The history of the automobile dates back several eras, based on the method of propulsion. But what exactly is the definition of an automobile? The San Diego Automotive Museum defines it as: “… an automobile or car is a wheeled vehicle that carries its own motor and transports passengers.” They go on to explain that the car as we know it today, was not invented in a single day by a single inventor. Instead, the long history of the car reflects a gradual evolution that took place over time and across the globe.
The museum estimates that more than one-hundred thousand patents were combined to create the modern automobile. A fascinating fact that few people know, is that the concept of creating a car originated when both Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci drew up theoretical plans for a motor vehicle.
1700s: Cars come to life
Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built the first steam-powered automobile in 1769. It was a self-propelled, three wheeled road vehicle that was used as a military tractor to haul artillery at a mind-boggling speed of two-and-a-half miles per hour… Cugnot set another record in 1771 when he became the first person to experience a road accident when he drove into a stone wall.
1800s: The start of an era
This was followed by the first automobile with an internal combustion engine that was fueled by hydrogen in 1808 and built by Francois Isaac de Rivaz.
Siegfried Marcus created a gasoline powered combustion engine in 1870 and placed it on a pushcart. Over the next decade or so, he built another four more sophisticated engines, including the two-cycle combustion engine.
The very first Mercedes Benz using a stationary gasoline engine was developed by Carl Benz. The one-cylinder two-stroke unit made its debut on New Year’s Eve 1879. Over the next five years, he developed the compact high-speed, single-cylinder four-stroke engine. It was installed in the rear of the two-seater vehicle, which also featured differential three wire-spoked wheels and a tubular steel frame. This car had a .75 horsepower engine output.
Mercedes has come a long way since its humble beginnings, and the C-Class, a modern, upscale luxury car has sold over ten million units.
1900s: Gaining Momentum
Ford completed the first production of the Model T on October 1, 1908. By 1927, the company would go on to sell 16, 500, 000 of these cars. This was the longest automobile model production run in history, until it was surpassed by the Volkswagen Beetle in 1972. The Beetle was the first car to achieve 20 million units sold. In fact, the company sold over 23 million units.
However, there were some cars that marked turning points within their era. Let’s take a look at the cars and events that changed the history of automobiles as we know it.
1940s – The Original Jeep & Ford F-Series Pickup
The Allies used the Willys-Overland Jeep to win World War II, thanks to its rugged design. As the automobile evolved, this military vehicle’s influence remained strong in modern vehicles; just look at the modern Jeep Wrangler.
During the same period, the Ford F-Series pickup truck became popular. New models are still ranked some of the best selling vehicles in America eight decades later. In 1997, the Ford F-Series sold 746,111, and in 2018, a whopping 909,330 units were sold in the United States alone.
1950s – Return of the French
When France made its automotive comeback after World War II, it did so with a bang. The Citroën DS set new standards in both styling and technology.
1953 saw the introduction of the Chevrolet Corvette which reflected the trends of the 1950s. This car and those developed during those times are still popular today.
1960s – Birth of legends
Nazi Germany wanted a cheap vehicle for everyone, rather than the large American sedans that were popular at the time. Ferdinand Porsche delivered the Volkswagen, which went on to become one of the most popular cars of the era, and of all time. It remained in production until 2003.
Of course, Porsche went on to find the company that bore his name.
The mid-1960s was also another big year for Ford, who decided to introduce a youthful car to America. The Mustang or “pony car” to achieve great things and are still popular today – with hardware and technology improvements, of course. Today, it still ranks as one of the best-selling cars of all time, as more than 9 million units to date.
1970s – Size + speed = Supercar!
In keeping with the desire for smaller cars, Japan introduced the Honda Civic to America in 1973. Gas was expensive at the time and traded in their gas-guzzlers for the impressive reliability of Japanese quality design.The Civic offered high miles per gallon and the fact that Honda is such a durable car means that it has remained in production since. By 2013, Honda Civic sold more than eighteen million units.
When Italians first spotted the Lamborghini Countach at the 1971 Geneva Motor show, they exclaimed “Countach!”, which means “holy cow!” in Italian slang.
1980s – Big is back
As families became bigger, cars had to follow suit. There used to be vans, and panel vans, but they were really for use on ranches or business deliveries. In the 70s, people started converting their panel vans into small campers.
That’s when Chrysler introduced their first family minivans in 1983. The Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan were instantly popular, and competitors followed suit by introducing their own imitations. This would later evolve into the popular Town & Country, which sold over 12 million units before it was replaced by the Pacifica.
At the time there were a few luxury brands, and smaller manufacturers decided to cater to the luxury market, in which American brands Cadillac and Lincoln reigned supreme. Of course, German auto manufacturers Mercedes and BMW wanted to provide buyers with social status on top of performance and quality.
Japan’s Honda introduced their luxury brand, Infinity Acura in 1986. Toyota also entered the Lexus LS400 as a contender against other top-tier luxury brands and it was a huge success in 1989.
1990s – Birth of the SUV & Supercar culture
The first vehicle we know today as an SUV was introduced to America in the early 90s. The Ford Explorer became popular with suburban families, and basically ended the popularity of station wagons as the first choice in family vehicles. Newer models are still being manufactured today.
Technology advanced fast at this stage in automotive history, headed by the McLaren F1. At the time, the $810,000 car was the most expensive in the world. The road car was slightly modified before it won the 24 House of Le Mans in 1995 where it finished first, third, fourth and fifth.
2000s – Turn of a century
In an era where high end technology and gas guzzling vehicles were the order of the day, Toyota spent a fortune on developing the opposite of an SUV. That’s right. They introduced the first commercially viable gas-electric hybrid, the Prius Hybrid Synergy Driver.
Consumers were thrilled with the increased fuel economy and harsh emissions. The company has sold more than six million Prii (the company’s own plural for what we sometimes call Priuses).
But lovers of sports cars were not left disappointed, as Porsche announced that it would be joining the SUV market. Soon followed the Cayenne, a slow Porsche SUV!
2010s – Hitting the teens
Elon Musk wanted a breakthrough as important as that of the Model T, and introduced Tesla’s original Roadster, the Model S. Based on the company’s Lotus, it was an all-Tesla design, brimming with style, comfort and luxury. It’s no wonder it was named Car of the Year in 2013.
Can you guess which car has sold the most units? We’ll give you a hint: it’s not on this list. That’s right. What the Toyota Corolla lacks in excitement and luxury, it more than makes up for in usefulness, practicality, reliability and comfort. And it’s darn affordable too. It’s no wonder the company sold more than 43 million units.