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.

Ford brings the Model T to the masses

An Australian couple on their honeymoon riding a Ford Model T in 1913.
An Australian couple on their honeymoon in 1913. [Source]

The idea behind the Ford Model T was simple: Make a car that was affordable, easy to operate, and would hold up on America’s burgeoning roadways. Within a few years of the first Model T’s rolling off the revolutionary assembly line, it was clear all three goals were achieved.

Just ten years after its debut in 1908, half the cars in America were Model T’s. The accessible automobile ushered in a new era of personal mobility and recreational travel, changing the face of American culture forever. The Sunday drive became a national pastime, dining out grew more popular, people even started watching movies from behind the wheel of a car. For most Americans, the Model T created the first opportunities to travel more than a few miles from home inexpensively. The mass-produced Model T made it all possible.

Starting the engine gets much easier

Sore-shouldered drivers around the country breathed a collective sigh of relief when Cadillac introduced the electric starter on the 1912 Model 30. Originally created by Clyde J. Coleman and perfected by General Motors’ Charles F. Kettering of Ohio, the innovation removed the need for laborious (and dangerous) hand-cranking of engines.

Radios bring entertainment to the road

A Bluetooth® connection to your smartphone was a long way off in 1930, when Chicago’s Paul Galvin combined two American pastimes — radio and motoring. Early models were cost prohibitive (up to 25% the cost of the vehicle itself), but by the early 1960s most cars on the road had interior sound. Use of the medium reached its zenith in 2004.

The modern V8 engine revs up

While Ford didn’t invent the eight-cylinder engine, the company did innovate the powerful, affordable version of the machine that remains a favorite of hot rod enthusiasts nearly 100 years later.

The 1932 Ford Model 18 was the first affordable automobile to feature the mighty engine known as the Ford flathead, which remained the top seller in America for more than two decades. The cost-saving breakthrough comes from the engine’s single-block construction, which saved manufacturing time and manpower needed to produce. It is considered Ford’s second-greatest advancement, after the assembly line.

Beep beep…who got the keys to the Jeep?

Well, in 1940, it was an Ohio-based company called Willys-Overland.

A Willys Jeep in New York, 1943. [Image via Flickr]
A Willys Jeep in New York, 1943. [Image via Flickr]

When the U.S. Army sought the impossible — a light, durable, and speedy four-wheel drive off-road reconnaissance vehicle built in just six weeks — WIllys responded with what became known as the Jeep.

The Jeep’s versatility translated well to non-military settings, where civilians used the rugged haulers for farming, recreation, and dinosaur-viewing.

Aaahh…feel the A/C

Climate-controlled rides were initially reserved for consumers of means. Packard’s 1940 model was the first to offer pre-installed air conditioning…at a cost of nearly $100,000 in today’s dollars. It wasn’t until 1952 that mid-tier brands such as Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile included cooling air systems. Americans adopted the luxury quickly, and by 1969, most cars manufactured in the U.S. had air conditioning units.

The 1950’s: A style moment

Chevy's Corvette at the 1953 Motorama. [via Wikimedia Commons]
Chevy's Corvette at the 1953 Motorama. [via Wikimedia Commons]

Considered a watershed moment in American carmaking, the 1953 General Motors Motorama showcase featured stylish new designs from the major American manufacturers. But one stood out from the rest: the Chevrolet Corvette.

Reaction to the Corvette was so overwhelming that Chevy rushed it into production, ahead of schedule. Named for a naval warship, the Corvette would become known as “America’s Sports Car.”

The 1957 Chevrolet didn’t debut at a Motorama show, but thanks to its shiny chrome headlights, wide grill, and magnificent tail fins, the ’57 Chevy became an overnight icon and remains a sought-after collector car to this day.

A backup cam ahead of its time

Rear view of a 1956 Buick Centurion concept car. [Image via Flickr]
Rear view of a 1956 Buick Centurion concept car. [Image via Flickr]

Believe it or not, the first rear-view camera was integrated into the Buick Centurion concept car all the way back in 1956. At a time when about half of American homes didn’t even have a television, this futuristic car had a screen mounted in the dash. The Centurion also introduced the modern sunroof, and is believed to be the inspiration for the Funnie family car from the TV show Doug (we made that last part up).

American muscle enters the chat

A black ’65 Mustang at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. [Image via Flickr]
A black ’65 Mustang at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. [Image via Flickr]

In response to smaller foreign imports gaining popularity in the U.S., American companies introduced powerful two-door coupes designed for style and performance.

The 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York featured many forward-thinking modes of transportation, but only one was meant for your driveway: The Ford Mustang.

Unveiled by Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, and Walt Disney amid the pomp and circumstance of the fair, the Mustang received a major multi-media marketing push. Attendees at the fair could even sit in convertible models on the “Magic Skyway,” gliding past depictions of prehistory and into the future.

‘F’ is for America’s favorite truck

Although pickup trucks became more common after their use became apparent in the first World War, they didn’t explode in popularity until the introduction of the relatively midsize Ford F-150.

The F-150 and the competitor models that followed were marketed as tough, durable, and powerful and became associated with America in a way few cars had to that point. At over 40 million units sold, the F-Series has been the best-selling vehicle in America since 1981.

Pickup trucks are also responsible for helping millennials discover Bob Seger.

Minivans slide onto the scene

The era of the minivan as we know it now began in 1984 with Chrysler’s dual release of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, both with front-wheel drive and rear sliding doors. Size and versatility were also major selling points, as minivans could be configured to maximize space for cargo or seat seven comfortably.

Their reputation is tied to suburban life, but in 1984 minivans were earnestly referred to as “the hot cars coming out of Detroit” in The New York Times. At the peak of their popularity in the late 1990s, minivans accounted for more than a half-million sales for Chrysler.

Electric vehicles break through

The Chevy Bolt at a show in 2016. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]
The Chevy Bolt at a show in 2016. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

Electric vehicles have come a long way since 1996, when General Motors’ EV1 became the first highway-capable mass-produced electric car produced by a major company. Though none were officially sold (some were leased), the innovation and positive reception served as proof of concept for American automakers.

Fast forward a quarter century and all major American brands (as well as some ambitious upstarts) are manufacturing fully electric cars at scale. Chevy’s Bolt, a moderately priced EV with a range of more than 200 miles, was named Motor Trend’s 2017 Car of the Year. Tesla is entering its second decade of Model S production and plans to revive the Roadster — with eye-popping specs. General Motors is also reinvigorating classic models with an EV twist, including its Chevy Blazer and a new Hummer.

A hundred-plus years of American innovation, competition, persistence, and change leaves us on the dawn of a new era of environmentally friendly transport. Just as the cars themselves have evolved, so too has the way we move around our communities. Carsharing with Getaround is one way we can accelerate our push into more efficient motoring and a sustainable future.

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(Header image via Flickr)