Well, at long last, it’s here. The revolution is upon us. Electric vehicles are growing more accessible, automobiles are gaining autonomy, and flying cars are (finally) taking to the skies. In other words, that which we once relegated to the realm of fiction is now becoming a tangible, practical reality. For better or worse, we’re no longer living in an analog world steeped with sepia tones and softened by nostalgia. Instead, we’ve hit fast-forward on the remote, and we’re desperately trying to hang on for the ride. It’s remarkable, really, just how quickly transportation is evolving. Even still, we can’t forget about the many innovations that got us here.
Because let’s face it. We wouldn’t be where we are today were it not for Karl Benz and his Motorwagen. Sure, it may have been a crude three-wheeled contraption with an awkward open-topped design, but it gave the world internal combustion, and (more importantly) it inspired Benz and his contemporaries to keep building cars. Over the next 100 years, his eponymous firm would contribute to the rate of progress time and time again, be it through fuel injection, airbags, or even crumple zones. Of course, for all its competition, the automotive industry is a collective effort; every new car that arrives on the market can only do so by looking to those which came before it. Lest we fail to appreciate the immense progress we’ve made in just a little over a century, here are 16 of what we feel to be the most innovative cars of all time.
1908 Ford Model T
If you remember anything from you’re elementary school history, you’ll know that Henry Ford and his Model T changed Americans’ access to gas-powered transport forever. Affordable, easy to operate, and built to be tough, it was a car that paved the way for assembly line manufacturing in automotive mass production. And the thing is, Mr. Ford never stopped fine-tuning his process, continuously bringing down his cost to save customers money. When the Model T arrived on the market in 1909, for instance, it garnered some 10,666 sales at $825 apiece. However, by the time Ford had closed on its 15 millionth vehicle in 1927, the car was going for a mere $360 all-in. With the end of its production, then, came the end of an era.
1934 Chrysler Airflow
The Airflow wasn’t particularly well-received upon its debut; though, if anything, it’s because the car’s uncharacteristic styling was far ahead of its time. After all, most automobiles of the period featured a clunky two-box shape that was actually more aerodynamically efficient backward than it was forward. By contrast, the Airflow boasted slippery, wind tunnel-tested engineering, with a lightweight unibody frame and an uber-streamlined body. Still more impressive, though, are the advances Chrysler made in weight distribution; in an age when some cars had as much as 75% rear bias, the Airflow broke new ground with a near-perfect 50:50.
1938 Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle
Above all else, the Type 1 Beetle is a vehicle whose innovation lies in its endurance. For even though “the people’s car” started life as Hitler’s ill-begotten brainchild, over time, it’s cemented itself as a true cultural icon. And it’s not without good reason; like the Model T, Volkswagen’s Type 1 mobilized the masses, bringing the car to the public at a price point they couldn’t refuse. More than that, though, it was incredibly reliable and cheap to maintain, powered by a robust, user-friendly air-cooled engine. So lasting was its appeal, in fact, that it became the longest-running and most manufactured car platform ever made, netting a total production output of some 21,529,464 units.
1941 Willys MB
A true American icon, the Willys MB or “Jeep” proved to be a decisive advantage throughout the United States’ WWII involvement. Known for its toughness, pluck, and versatility, it served as a modern replacement for military horses and other draft animals. What’s more, the Willys MB set the standard for off-roaders as we know them today, as it was the first-ever mass-produced civilian 4×4 to hit the market (under the CJ designation). And here’s the thing: the Jeep’s popularity wasn’t limited to the public alone; from snow plowing and sawmilling to fire-fighting and field ambulances, the vehicle could be used for almost anything.
1941 Packard Custom Super Eight One-Eighty
Packard’s 180 platform gave the auto world many of the creature comforts found on cars today. Sure, air conditioning had seen several applications prior to its launch in 1941, but the Super Eight One-Eighty was the first stock vehicle to offer such an option. Not only that, but Packard also introduced then-novel power windows, incorporating a hydro-electric lifter design that could raise and lower glass at the push of a button. Such an addition meant that customers could hide the central partition completely, allowing the car to be driven as either a personal sedan or as a private limousine.
1947 Tucker 48
In the wake of WWII, Preston Tucker launched his own automotive brand in order to challenge the likes of the Big Three. Not content with the outdated standards of the time, Tucker built his cars with a number of future-forward innovations. Along with swooping, modern styling, the Tucker 48 brought features like a steering-actuated headlight, safety glass, four-wheel independent suspension, seatbelts, and even fuel injection to an otherwise stale automotive industry. Of course, Chrysler, Ford, and GM couldn’t take a chance on Tucker’s success, so they did everything in their power to run him out of business. Between negative publicity, an SEC investigation, and baseless fraud charges, Preston Tucker had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.
1953 C1 Chevrolet Corvette
Despite its pre-production promise, the Corvette was actually pretty underwhelming upon its debut (the program was almost canceled). Nevertheless, the C1 arrived at a critical point in automotive history, as it demonstrated that the Americans were, in fact, capable of building a lively two-seater sports car. And that’s not all; the Corvette also boasted a revolutionary fiberglass body, with a throaty V8 that made it more engaging to drive than its European alternatives. As Chevrolet continued to refine its formula, the C1 only cemented its status, gaining more power, sportier looks, and increased option availability for customers’ personalization.
1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
Today, auto enthusiasts appreciate the 300 SL for its collectible status and beautiful ’50s styling, but it’s important not to ignore the car’s many innovations. The fastest vehicle of its time, it topped out at an impressive 163mph and rocketed to 60mph in a respectable 9.4s. Much more than a straight-line sprinter, however, the 300 SL ran rings around its contemporaries thanks to its slippery aerodynamic design and lightweight tubular frame construction. That said, the car’s most advanced feature was easily its engine, as the mechanical direct fuel injection unit gave the straight-line six an almost 50% boost in power over carbureted alternatives.
1959 BMC Mini
With the launch of the Mini, the British Motor Corporation pioneered compact car designs for an entire generation of automakers. And it’s easy to see why when you consider what it had to offer. The transverse engine mounting and front-wheel-drive layout allowed for as much as 80% of the floorplan to be used for passenger seating. In practice, this meant that the rest of the car could be made far smaller, even whilst retaining room for up to four. Though such a design made it especially popular in the midst of the mounting Suez Oil crisis, it’s continued to be relevant even today. That is to say, it not only inspired similar cars from Fiat, Honda, and Nissan but it also proved to be the basis on which all small front-wheel-drive cars would be made.
1959 Volvo PV544
Volvo has worked hard to maintain its status as one of the safest car manufacturers in the industry, and it’s a reputation that’s due in large part to the 1959 PV544. For starters, the car offered a marked upgrade over its predecessor, bringing a bigger rounded windshield and rear window to improve visibility. The interior, too, was engineered for improved safety, built with a padded dashboard and a redesigned rear seat. Easily the most innovative aspect of the PV544, however, was the introduction of the factory-fitted three-point seat belt. Sure, wearing a lap belt was undeniably better preferable to nothing at all, but the addition of a chest strap ensured a more even impact as well a stable upper body.
1964 Ford Mustang
While the Mustang was mostly a mix of Ford’s Falcon and Fairlane models, that’s not to say it went without its own industry firsts. Its torque box, for instance, was a structural innovation that resulted in greater chassis stiffness and more efficient power transfer. Still more impressive, though, was the styling, as it set the precedent for an entire generation of sports compacts known as the pony car. Add to that a host of engine options, engaging handling, and premium interior finishings, and you have a car that brought cheap, attractive fun to the American people. No wonder, then, that it’s still considered one of the best-selling cars of all time (it accumulated some 22,000 orders on its first day alone).
1966 Lamborghini Miura
Okay, let’s face it: no list of innovative automobiles would be complete without the Miura; it’s what created the supercar as we know it today. On the outside, it boasted sleek, flowing styling courtesy of the great Marcello Gandini. Radically different than anything else at the time, the car never ceased to impress its onlookers. But ground-breaking good looks weren’t the only thing the Miura had to offer; because of an unusual transverse-mounted V12 engine layout, Lamborghini also succeeded in creating the fastest road-going car of the era.
1969 Land Rover Range Rover Classic
It’s best to think of the Range Rover Classic as the spiritual ancestor of the luxury SUV — it effectively created the category as we know it today. Billed as a vehicle for all occasions, it was designed to be equally adept on-road and off. Accordingly, it married a comfortable interior and some respectable acceleration to a capable four-wheel-drive system, a set of long-travel shocks, and a high ground clearance. Moreover, as the Range Rover moved increasingly upmarket over the years, it ditched its two-door construction and tough utilitarian finishings in favor of a spacious four-door layout and some premium upholstery.
1981 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
While we have no shortage of groundbreaking cars featured here on this list, the S-Class is arguably the most innovative of the lot. With the W126 platform, in particular, Mercedes-Benz introduced a number of game-changing safety measures in an effort to make its automobiles safer for consumers. Constructed from high-strength low-alloy steel, it came with anti-lock brakes, seatbelt pre-tensioners, as well as crumple zones, traction control, and even driver’s airbags. As if that wasn’t enough, though, Mercedes-Benz fitted the W126 fluted taillights to improve visibility and a third, central brake lamp to increase driver awareness.
1997 Toyota Prius
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the incredible leap forward in automotive technology that was the Prius. Originally launched in Japan back in 1997, it was the world’s first gas-electric hybrid at the time of its debut. Understandably, then, it’s only become more and more relevant in the midst of our mounting climate crisis and ever-rising gas prices. Never one for complacency, however, Toyota has only continued to improve the Prius’s eco-friendliness with each iteration. So, while the first generation pictured above boasted a pretty respectable 28.0km/L fuel efficiency rating, these days, it’s good for as much as 40.8km/L. Granted, it’s certainly no supercar, but at least the styling has changed for the better.
2012 Tesla Model S
Though the Model S was far from the first EV to hit the market, it’s the car that finally proved just how cool battery power could be. A true product of the 21st century, it’s only continued to evolve with each iteration (much like our smartphones), extending its range, adding increasingly sci-fi-worthy features, and pushing the limits of what production car performance can be. Now, nearly a decade after its launch, the Model S offers an impressive 405 miles of electric driving and sub-two-second 0-60mph times, along with advanced autonomy, smart air suspension, and tech integration as far as the eye can see. It’s not for nothing that Tesla continues to rack up accolades year after year.
25 Concept Cars We Wish Made It To Production
Though looking to the past is a great way to familiarize yourself with the industry’s innovations, production cars are only part of the picture. If you’re looking to learn about some of the industry’s best “what ifs,” be sure to check out our guide to the concept cars we wish made it to production.