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Tesla deserves credit for proving that an electric car doesn’t have to be a slow, boring golf cart.
The California-based company is venerated as an automotive hero for making cars that match or exceed the performance of conventionally-powered models without burning a drop of fuel. It’s a disruptor, to use one of Silicon Valley’s darling terms, but it’s not the first company to take a different approach to car design.
Here are some of the makes and models that, for better or worse, disrupted the status quo:
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Panhard took its first steps in the automotive industry by purchasing a license to build two-cylinder engines from Daimler. Led by Émile Levassor and René Panhard, two accomplished engineers, the French company quickly began making its own cars powered by engines designed in-house. Panhard’s vehicles won several endurance races in the 1890s and the 1900s but the firm quit racing in 1908 in the wake of several deadly accidents. It then focused largely on innovation and notably released its first valve-less engine in 1910.
After WWII, Panhard began selling more accessible cars in order to stay afloat; few people could afford the quick, luxurious machines it made before the start of the war. It nonetheless continued innovating by making its cars highly aerodynamic and by using lightweight materials like aluminum to keep fuel economy in check. It didn’t have the resources to update or expand its line-up as often as its rivals and it fell into dire financial straits around the turn of the 1960s. It was taken over by Citroën in 1965 and it closed two years later. PICTURE: Panhard Dyna
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Rumpler Motor Company (1921)
Austrian engineer Edmund Rumpler wanted to apply the lessons he learned while developing planes to the world of cars. In 1921, he designed an almost submarine-like vehicle named Tropfenwagen with a droplet-shaped body and a drag coefficient of 0.28. To add context, that’s on par with a Chevrolet Volt. Powered by a W-shaped six-cylinder engine rated at 36hp, the Tropfenwagen could reach about 65mph without using an excessive amount of fuel.
The best marketing campaign in the world couldn’t have saved Rumpler’s brainchild. In the 1920s, motorists didn’t see the point of saving fuel and they couldn’t easily cruise at 65mph because most roads were poorly paved. Buyers were appalled by the Tropfenwagen’s unusual design and they understandably complained that it didn’t have a cargo compartment accessible from the outside.
The car was so unpopular that Rumpler sold the last examples it made to the giant German film company UFA. They were ingloriously set on fire in the 1926 movie Metropolis. Most historians agree approximately 100 examples were made between 1925 and 1925 and less than 10 remain as of 2019.
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While Volvo’s first car wasn’t a beacon of innovation, the company began seriously looking towards the future when it released the PV 36 in 1935. It was more aerodynamic than most cars made by rival manufacturers because its headlights were integrated into the body and its rear wheels were covered. At the time, motorists didn’t like the look and they argued the PV 36 – which was nicknamed Carioca – was heavy, underpowered and expensive. Volvo consequently made about 500 examples before pulling the plug on the project.
The problems encountered by the PV 36 (pictured) didn’t discourage Volvo from experimenting with new ideas. It notably introduced the three-point seatbelt in 1959 and later waved its patent rights so that other automakers could add the feature to their cars without paying royalty fees. Seatbelt use was controversial at first and many drivers refused to wear one but Volvo pressed forward. In 2019, no company would dare consider selling a car without three-point seatbelts.
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In an era when a majority of cars used rear-wheel drive, Indiana-based Cord experimented with front-wheel drive after seeing the layout in action during the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans races. The L-29 became the first front-wheel drive American car sold to the public and it was one of the very first vehicles fitted with the layout anywhere in the world. The Great Depression made selling a big, expensive car hopelessly difficult and L-29 production ended in 1931 after about 5000 units were made.
Cord fell silent until it released the 810 in 1935. Nicknamed coffin nose, the model also used front-wheel drive while its headlights were integrated into the body and hidden under metal flaps, a design cue that was highly futuristic in the middle of the 1930s. It was lower than rear-wheel drive cars so it didn't need running boards; to many, Cord had designed the car of the future. The 810 morphed into the 812 (pictured), which was offered with a supercharger, but innovation wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat and it made its last car in 1937.
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Stout Motor Car Company (1934)
Airplane designer William Stout invented the minivan well before Volkswagen turned the Beetle into the Bus. In 1934, he founded the Stout Motor Car Company and developed a family-hauler named Scarab that looked like nothing else on the road at the time. The futuristic design continued inside with ambient lighting, power locks, a dust filter and leather-upholstered seats that could be moved around the cabin to create a lounge-like atmosphere. On paper, it sounds like every autonomous concept car released so far in 2019.
The difference was that the Scarab was real, though it was eye-wateringly expensive. Pricing started at about $5000 (roughly $95,000/£72,000 in 2019 money) and Stout sold it by invitation only. Hemmings reported the company’s list of clients included the Firestone family and the Stranahan family that founded Champion Spark Plugs. WWII abruptly ended Scarab production after Stout made nine examples.
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Saab took its first steps in the automotive industry while singing a different tune than its competitors. Like Rumpler had done in the 1920s, it approached car design armed with a deep-rooted experience in developing airplanes. It wasn’t by coincidence that the 92 (pictured), its first car, was shaped like a plane’s wing.
The company chased innovation in the name of performance and safety during most of its existence. The 99 released in 1968 was equipped with an ignition barrel located between the front seats to protect the driver’s knees during a collision and its plane-inspired wrap-around windshield increased visibility. Saab added a turbo to the 99 in 1978 and quickly made it one of its hallmarks.
The Swedish firm’s outlier status did it no favors during the 1990s when, under General Motors’ umbrella, it attempted to compete against BMW and Audi. Saab refused to shift closer to the mainstream but the emphasis it placed on quirkiness relegated to niche brand status. After losing money for years, it was spun off by GM and it filed for bankruptcy in 2012 following a valiant fight for survival. As of 2019, National Electric Vehicles Sweden (NEVS) owns the brand and has often spoken about reviving it but done little to make it happen.
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Though it lived and died before the term “disruptor” became a compliment, Tucker wanted to create a completely new kind of car that left models made by bigger, better-established brands in the dust. The company decided safety would be its main priority. To that end, the four-door 48 (pictured) received a third headlight that was directional, a roll bar under the roof panel, a padded dashboard and a windshield made with shatter-proof glass. It was designed to pop out during a crash to avoid cutting the occupants.
Tucker raised $17 million (about $179 million/£137 million in 2019) on the stock market to fund the development of its first car and quickly launched the Tucker Accessories Program, which let buyers secure an early build slot by pre-ordering parts for their future car like a radio and seat covers. Many did; after WWII, Americans were ready for the next big thing in automotive innovation. The American government investigated the scheme and indicted several Tucker executives after concluding it was illegal. While the charges were later dropped, the negative publicity decimated Tucker. It closed its doors in 1948 after making 51 cars. Surviving examples are today worth a mint.
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Autobianchi operated as Fiat’s in-house test lab for most of its existence. Created by Fiat, Pirelli and Bianchi in 1955, its first model was an upmarket city car named Bianchina that was based on the rear-engined 500. It later sold a 600D-based, fiberglass-bodied convertible named Stellina.
Its most significant model was the Primula released in 1964. At the time, rear-engined cars were wildly popular in Italy and abroad but Fiat designer Dante Giacosa sensed the tide was turning. The Primula (pictured) arrived with a transversally-mounted four-cylinder engine positioned ahead of the passenger compartment and front-wheel drive. It was the first Fiat product to adopt this layout.
Executives gave the Primula to Autobianchi because it was such a drastic departure from what its target audience was used to. They figured that if it failed, Fiat wouldn’t suffer because its name wasn’t anywhere on it. The Primula did well so its mechanical layout trickled down to the 128 released in 1969. Nearly every Fiat model released since traces its mechanical roots to the Primula.
Autobianchi then took on the Austin Mini with the A112 and it pioneered the hot hatch segment with the Abarth-tuned model unveiled in 1971. Fiat got side-tracked and let the A112 wither on the vine for far too long; it looked hopelessly dated by the time it went out of production in 1986. The firm had too many brands to manage so it merged Autobianchi with Lancia and phased it out in 1989.
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Citroën DS (1955)
In the 1950s, replacing the Citroën Traction Avant with a more modern car was easy. It had been on sale since 1934 and it hadn’t changed much since so it was sorely outdated. Instead of merely keeping up with the times, Citroën developed a family car that was at least 20 years ahead of its rivals. The DS made its public debut at the 1955 Paris auto show with a futuristic design and an innovative hydropneumatic suspension.
Renault and Peugeot, who rarely worried about Citroën, all of the sudden needed to play catch-up. The DS looked even more futuristic when it was parked next to a humble 2CV. Citroën updated it with more powerful engines and the model gained directional headlights in 1967. It still looked like it came from the 22nd century when it retired in 1975. By that point, some rivals could keep up with the DS at highway speeds but none got close to its magic carpet-like comfort or its design. And, while the CX that replaced it didn't use directional lights, the technology re-emerged during the 2000s.
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BMC Mini (1959)
In the 1950s, British car manufacturers were losing market share to firms that specialized in making tiny, fuel efficient bubble cars. The British Motor Corporation asked Alec Issigonis to design a small, affordable car with space for four passengers. The mission sounded almost impossible to achieve but Issigonis – an experienced engineer – mounted the engine on top of the transmission and turned it sideways. Released in 1959, the original Mini was lightyears ahead of the bubble cars it was designed to compete against.
The layout pioneered by Issigonis played a key role in making the Mini one of the cleverest examples of packaging the automotive industry has ever seen. While the practice of placing the engine on top of the transmission never caught on, dozens of cars sold new in 2019 use a transversally-mounted engine.
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Amphicar 770 (1961)
Germany's Amphicar made headlines by releasing a Triumph-powered car named 770 that was equally at home on land and on water. The company hoped every American family that vacationed near a lake would buy one of its cars and it planned to make 25,000 units annually. Released in 1961, the 770 was the first car of its kind made available to the general public and it held a monopoly on the segment it created throughout its entire career. Its name signaled that it could cruise at 7mph on water and 70mph on land.
Production ended in 1965 but Amphicar continued assembling cars until it shut down in 1968. It made 3878 cars and sent 3046 of them to the US. No one dared fill the void it left and, as of 2019, amphibious cars remain relegated to science fiction movies. Fun fact: the Amphicar was built by the Quandt Group, making it a sister car of BMWs.
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In the 1960s, NSU and Citroën both doggedly believed the car of the future was powered by a Wankel-type rotary engine. They pooled their resources and formed a Luxembourg-based joint-venture named Comotor in 1967 to design and build engines for a variety of cars. On paper, their investment was a wise one. The Wankel engine was relatively compact, simple and smooth. In application, it was marred by its high fuel consumption and its reliability problems.
Comotor-developed technology powered the experimental Citroën M35 (pictured), the GS Birotor and the NSU Ro80. One of its engines should have equipped flagship variants of the CX but the 1973 oil crisis drove the final nail in Comotor's coffin and it quietly stopped its research efforts shortly after.
Volkswagen merged NSU with Auto Union in 1969 and later killed both brands in favor of Audi, though the Ro80 survived until 1977. Citroën, which never mass-produced a Wankel-powered car, filed for bankruptcy in 1976 and was taken over by Peugeot.
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Malcolm Bricklin, one of the entrepreneurs that helped launch Subaru in America, formed his own company to develop cars with an eye on safety. His first model was an acrylic-bodied coupe with gullwing doors named SV-1, an acronym which stood for Safety Vehicle One. He planned on releasing a full line-up of safety-led cars that would have presumably been called SV-2, SV-3 and so on.
Bricklin chose gullwing doors because they didn’t stick out into traffic when opened. The coupe featured an integrated roll cage and bumpers that went above and beyond the crash standards enforced by the American government during the 1970s.
The Canadian province of New Brunswick invested millions of dollars into the Bricklin project in a bid to cull unemployment but it quickly closed the tap. Unable to keep the lights on, Bricklin shut down in 1975 after making 2954 examples of the SV-1. It never got the chance to apply it safety-first approach to car design to other models.
Consolidated International based in Columbus, Ohio, purchased the 36 unfinished cars on Bricklin’s idle assembly line, all of its parts plus its raw materials and became the firm’s official distributor. It finished the cars and sold parts until its stock ran out.
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DeLorean Motor Company (1975)
John Z. DeLorean, one of General Motors’ star executives, created his own company in 1975. He envisioned making an ethical sports car that was fast, affordable and safe. DeLorean learned the ins and outs of the automotive industry by rising through the ranks of GM; if anyone could pull off such an ambitious project, it was him. He hired Giorgetto Giugiaro to make his dream a reality.
The DMC-12 arrived in 1981, three years later than expected, with a striking silhouette, gullwing doors and a stainless-steel body. It wasn’t exactly the way DeLorean imagined it, though. The 12 in its name originally signaled a $12,000 base price (about $33,000/£25,000 in 2019) but it cost $26,175 (about $73,000/£56,000 in 2019) when it went on sale; to add context, an entry-level Chevrolet Corvette cost $15,248 ($42,500/£32,500 in 2019). Quality control problems at the Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, factory that built the car and the PRV V6’s anemic performance tarnished the car’s reputation.
The British government which helped fund DeLorean refused to give the auto-maker more money and it soon collapsed under its debts. This was compounded by more scandal when DeLorean was arrested by the FBI for drug-smuggling; he was later acquitted on the charges.
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General Motors created Saturn in 1985 to compete head-on against Japanese auto-makers like Honda and Toyota and hopefully regain lost market share. The brand’s architects started with a clean slate in a bid to launch what they envisioned as “a different kind of car company.” Saturn wasn’t chasing luxury, performance or image; it made, in a nutshell, normal cars for normal people.
Creating Saturn remains one of GM’s most Herculean projects. Its cars shared almost no components with other members of the GM portfolio. Early models like the S-Series (pictured) wore dent-resistant plastic body panels, they rode on a brand-specific platform and they were powered by four-cylinder engines developed specifically for the Saturn line-up. Production took place in a purpose-built factory located in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
Saturn’s cars sold relatively well during the 1990s, partly because the firm lured buyers into showrooms with its promise of no-haggle pricing, but the brand deviated from its mission during the early 2000s by releasing a string of badge-engineered models that diluted its image. Even the cars it developed in-house weren’t drastically different from the ones made by other companies under the GM umbrella and its “normal person” image became an anvil tied around its ankle. In 2009, after filing for bankruptcy, GM announced plans to sell Saturn to Penske Automotive. The deal fell apart later that year and Saturn joined Pontiac and Hummer in the automotive dustbin.
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There was no shortage of supercars with jaw-dropping specifications during the 1980s yet McLaren believed it could do better. Chairman Ron Dennis, wealthy shareholder Mansour Ojjeh and technical director Gordon Murray wanted to create the fastest and best-handling car on the planet. It needed to boast the best power-to-weight ratio of any production model on sale at the time while remaining comfortable and usable. They decided to name the car F1.
The team in charge of developing the F1 leveraged McLaren’s vast racing expertise to solve the problems it encountered. The model became the first street-legal, regular-production car with a carbon fiber monocoque. The V12 came from the BMW parts bin but McLaren famously lined parts of the engine bay with heat-reflecting gold foil. And, placing the driver front and center eliminated the need to make right- and left-hand drive cars while clearing up space for three passengers. The F1 wasn’t cheap but McLaren received more orders than it expected after introducing the car ahead of the 1992 Monaco Grand Prix.
While McLaren had no plans to race the F1, customers convinced Dennis and his team to develop a GTR-spec model and enter it in the 1995 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The British firm remarkably captured the first, third, fourth and fifth spots.
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General Motors EV1 (1996)
The EV1 was General Motors’ first serious attempt at making an electric car for the masses. Presented in 1996, it was offered through a lease program to motorists in a tiny handful of American cities including Los Angeles. Officials called it a “real-world engineering evaluation” and warned participants that they could be asked to return the car at any time with little or no prior notice. That’s exactly what happened.
GM recalled all 1117 examples of the EV1 before the end of 2003 and crushed most of them. The company argued demand for an electric car was too low to justify further investment and it didn’t release another battery-powered model until it began producing the Bolt in 2016.
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Toyota Prius (1997)
The original Toyota Prius did more to change the automotive landscape during its six-year life cycle than many automakers have done over the course of their centuries-long existence. Toyota wasn’t the first company to experiment with hybrid powertrains, gasoline-electric technology traces its roots to the early 20th century, but it fine-tuned the powertrain and brought it to the masses all over the world, at a time when many of its competitors were charging up the automotive dead-end known as diesel.
Toyota was always ambivalent about diesel however, and in 2019, the hybrid technology that powers the Prius has spread to many members of the Toyota family as well as to Mazda and Subaru models. Its rivals have finally caught up and nearly every automaker has at least one hybrid model in its line-up. The ones that don't are working overtime to release one sooner rather than later.
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Sitting on a mile-high mountain of cash, Google began dabbling in autonomous cars when it hired a small team of experienced researchers in 2009. At the time, no one thought much of the project; what were the odds of a tech company that makes websites achieving what 100-year old automakers couldn’t?
Bolstered by an immense amount of data, Google quickly became the leader in autonomous technology. In 2012, a Toyota Prius fitted with Google-developed technology became the first autonomous car to receive a license in the Untied States. The company's efforts rebranded under the Waymo name in 2016 and it launched a driverless, commercial ride-hailing service in late 2018.
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Terrafugia (2019 and beyond)
As of 2020, the flying cars promised in the 1960s by television shows like The Jetsons haven’t merged into the mainstream yet. The best way to commute in the air is still to buy a plane ticket. Numerous companies have tried to take down the technical and legal hurdles standing in the way of mass-produced flying cars but none have come as close as Massachusetts-based Terrafugia.
The firm is owned by Geely, the same well-funded company that runs Volvo, Lotus and half of Smart, among other brands. It’s working on an autonomous, plug-in hybrid flying car named TF-X (pictured) that’s tentatively scheduled to make its debut in 2023. Terrafugia will earn a prominent spot in automotive history if it manages to design and sell the first flying car for the masses.