Shifting Gears: Tracing the Evolution of Cars

Cars have indelibly marked the human experience, facilitating the migration of civilisations, underpinning economies, and transforming social and political landscapes, but how have cars changed over time? Let’s take a look at the extraordinary evolution of automobiles.

Automotive History
26 August 2023

There’s no simple answer to the question ‘who invented the car’. It’s been a steady work in progress since the seventeenth century. Yet one thing is for certain, the car design evolution dramatically and permanently changed how people explored the world around them.

Borne out of human necessity and driven by creativity, the evolution of vehicles symbolises the relentless pursuit of progress and the strive for innovation. This article captures the heartbeat of that journey, tracing back to the nineteenth century when pioneers like Karl Benz and Henry Ford first dreamt of motorised transportation and endeavoured to make it a reality.

From the early days of noisy impractical machines to today’s sensational supercars and high-efficiency electric cars, the evolution of cars is an exploration of social transformation. Cars have opened up unprecedented avenues of personal mobility, reshaped cities and, inevitably, etched their environmental footprint.

How have cars changed over time? Buckle up as we embark on a fascinating trip, exploring their past, examining their present, and speculating on their future.

The Evolution of Automobiles - The Beginning

1885 Benz Patent-Motorwagen (Credit: Sjoerd van der Wal via Getty Images)

While there were experiments with electric and steam-powered vehicles in the early stages of automotive development, the modern automobile is traditionally credited to Karl Benz in the 1880s. However, the genesis of the evolution of vehicles started at least two centuries before.

Flemish Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest is believed to have designed the world’s first self-propelled vehicle in the 1670s, but there is scant evidence to suggest a working model was ever built. A century later in 1769, French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built a steam-powered tricycle for hauling artillery, known as the ’Fardier à vapeur.’ Designed to carry heavy loads, it had a top speed of around two mph and it had to stop every ten minutes or so to build up steam.

During the nineteenth century, a number of inventors from the USA, the UK, Canada and eastern Europe built steam-powered vehicles. However, it was in the early 1860s when Belgian-French engineer Etienne Lenoir created the first commercially successful internal combustion engine. A decade and a half later, German engineer Nicolaus Otto developed the first modern internal combustion engine and car design evolution could begin in earnest.

The Early Years: 1880 - 1900

Early twentieth century car (Credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The first petrol-powered car, and indeed the first car put into series production, was the Benz Patent-Motorwagen – essentially an engine fitted to a three-wheeled carriage – built by Karl Benz in 1885. Indeed comparing this car to the cars of today perfectly answers the question ‘how have cars changed over time’.

Established in 1887, Panhard et Levassor emerged as one of the pioneering companies dedicated exclusively to the manufacture and sale of cars. Just two years later, in 1889, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach ushered in a new era of motorised transportation by crafting the Stahlradwagen, or ‘steel-wheeled car’, equipped with a four-stroke engine.

Before the century was out, Frederick Lanchester built and tested one of the first all-British four-wheeled petrol-driven cars. In the coming years he would invent the disc brake and is credited with developing the epicyclic gearbox.

The Dawn of The Motoring Age: 1900 - 1920

1914 Philos Coupé de Ville (Credit: Johan De Meester/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As difficult as it is to believe, the first cars didn’t have indicators, doors, windscreen wipers or even steering wheels – they had levers or tillers – but that all changed in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

However the most seismic shift in the evolution of cars was the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908. Designed, in his own words, to ‘build a motor car for the great multitude’, Henry Ford soon revolutionised the industry by introducing the moving assembly line in 1913, drastically reducing production time and costs. Indeed it’s believed that by 1920, more than half the cars in the world were Ford Model Ts.

The Car’s The Star: 1920 - 1940

1930 Bentley 4.5 litre (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The interwar years saw the wide adoption of the combustion engine and closed body designs, paving the way for more modern-looking vehicles and the evolution of automobiles to resemble today’s cars.

Speedometers, seatbelts and rear view mirrors became increasingly commonplace in the 1930s, the decade that saw the birth of popular and affordable motoring for the masses. Cars like the SS Jaguar 100, the Mercedes-Benz 500 K Special Roadster, the Bentley Speed Six and the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic were at the zenith of car design evolution of the era. In the USA, the trend was towards swooping curves, art deco inspiration and unprecedented luxury in the form of the Cadillac V16, the Auburn 851 Boattail Speedster and the Packard Twelve Model 1107.

In 1938, the Volkswagen Beetle was introduced. Until production of the original car ended in 2003, VW sold well in excess of 21 million cars.

The Coming of Age: 1940 - 1960

Ferrari 125 S (Credit: Martyn Lucy/Getty Images)

World War II heavily impacted car production, as many factories were repurposed for military production. Influenced by various economic and societal changes after the war, the car industry flourished in Europe and America, and car culture became integral to everyday life.

One of the major car design evolution updates was the elimination of running boards and the introduction of the pontoon style, where fenders were incorporated into car bodies. In addition, the late 1940s and 1950s saw the introduction of the modern three-point seat belt, car keys, power steering and cruise control.

Enzo Ferrari launched his first car, the 125 S, and the 1950s saw the introduction of the American muscle car. In the pantheon of the evolution of cars, this was a paradigm shift that introduced some of the most powerful cars ever built.

Power, Performance and Petite Perfection: 1960 - 1980

Lamborghini Miura (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age for performance cars, with the muscle car craze taking centre stage in America. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Mini, Fiat 500 and VW Beetle popularised affordable compact cars.

This was also a golden age in the evolution of automobiles. In the space of twenty years, some of the most influential cars in the history of motoring were launched including the Porsche 911, the Ford Mustang, the Lamborghini Miura, the Aston Martin DB5 and the Ferrari 250 GT.

The global Oil Crisis of 1973 led to a renewed focus on fuel efficiency, leading to the downsizing of American cars and growing market share for compact cars from Europe and Japan. The first catalytic converters were introduced to reduce harmful emissions.

The Digital Age: 1980 - 2000

Ferrari F40 (Photo by Martyn Lucy/Getty Images)

The 80s marked the beginning of the digital era in cars, with the introduction of computer-controlled fuel injection and other electronic systems. Safety also improved with the widespread introduction of features like airbags and antilock brakes.

Car design evolution went literally and metaphorically into overdrive with the introduction of the Ferrari F40, Porsche 959, Lamborghini Diablo, Audi Quattro, BMW M3 and 80s hot hatch classics like the Golf GTi 16v, Escort XR3i and Peugeot 205 GTi. But despite the power, performance and insane styling of these automotive classics, one car was destined to permanently disrupt the timeline of the evolution of vehicles.

Launched in 1997, the Toyota Prius was the first mass-market hybrid car. Combining a petrol engine with an electric motor for increased fuel efficiency and lower emissions, its success compelled competitors to invest in and develop their own hybrid and electric models and helped to shape the push towards more sustainable automotive technology.

The Present & The Future: 2000 - 2020s and Beyond…

Concept of an autonomous car (Credit: gremlin via Getty Images)

The 2000s saw the evolution of cars into computers. Bluetooth, sat-nav, wi-fi and driverless parking became available and the thousand-horsepower, quad-turbo, eight-litre Bugatti Veyron topped 250 mph.

During the 2000s, there was a notable move towards green technologies, with hybrids becoming more popular. This decade also marked the rise of Elon Musk’s Tesla, which catalysed a growing trend in the adoption of electric vehicles. The revolutionary Tesla Roadster tore up the car design evolution manual and announced to the world that electric cars weren’t just a fad.

So what does the future of the evolution of automobiles look like?

The future appears to be steering towards electric and autonomous vehicles. The rise in environmental awareness, stricter emissions regulations, and advances in battery technology are accelerating the shift towards electric vehicles. Indeed major manufacturers are committing to extensive electric lineups or even entirely electric futures. The continued expansion of charging infrastructure and reductions in battery costs are helping to address range anxiety and high upfront costs, two significant barriers to mass-market EV adoption.

In addition to electric vehicles, the pursuit of autonomous driving technology is set to redefine personal mobility and the evolution of cars. Companies like Uber, Google-owned Waymo, Tesla, and General Motors-owned Cruise are investing heavily in the research and development of self-driving cars. However, while significant progress has been made, the tech is not yet fully mature or widely adopted.

As autonomous and connected vehicle technology advances, we can expect the relationship between humans and cars to transform radically, with implications not just for personal transportation, but for industries such as logistics and ride-hailing, and potentially leading to fundamental changes in our cities and infrastructure.


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