The Rise of the Automobile Industry

The automobile was first invented and developed in Europe towards the end of the 19th century. However, the United States quickly caught up and went on to dominate the industry during the first half of the 20th century.

Following the end of World War II, the automobile industry even grew exponentially. The automobile production in Europe and Japan rose to meet the aggressively increasing demand.

The automobile industry became a vital instrument for the growth of the US economy and became an integral part of the growth of American urban centers. But by the 1980s, the automotive manufacturing became a global industry with Japan rising to the top as the major producer.

Let us take a look at the major events that shaped the automobile industry in the world.


1880 – Karl Benz created the first modern automobile, a three-wheeled vehicle called “Motorwagen.”

1884 – English electrical engineer Thomas Parker invented the world’s the first practical electric car.

1893 – Brothers and bicycle makers Charles and J. Frank Duryea built the first-ever working gasoline-powered automobile in Springfield, Massachusetts.

1894 – Alfred Vacheron built a racing car with a steering wheel, instead of the tiller which was common in earlier vehicles. It is believed to be the first recorded instance involving the use of steering wheel to turn vehicles.

1896 – The first independent car dealership was opened in Detroit by a salesman named  William Metzger. The first vehicle he sold was a Waverly electric.

1899 – Henry Ford established the Detroit Automobile Company. Although it dissolved in 1901, it would become the successor to Henry Ford Company.

1900 – Robert E. Twyford from Pittsburgh, PA issued a mechanical power steering patent for the first four-wheel drive system.


1900 – Dodge Brothers Company (now Dodge) was founded by brothers Horace and John Dodge, originally as a supplier of car parts.

1901 – Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft introduced the 35-horsepower Mercedes, regarded as the world’s first modern car. A significant technological breakthrough, it achieved a top speed of 90 kph  (or 55 mph).

1902 – Henry Ford left the Henry Ford Company, with its remnants being re-formed as Cadillac.

1904 – The US surpassed France as the world’s leading automobile manufacturer.

1908 – Henry Ford introduced the Model T, the world’s first mass-produced car. It had an inline 4-cylinder engine producing 20 horsepower, achieving a top speed of 40 to 45 mph.

1916 – The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 paved the way (pardon the pun) for the major improvement of the road system in the country.

1918 – The World War I caused car manufacturers to diversify their operations with manufacturing aircraft, tanks, jeeps, and ammunition.

1920 – There was one car for every 13 people in the entire US, and one car for every 5 people in the city of Los Angeles alone.


1920 – The USA produced 2.3 million cars as compared to 2.4 for the rest of the world

1921 – The passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921 led to the development of a major interstate highway.

1922 – General Motors’ Charles Kettering and Thomas Midgley discovered the addition of lead to gasoline, which would help reduce the noise (or “knock”) in auto engines.

1923 – The Springfield Body Corporation began installing radios in cars.

1924 – General Motors discovered the use of ethyl as another gasoline additive/anti-knock property, resulting in the launch of the high-octane fuel.

1925 – From its debut price of $825 in 1909, the Ford Model T’s price had now gone down to $260.

1927 – After 19 years, Ford finally stopped the production of the venerable Model T, which had sold around 15 million units.

1929 – About 90% of the world’s cars were produced in the USA.

1930 – General Motors launched the Cadillac V-16, so named because it was powered by a V16 engine — the first in the world.

1932 – Ford launched the 1932 Ford (also known as the Model 18 or Model B), the first reasonably-priced, mass-produced car to feature a V8 engine.

1932 – Brazilian engineers José Braz Araripe and Fernando Lely Lemos developed the first automatic transmission using a hydraulic fluid.

1935 – There was one car for every 5 people in the USA.

1937 – Kiichiro Toyoda founded Toyota, originally to manufacture trucks.

1937 – Volkswagen was founded by the German Labour Front, a Nazi-backed trade union organization. Their aim was to make cars that ordinary Germans could afford. The first Volkswagen model, launched a year later, was designed by Ferdinand Porsche.


1941 – Willys MB Jeep was launched for the military, with a special design and engine developed by Willys’ chief engineer Delmar “Barney” Roos.

1941 – General Motors accounted for 44% of the total car sales in the US.

1942 – Civilian car production in the US completely stalled to make way for the manufacture of war vehicles.

1945 – Civilian car production in the US resumed.

1946 – 75% of the world’s car was produced in the USA.

1946 – Enzo Ferrari established his eponymous company to manufacture race cars.

1948 – Chrysler invented the world’s first ignition key, which eliminated the need for a starter button.

1948 – Preston Tucker built the Tucker 48, a cutting-edge vehicle dubbed as the “Car of the Future.” It could have been promising, but his legal and financial troubles put the Tucker 48‘s production into a halt. As a result, only 51 cars had been manufactured.

1949 – Chrysler developed and introduced the first four-wheel disc brake system in the US. Among the first Chrysler models to have this were the Chrysler Crown Imperial and the Chrysler Town & Country.

1950 – The Formula One (F1) was formally inaugurated, with Giuseppe “Nino” Farina winning the first F1 championship.

1951 – The airbag was invented independently by German engineer Walter Linderer and American engineer John W. Hetrick.

1951 – The first commercially available power steering system was developed and introduced by Chrysler.

1954 – The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL became the first production vehicle to use a fuel injection (and also the first to use a direct injection).

1957 – Japan sold its first car, Toyota’s “Toyopet Crown,” in the US.

1958 – Swedish automaker Saab was the first company to install seatbelts as an automobile standard, beginning with its model GT750.

1960 – General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvair was introduced to the market, becoming the first mass-produced car to feature a rear-mounted engine. It was also the first GM car to have an all-independent suspension. However, the Corvair became controversial for being unsafe.


1960 – The USA accounted for 48% of the world car production.

1964 – The Aston Martin DB5 debuted in the third James Bond film Goldeneye, and its appearance in the following films made it as the most iconic car in the James Bond cinematic lore.

1965 – The USA began to impose national standards of emission of pollutants by enacting the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act (also known as National Emissions Standards Act).

1965 – The USA accounted for 45% of the world car production, with Japan only 7%. However, Japan surpassed France as the fourth biggest car manufacturer.

1965 – Consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader published the groundbreaking book Unsafe at Any Speed, criticizing and accusing the US automakers of their failure to manufacture cars that were safer to drive.

1966 – Toyota launched the Corolla, which would go on to become the best-selling car of all time (with 40 million units sold.. and counting!)

1967 – Toyota (in collaboration with Yamaha) launched the 2000GT for limited production. It was the first Japanese “supercar” that could compete with the luxe European sports cars.

1967 – Japan surpassed Germany as the second biggest automaker in the world.

1967 – South Korean automaker Hyundai was founded. A year later it released its first model, Cortina, in partnership with Ford.

1970 – The world’s first seat belt law was created in Victoria, Australia, which required drivers and front-seat passengers to wear a seat belt at all times.

1970 – The US Clean Air Act was enacted to regulate emissions of pollutants from factories and vehicles. That same year, the Environmental Protection Agency was also formed.

1970 – The US accounted for 28% of the world car production, followed by Japan (18%), Germany (15%) and France (9.3%).

1968 – Volkswagen introduced the first onboard diagnostic computer system (with scanning ability) — the first car to have computer-controlled electronic fuel injection.

1971 – Ford introduced the Pinto, rear-drive, front-engine subcompact car, on September 11. It was advertised as a “little carefree car.”

1972 – The Volkswagen Beetle surpassed Ford’s Model T in all-time high sales, with 15,007,034 of the total units being sold.

1973 – The 1973 oil crisis caused fuel shortages and sky-high oil prices, which led to fuel rationing. This allowed smaller and more fuel-efficient models (especially coming from Europe and Japan) to gain a foothold in the US domestic auto market.

1974 – The US National Maximum Speed Law was enacted, imposing a speed limit of 90 km/h (55 mph) to motorists.

1974 – Many cars were equipped with airbags as an optional safety feature.

1979 – The 1979 oil crisis — the “second oil shock” — drove fuel prices even higher.

1979 – As a result of the oil crisis, Chrysler went almost bankrupt but it was saved by a $1.5 billion loan from the US government.

1980 – Volkswagen introduced the Audi Quattro, a car with a turbocharged engine and an all-wheel drive. It became notable for revolutionizing the sport of rallying.


1980 – Japan surpassed the United States and became the world leader in car production. For the first time, Japan topped 11 million vehicles or 28.5% of the worldwide car production. The US came in second with 8 million (21%).

1980 – After 9 years, Ford ended the production of the infamous Pinto, which had become a subject of controversy (as well as numerous recalls and lawsuits) due to a defective gas tank that led to explosions as well as the resulting numerous deaths and injuries.

1981 – Japanese carmakers entered a “voluntary restraint agreement,” causing them to limit their exports to the United States to 1.68 million cars per year.

1981 – The Ford Escort (released in 1980) became the best-selling car in its second year. Overall, it had sold 18 million units.

1981 – Honda, together with Alpine Electronics and Stanley Electric Company, introduced the world’s first automotive navigation system.

1982 – Honda Accord became the first Japanese car to be manufactured in the US.

1983 – Malaysia’s Proton was founded.

1984 – Chrysler introduced the Dodge Caravan, the Plymouth Voyager and the Minivan models.

1984 – Ferrari introduced the Testarossa, a 12-cylinder mid-engine sports car, with the design by Pininfarina.

1986 – General Motors led the US car sales with 34%.

1986 – Porsche launched the twin-turbocharged 959, which was the fastest street-legal car at the time. It had a top speed of 314 km/h (195 mph).

1988 – Japan led the car production with 26%, followed by the USA with 23%.

1990 – Mazda launched the Eunos Cosmo, the world’s first production car with a built-in GPS navigation system.

1994 – After 13 years, Japanese automakers were finally relieved from the “voluntary export restraint”; since then, auto exports to the US had grown exponentially.

1995 – Japan led the car production with 21%, followed by the USA with 17.5%

1997 – Toyota introduced the Prius, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid car. Its rise in sales and popularity helped in sparking interest in fuel-efficient vehicles.

1998 – Tata Motors in India introduced its first passenger car, the Indica.

The 2000s – The US began to shift its focus on SUV and trucks, which brought higher revenues than smaller cars.

The late 2000s – Several automakers in the world began to discontinue manufacturing “gas-guzzlers” (such as SUV’s) in favor of more efficient cars, in response to the global recession and growing environmental concerns.

2008 – Tesla launched the Roadster, a battery-powered sports car.

2009 – Mainland China surpassed the US as the biggest car market in the world, with 13.5 million vehicles sold against 10.4 million in the US. It has remained the biggest ever since.


2010 – Hyundai surpasses Ford as the fourth biggest automaker in the world

2010 – Nissan released the all-electric car Leaf in the US. It went on to become the best-selling electric car in history.

2010 – German computer scientist and innovator Sebastian Thrun joined Google and founded Google X (now called X) where he led the development of a self-driving car.

2011 – General Motors launched the Chevrolet Volt, an electric hybrid car.

2012 – Americans purchased 14,785,936 cars this year, a 38% jump from 2009.

2012 – Tesla released the Model S, its first full-sized electric car. It went on to become the second best-selling electric car after Nissan Leaf.

2015 – Toyota released the Mirai, one of the first commercially-available and mass-marketed hydrogen fuel cell cars.

2016 – General Motors released an all-electric car named             Chevrolet Bolt, which can travel over 200 miles per single charge.


Perhaps there is no other invention that transformed the global landscape in such a huge scale than the automobile. It has dramatically changed how the common people live and freed them from the constraints of their own space and revolutionized business and recreation. It goes without saying that it played a vital and progressive role for a change.

But the automobile industry was not without adverse effects, among them pollution and accidents. Car manufacturers have continued to strive to improve the transport system in a lot of ways. And now with the advent of fuel-efficient, electricity- and hydrogen-powered cars that were once considered as inconceivable, the automobile industry is looking up with more exciting possibilities (a flying car? Why not!) in the future.

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