Effectively the world’s first car, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen included several innovative features beyond being designed from the beginning as a self-propelled car (rather than a retro-fitted buggy). Not only was it first, having been patented in 1885 but the two-seater also included a high-speed single-cylinder four-stroke engine mounted horizontally at the rear, along with a differential (previously used on bicycles), tubular steel frame with wooden inserts for non-structural components and three wire-spoke wheels.
Besides being the first car, the Patent-Motorwagen spawned two other auto-industry firsts—the publicity stunt and the road trip. In order to prove its roadworthiness, Benz’s wife (and financial backer), Bertha, took the car and her two sons on a road trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back home three days later. The total trip covered 194 km and she acted as her own mechanic fixing issues as they arose with implements such as her hat-pin and garter.
Ford Model T
The Ford Model T was revolutionary for two reasons. First, it was due to the benefits of the standardized assembly line rather than hand-fabrication that the Model T was able to be produced so reliably and efficiently. And while Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line (it was used as early as 1901 by Ransom Olds), he and his engineers were able to affect changes that ostensibly made the assembly line his. And second, due to the assembly line and its streamlined processes it made the car affordable to the middle-class public. It essentially democratized the automobile whereas before the car served more as a wealthy person’s diversion than a tool for shortening distances.
The car was also the first global car as it was so popular that Ford opened manufacturing plants all over the world to keep costs in check, rather than raising them by shipping the car. Sadly, Ford was so focused on keeping prices low that he was unwilling to spend on design and styling, allowing competitors to consume market share by producing fresher, more elegant cars.
Cadillac Touring Edition
Founded initially by Mr. Henry Ford (and originally called the Henry Ford Co.), he left Cadillac following a dispute with his financial backers. The company persevered and in 1912, with the Cadillac Touring Edition, pioneered an invention that helped establish Cadillac’s reputation as a luxury car: the electric starter.
Prior to its invention, people had to start their cars by hand-cranking the engine. It was a task that grew more and more difficult as engines began to get bigger to power larger cars. But it was also a dangerous task as hand-cranks had the potential to kickback (if the spark was not retarded prior to starting the car) and cause serious injury (broken thumbs and wrist injuries were not uncommon).
But the introduction of the electric starter had another effect: it made cars more accessible to women as the need for great physical strength to start a car was no longer a pre-requisite. Cadillac realized and capitalized on this by introducing women into their advertisements.
Essex Closed Coach
Relatively late to the Detroit automotive boomtown, Essex was established by the Hudson Motor Co. in 1918 as a subsidiary of the Hudson brand to build small, affordable cars and lasted only four years as a nameplate. In 1922, the Essex reverted to Hudson but even during its short time as a proper car company (rather than a model) it made a lasting impact on the auto industry. You see, Essex is widely recognized as beginning the trend away from open-top passenger cars toward the fully-enclosed compartments that are today’s norm.
Essex was well-regarded as a mid-stream passenger car manufacturer, but it was the introduction in 1922 of the closed coach, priced at about twenty-five percent more than the touring car, that really caught peoples’ attention and by 1925 it cost less than the open touring car. Perhaps we should blame Essex for making convertibles more expensive?
Ford Model 18
If the Ford Model T put the masses on the road then the 1932 Model 18 put them in the fast-lane as it was the first affordable V8-powered car. An all-new model, not just a refresh of Ford’s Model A, the 18 was powered by a 3.6L valve-in-block Flathead that initially produced about 65hp. When the Model 18 and its four-cylinder brother the Model B were introduced, the Model B was intended to carry on where the Model A had left off. However, the V8-powered Model 18 was such a sales success that it rendered the Model B obsolete.
The car’s power was such that it supposedly inspired bank-robber Clyde Barrow (half of the ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ team) to write Mr. Ford a letter thanking him for producing such a fine car. The letter indeed exists, but its origin is somewhat suspect. The Model 18’s status as a revolutionary car however is not.