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Innovations That Make Today’s Cars Possible

Published March 24, 2015

When and how did turbochargers, fuel injection, alloy wheels start being used on cars?  There have been a series of innovations, starting back as far as one hundred years ago, that have shaped the cars we drive today.  Let’s check some out.

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Alloy Wheels

Alloy wheels are typically manufactured from aluminum, but at times, for very high performance or motorsports use, from magnesium (hence the term “mag wheel”). The first alloy wheel offered for sale to the public was on the 1955 Cadillac Eldorado. The center was forged aluminum which was then riveted to a steel rim. So like many high performance wheels of today, it’s of two piece design. These days alloy wheels are standard on all but the lowest trim versions of some cars. Their advantage comes from the fact that any weight in the wheel or tire is a multiple of the same weight inside the car, as its mass is rotating instead of stationary.

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Aerodynamics

The first car to utilize aerodynamic principles in its exterior design was the 1921 Rumpler-Tropfenauto. It was a concept for which the public was not yet ready and only 100 were made and it was soon forgotten. Then in 1930 Chrysler begin wind tunnel testing (with Orville Wright!) 50 different shapes of car. For a reason lost to time they spun around a standard model of the day and found it more aerodynamic facing backwards.  Based on his conclusion in 1934 Chrysler introduced a  car designed around this aerodynamic concept. The car was named Airflow, and sold it through its Chrysler and De Soto dealers. Again, the public wasn’t ready for an aerodynamic car and Chrysler sold just 75,000 Airflows over its four year life. Aerodynamic designs developed through wind tunnel have since become the norm for automotive design.

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Fuel Injection

While fuel injection was original developed around diesel engines, one of the  first known of gasoline fuel injection dates back to 1902, when French aviation engineer Leon Levavasseur developed a low pressure fuel injection system for the  Antoinette 8V aircraft engine, the first known V-8 to have gone into series production. The brass injector fittings can be seen screwed into the aluminum intake trumpets at the top of the engine.  The first known application of electronic fuel injection was by Alfa Romeo in 1940. Given its able to improve engine performance while simultaneously reducing toxic emissions, fuel injection is now the standard for passenger cars in the US.

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Supercharger and Turbocharger

Superchargers and turbocharger are often discussed together as their goal is the same: pack more air into the combustion chamber, which allows for more fuel to be burned, thereby creating more power by pushing down harder on the piston (this force is measured as Brake Mean Effective Pressure or BMEP).

The turbocharger was invented by Swiss engineer Alfred Büchi who was granted a patent in 1905. The first two turbocharged passenger cars were the  1962-1963 F85/Cutlass Jetfire, which used a turbocharger mounted to an aluminum V8. And a special run of turbocharged Corvairs, initially called the Monza Spyder for 1962, 1963, and 1964,  and later renamed the Corsa for 1965 and 1966.

Gottlieb Daimler received a German patent for supercharging an internal combustion engine in 1885. Louis Renault patented a centrifugal supercharger in France in 1902. The world’s first supercharged production cars were the 1921 Mercedes 6/25/40 hp and the 1921 Mercedes 10/40/65 hp.

Today, the supercharger and turbocharger have become ubiquitous in high performance cars, like supercharging on the Dodge Hellcat models or turbocharging a V-6 engine for the forthcoming Ford GT.

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Variable Ratio, Power Assisted Rack and Pinion Steering

The concept of the rack and pinion of a means of transferring motion has been around for hundreds of years, for example to raise and lower lock gates on canals in Great Britain.  It had been used on smaller, lighter cars for decades but suffered from steering that was too quick on highways and too difficult in parking lots. That changed with the development of the variable ratio, power assisted rack and pinion steering by Australian engineer Arthur Ernest Bishop, who dispensed with existing theory to develop the system in now almost universal use.

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Premium Sound Systems

Today it’s common to purchase a new car with a premium sound system. Some car makers choose to partner with a high-end consumer electronics company, others choose to go it alone and develop their own systems in-house.  The concept of the premium sound started with the 1989 Nissan Maxima. Prior to that car radios, and cassette and CD players were pretty miserable with shrill electronics and muddy-sounding speakers. Nissan, looking for an advantage against the Camry and other mid-sized cars, partnered with Bose to create a bespoke system that raised the bar for in-car audio, a bar that continues to be raised with each new model of car.

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Radial Tires

While the tire shown above looks like it would be more appropriate on a moped than a car, it is, in fact the first radial, which was developed by Michelin in 1946. There are several advantages over the existing bias-ply tires of the day. First and foremost, it provided tire engineers the ability to develop the tread and sidewall characteristics separately (for example, a soft sidewall with a stiff tread area for good on-road stability, or a stiff sidewall and soft tread area for high-performance capabilities. Further, radial were less prone to overheating, a common cause of tire failure, as well increased fuel economy. It is nearly impossible today to purchase anything but a radial tire for a passenger vehicle or light truck.

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Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. GearHeads.org gives me a chance to give something back to the automobile community.

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