We take an in-depth look at some of the most paradigm-shifting cars in automotive history.
Over the years, there have been thousands of car models, some very beautiful, many more less so. Others have been extremely fast, spacious, capable, etc. The car has typically evolved with most manufacturers content to imitate rather than revolutionize. It makes sense after all, as there is no risk in being conservative. But few have been truly innovative and revolutionized the industry.
Among those that have, inventions span from deceptively obvious, such as the electric starter, to a mere rethinking of features in order to create a new segment (such as with the Jeep Cherokee). And lest you think that the most innovative cars belong to the earliest periods of motoring, there is still plenty of revolutionary thinking taking place today. In fact, the last three cars on this list are less than fifteen-years old.
What else is on the list? Here’s a brief overview, how many can you correctly identify?
• The first car designed from the outset as a self-powered vehicle, back in 1885. • A car that took advantage of the mass-production assembly line’s efficiency. • The first car equipped with an electric starter • The first mass-production car that was fully enclosed • The first affordable V8 • The world’s first front-wheel drive, steel monocoque, mass-production car • The first concept car • A true global car that is among the best selling-ever • The first mainstream city car • The car whose layout would define front-engine, FWD cars to this day • The race car whose layout has lasted over fifty years • A sporty segment establishing car aimed at America’s youth • The sports car that helped Japan earn legitimacy • The compact car that established Japan’s reputation • The rally car that proved AWD’s value • The vehicle that defined the crossover segment • The family hauler that replaced the station wagon • The first wide-release hybrid • The first mainstream hybrid • The first hybrid you’d actually want to drive
Now that we’re in the car’s second century, we can’t wait to see what the future holds. Indubitably, it will include all-electric cars and autonomous vehicles, but what else? One caveat: while we recognize the impact Tesla has made, it’s still to early to call it both revolutionary and mainstream as it is only affordable to a very small portion of the global population, not to mention its limited sales network.
Without further delay, following are the twenty most paradigm-shifting cars.
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.
Citroën Traction Avant
Traction avant is French for front-wheel drive, but the 1934 Citroën Traction Avant wasn’t the world’s first front-wheel drive car. It was however, the world’s first front-wheel drive, steel monocoque, mass-production car. As a result, the Traction Avant was relatively light (weighing between 1025kg and 1170kg) and had a low-slung appearance that was fairly futuristic for its era.
Additionally, because it featured monocoque construction, unlike other front-wheel drive contemporaries (like Alvis and Cord), the occupant package was very spacious. Other advanced features include hydraulic brakes, a fully independent torsion bar front suspension, and a cast-aluminum alloy transaxle. The transaxle was mounted in front of the engine (which was longitudinal) and its aluminum construction also aided in the car’s weight savings. Interestingly, the transaxle would later be lifted for use in another significant car.
If you enjoy going to the local yearly car show and ogling the concept cars with their promises of connectivity and autonomous driving, then you have the 1938 Buick Y-job to thank. General Motors’ Head of Design Harley Earl’s idea, the Y-job was the world’s first concept car. It was conceived to showcase new technology and new potential styling directions in order to gauge public response.
So what kind of futuristic technology did the Y-job include? Well, it had pop-up headlights, power electric windows, wraparound bumpers, flush door handles, and advanced styling elements used by Buick until the mid-‘50s as well as a vertical waterfall grille design, which is still used by Buick today. Even the taillight treatment forecasts post-war Cadillacs (also a GM brand). And the name ‘Y-job’ was derived due the letter ‘Y’s extensive use in the aviation industry (it signified advanced prototypes).
The VW Beetle is to Germany (and a few other countries) what the Model T was to the USA. Conceived in the 1930s and improved gradually over many, many years it was designed to be simple, reliable, and inexpensive. And much like the Model T, the fact that Beetles were economical made them popular around the world, leading to their manufacture on plants spread across the globe.
While production began in 1938, it didn’t really take off until after World War II in 1945. Incredibly, it was in production until 2003, a span of sixty-five years, during which it remained largely unaltered. To that end, it remains the longest-running and most-manufactured (over 21,000,000 were produced) single platform car, ever. Also worth noting is that the VW Beetle (or Käfer in German) was designed by none other than Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. Later he would use the Beetle’s same rear engine, rear-wheel drive layout in his own cars.
Like the Beetle and Model T, the Fiat Cinquecento (500) was built around the world (but usually under license, rather than by Ford or VW’s direct overseas production method). And while it did help to put the Italian masses on the road like its American and German counterparts it was the first true city car, as it measured less than three meters. It was also nimble, light, and fuel-efficient due not only to its diminutive powerplant (initially a 479cc inline two-cylinder) but also to its aerodynamics (its coefficient of aerodynamic drag was about 0.38, quite low for a family car).
While it was in production for eighteen years, it failed to match the Model T and Beetle’s longevity as tastes evolved towards the end of its life. Even though it was adored by a generation, it was no match for more powerful, more sophisticated cars being produced in the mid-1970s.
From an Italian car to The Italian Job, the BMC Mini was truly revolutionary. Designed by Sir Alec Issigonis as an economical response to the 1956 Suez gas crisis, it completely changed the small car market. The Mini is the reason that most economy cars today are transverse front-engine, front wheel drive. Quite simply it allows for a maximized passenger compartment in a very small footprint.
Not only was the layout innovative, but the suspension used rubber cones for dampening, rather than tradition springs, due to the space savings they afforded. And as if this wasn’t enough, its light-weight and FWD layout, which gave it excellent traction over slippery surfaces, helped it win the Monte Carlo rally three times. It also won the British Saloon Car Championship five times as well as a few events in Australia. And best of all, you could walk down the street and buy one.
Much like the Mini reversed fifty years of small car engineering, so too did the 1958 Cooper F1 reverse fifty odd years of race car design. Remember the aforementioned Citroën transaxle? Well, the Cooper T43 (built in 1957, actually) used the transaxle from a Citroën Traction Avant to transfer power to the rear wheels from a longitudinal two-liter, four-cylinder Coventry-Climax mounted behind the driver.
Indeed, the T43 became the first racing car to win (Sir Stirling Moss drove one to victory in the ’58 Argentine Grand Prix) a World Drivers’ Championship race with a mid-engined layout. It was quickly replaced by Cooper’s own T45 (in the next race, which it won!) and the following season came the T51, which was dominant. Most amazing however, is that the T43 beat cars running the maximum-allowed 2.5L against its smaller 2.0L. This is the car that established open-wheel racing as we know it.
The 1964 Ford Mustang didn’t upend the establishment with a new layout like the preceding two. It did however create a new segment that thoroughly resounded with the era’s youth—the “pony car” segment. It was based on a “compact”-sized economy car’s (the Ford Falcon) platform but fitted with an aggressive body that sported a long hood and short deck, which spoke to the power underneath. There were a few optional engines (more than one V8), two seats in the [cramped] back, and seemingly endless customization options.
It was a recipe for success—Ford built over 1,000,000 models in the first eighteen months. It became Ford’s best-seller since the Model A (built until 1931). What is truly surprising about this is that the car wasn’t a family-oriented model, but one with sporty pretensions. It also made for a heck of a platform for club and sports car racing and was competitive in Trans-Am.
The Fairlady in other countries, Datsun’s 1970 240Z was based on the European sports car tradition but it was built to exacting Japanese standards so it was actually reliable. Moreover, it included lively performance on par with mid-tier OEMs (courtesy of a straight-six engine, RWD, and fully independent suspension) and looked great. Best of all, the price was moderate enough so that most of the middle-class in the US could afford it.
Due to Datsun’s (Nissan outside the USA) large dealer network they were able to sell more models than many foreign competitors. But the reason this car was a game-changer is that it succeeded in helping Datsun (and other Japanese OEMs) earn legitimacy. It meant that the Japanese were no longer building boring econoboxes—they now had compelling products that could compete on a global stage. The rest is history.
Honda Civic CVCC
When the 1975 Honda Civic CVCC (Compound Vortex Combustion Chamber) debuted, the Civic had already been out for two years. But the CVCC helped to turn Honda into a sales leader in the U.S., all because of the ingenious cylinder head design. The combustion process was so efficient due to the shape of the head and negated the need for any sort of emissions equipment to be fitted to the car (unlike nearly every other car in the US market). Additionally, it allowed drivers to use any sort of petrol that was available, a key feature when fuel-rationing was in effect due to the period’s oil embargos.
As the Civic’s profile rose, so too did Honda’s and, like the Datsun before it, Japanese cars’ in general. After all, here was a car that didn’t pollute, was economical, and more advanced than many American cars.
Audi Sport Quattro
The 1980 Audi Sport Quattro (rally car) debuted at the Geneva Motor Show on March 3rd, 1980 and was subsequently the first rally car to capitalize on the then-recently changed rules permitting the use of four-wheel drive in competition rallying. It then proceeded to dominate rallying for the next three years. It marked the beginning of the all-wheel drive period in rallying and won two drivers’ championships (1982 and 1984) and two manufacturers’ championships (1983 and 1984) in those three years.
What made the Ur-Quattro revolutionary is that it was a race car that proved the efficacy of four-wheel drive in a sports car and it received a much larger stage (than previous attempts, such as Jensen’s) for its performances. In some ways it foreshadowed the rise of today’s hypercars that demand all-wheel drive.
Jeep had been around for a while by the time the 1984 Jeep Cherokee came to market. But the Cherokee made Jeep increasingly relevant as time passed. Not only did people begin trading their station wagons for this closed, four-seat Jeep, but it effectively redefined a segment. Sport-Utility Vehicles existed when the Cherokee debuted—the Ford Bronco and International Harvester Scout are two examples of competitors (from ten years prior)—but the Cherokee combined four-wheel drive with a [very small] bit of luxury that was absent from the aforementioned Ford and International.
How significant was this model? Well, Mr. Robert Cumberford of Automobile Magazine called the small Jeep a "masterpiece" design as well as paradigmatic. It helped to establish the crossover segment and sold for seventeen years in the US. While relatively reliable and surefooted, it was neither the first, nor the best. But its combination of driveability and features made it a hit and helped to define a new segment.
Another segment-defining vehicle from Chrysler. Much like the Jeep Cherokee, the 1984 Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager only improved upon an idea (the van) to make it friendlier and more marketable. And just like the Cherokee too, it cannibalized the station wagon market. Despite being taller than cars they were based on, from the beginning the Caravan was designed to have a car-like feel and road manner. Chrysler’s executives wanted the minivan to feel immediately familiar.
While the car was a Chrysler, the idea first occurred to Messrs. Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich while they both worked at Ford. However, Mr. Henry Ford II didn’t like it, even after a prototype was built and killed the idea. After moving to Chrysler, Iacocca and Sperlich revived the concept and developed a winner. Families responded accordingly by snapping up over 13,000,000 during their first fifteen years of sales.
The 1999 Honda Insight was the first modern hybrid to market in the US, beating the original Toyota Prius by a few months. It used a 1.0L three-cylinder engine as well as a 144V, 10kW motor to provide power to the front wheels. The battery pack was composed of commercial-quality Nickel-Metal Hydride cells used to drive the electric motor. The car was light, weighing in at less than 900kg, and very aerodynamic which allowed it to achieve over about 4.4L of fuel consumed per 100km.
Sadly, the Honda was not very well received by the public. Not because of any performance shortcomings or battery-related issues but rather because people needed it to provide more utility, in the form of more seats, than it could.
There was a generation prior to this Prius, but the 2003 model was the first Toyota Prius that broadly resonated with the mainstream—and sold accordingly. With enough interior space to comfortably fit four adults, and positioned between Toyota’s Corolla and Camry, the 2003 Prius was the first hybrid that didn’t make sacrifices for efficiency (unless you consider decent acceleration). The previous generation also had four seats but the car was smaller and rather uncomfortable for rear-seat passengers.
Additionally, the ’03 Prius was equipped with a smaller and lighter battery than the previous generation and was both more powerful and more efficient, too. And even though both generations were sold for six years (although the first gen was home market only for about two of those years), the second generation outsold the first by a ten-to-one factor. Hybrid family cars finally made sense.
This is where hybrids begin to get exciting. As all modern cars face the same environmental constraints, it was only a matter of time before a sports car was designed to use a hybrid drivetrain (and there are now at least two others). But the 2013 Porsche 918 was first.
It uses 4.6L V8 and two electric motors, one each per axle to help the car along, for a combined output of 887hp. It is capable of close to 350km/hr and can accelerate to 100km/hr from a complete stop in about 3.0s. It also achieves a combined fuel economy of 11 L/100 km or nearly double the Porsche Carrera GT’s economy.
Words by Joe Chen for Highsnobiety.com