Although automobiles have been a vital part of daily life for more than a century, their creation took place over decades of invention.
Before 1900: The first innovations were in engine design and propulsion methods starting with steam (late 1700s), then internal combustion (early 1800s). Gasoline as a fuel was introduced 80 years later, but vehicles powered by steam or electricity continued to be popular.
Turn of the century: New modifications were popping up all over, from a steering wheel to drum brakes. Most cars had an open body, a single speed and used a chain drive. Europe was the epicenter of innovation, but the automobile still was considered a novelty.
Before World War I: As competition ramped up, so did automotive technology. Manufacturers fought for customers’ attention with innovations such as multispeed transmissions, more comfortable bodies and new exterior designs. Henry Ford’s Model T rose in popularity, cementing the idea of everyday automobile use.
Between WWI and WWII: More efficient methods for producing gasoline brought automobiles in the forefront of transportation. Changes during this time included enclosed cabins, the option of automatic engines and the addition of headlights.
After WWII: Most of the mechanical advancements of modern cars had been made by the 1930s, so production ramped up for military use during the war. Next came a focus on the exterior designs of cars as engines became more powerful and gasoline plentiful.
1980s to now: Vehicle innovation targets fuel economy and passenger safety. Body styles expand to include hatchbacks, minivans and, eventually, SUVs. Electric and hybrid engines surge in popularity, and computers drive most car systems.
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