The cars of today owe much to the vehicles that came before them. While it’s easy to look at a modern car and complain about something as simple as it not having power windows or locks, there’s a long history of discovery and innovation that led to you being able to complain about such a simple feature.
What if we still had to crank our engines by hand? What if seatbelts were still optional? Automotive history is rich and deep; there is a long line of famous vehicles that paved the way to the engineering marvels we enjoy today. Here are the stories of ten of the most innovative and influential cars ever produced. Click Next to view our list of groundbreaking cars.
1. Ford Model T (1908)
The Model T is generally regarded as the first affordable car in the world, and the vehicle that not only opened up a world of automobile travel to the middle classes, but put the famer on wheels as well. For example, the Pullford Company of Quincy, IL sold a $135 kit to convert a Model T into a tractor. Ford’s refinement of Ransom E. Olds assembly line methods along with a $5 day salary to retain workers made it all possible. Produced between 1908 and 1927, more than 15 million Model T Fords were manufactured at 25 plants across the globe, which brought mobility to the masses. For that reason, it has earned its place on this this of influential developments in the history of automotive design and production.
2. Austin Seven (1922)
The Austin Seven was a reliable, well-designed and properly manufactured small car, in some ways the replacement to the Model T in many parts of the world. It was small, weighing less than half of a Model T, and powered by a tiny 747 cc inline four cylinder engine. The Seven appears on this list not so much for what the car represented at the time, but the impact that it made in the automotive industry. The little Seven (or cars built on a Seven chassis) had a critical roles in establishing each of these incredibly important and successful automotive firms: BMW (which built a copy under license as the Dixi), Nissan (which built an unlicensed copy), Lotus (whose first car was based on a Seven), McLaren (who started racing in a Seven), Jaguar, Jeep (which was first developed by the US arm of Austin), and the GM division in Australia, Holden.
3. Chrysler Airflow (1934)
Sometimes you can be right and still be wrong. Chrysler engineers sought to reinvent the automobile by making it body more aerodynamic, safer by incorporating a unibody chassis structure and interior padding for passengers, and better handling by shifting weight distribution to achieve a better balance. The car was rejected by the public and considered at the time to be a failure. In retrospect, launching a completely new design during the Great Depression was chancy at best, not only because there were fewer buyers in the market, but because the public is more conservative in its choices during an economic downturn. It didn’t help that GM was actively trying to discredit the car in public. In exoneration of the Chrysler engineers, virtually every feature they devised is now part of today’s passenger cars.
4. Volkswagen Type 1 (1938)
Despite its roots in Nazi Germany, very few VWs were produced until after WWII. The brainchild of Ferdinand Porsche, it was designed to meet very specific requirements laid out for capacity, speed, economy and other criteria. Professor Porsche actually drew upon design lesson from the pre-War Auto Union GP cars in its development and its production lasted for 65 years between 1938 and 2006 – the longest ever run for a single design concept. It was also the first car to truly become a cultural icon, particularly through the 1960s, showing that cars had a place in wider society.
5. Chevrolet (1955)
It’s difficult to separate the all-new 1955 V8 Chevrolet engine from the all-new 1955 Chevrolet sedans in any discussions of the brand, as each had a critical role on setting Chevrolet on its course to become a preeminent brand. In the early 1950s Chevrolet was slow to update its designs from their immediate post-War designs and seemed to always trail Ford in the styling department. However in 1955 Chevy caught up with Ford in the body design category by leaping to a true shoebox look. It had smooth straight panels on the sides and hood, wrap-around glass on the windshield, and triangular tail lights that jutted outward. And this new look helped make the ’55 an instant hit and a critical success. And under the hood was the new Chevrolet 265 V8, eventually to become known as the small block, developed by Ed Cole and his team which would go on to create its own history.
6. BMC Mini (1959)
If there were ever a car that sold itself, it would be the BMC Mini. When it was introduced it would stop traffic by drawing interested onlookers, and even today people will cross a lot to glimpse an original Mini parked there. Designed by Sir Alex Issigonis to meet the needs of the British public during a period of fuel rationing (Suez Crisis) it was to fit within a box 10’ x 4’ x 4’ and seat four 6’ adults. Cleverly Issigonis pushed the small wheels out to each corner and mounted the engine, up front and transversely, driving the front wheels, to maximize passenger space, creating the recipe for every small FWD car since. In doing so, he also credited a car with an instant cache. A fashion designer named her new short skirt after the car (miniskirt) and they became a fashionable car to drive around London during the 1960s (John Lennon drove one). Minis were even effective rally and racing cars (competing at times against 7.0 L Fords).
7. Ford Mustang (1964.5)
Originally envisioned as a small mid-engine two-seat sports car powered by a V4 engine, the original concept was dropped as sales for the two-seat Thunderbird were continually below expectations. Instead the engineers took the Falcon chassis, which was very much a stripped-down economy car at the time, and used it as the basis for the new front-engine 2+2 Mustang that would hit the market like a hydrogen bomb in early 1964. Even though the Mustang resembled nothing else in Ford’s line, it carried many components from other cars, making assembly cost-effective as workers didn’t need to be retrained, and dealers didn’t need to stock a great deal of additional inventory. And not only did the Ford Mustang change how cars were manufactured; they made an enormous impact on the market as well. By creating the “Pony Car” category, Ford drew in Chevrolet (Camaro), Pontiac (Firebird), AMC (Javelin), Dodge (Challenger), and Plymouth (Barracuda/’Cuda). It also influenced cars design as exemplified by the 1976 Toyota Celica and the 1970 Mercury Capri.
8. Lamborghini Miura (1966)
You’ll find little argument from automotive historians that the Lamborghini Miura was the world’s first super car. It deserves the title not just because of its performance; but that it pushed the boundaries of what people thought was possible in automobile design. It ushered in the era of the high-performance, two-seater sports car and it was easily the fastest road car in production when it was introduced. The design shared much more in common with the race cars of the day, rather than the touring car designs that had been favored by Ferruccio Lamborghini, who objected the original concept for the Miura, thinking it was too Ferrari-like. Instead the company’s far-thinking engineers designed it in their spare time. Signore Lamborghini relented and gave the engineers a free hand in developing the car. The car was introduced at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show to universal acclaim and the rest, as they say, is history.
9. Chrysler Minivan (1983)
Chrysler invented the Minivan out desperation. It had narrowly missed going into bankruptcy but had only one platform and one basic powertrain option. Engineers were struggling to create as many models from the platform as possible. So with the Minivan not only did they create a new model, they forever changed the way cars were conceptualized. It looked boxy, but had a sliding side door that made loading the kids in the car easy, yet it was small enough to fit in a standard parking spot. While the craze for Minivans has faded in the US, with many manufacturers who made built them exiting the market, it remains a 100,000 unit market in the United States alone.
10. Toyota Prius (1997)
The Toyota Prius was the first mass-produced hybrid, electric vehicle in the world (two years before Honda), and its influence is probably yet to be fully realized. Just as the Model T and Austin 7 brought automobiles to the masses, the Prius broke new ground as an alternative to cars powered exclusively by gasoline (or diesel). It triggered competitors to build hybrids in virtually every category, as well as explore other green alternatives to fossil fuels. The Prius remains one of the most environmentally friendly cars ever made, which earns its place on this list of the most innovative car designs of all time.