Innovation takes many forms in the automotive industry.
In 2020, the term often hovers around electrification and autonomy, though the GMC Sierra pickup puts a unique spin on it by offering a modular tailgate. In the 1960s, innovation was embodied by a turbine-powered luxury coupe that looked like Chrysler’s space-age answer to the Ford Thunderbird. And, in the 1910s, being able to start a Cadillac without cranking its engine was the pinnacle of innovation.
Join us for a look at some of the most innovative cars designed and built in America.
Cadillac’s 1912 range
Cadillac’s 1912 range inaugurated a major breakthrough: an electric starter. It made driving safer, because the cranks commonly used to start engines in the early 20th century often caused injuries, and considerably more convenient. It didn’t take long for Cadillac’s invention to spread across the industry.
DeSoto Airflow (1934)
Introduced in 1934, the Airflow broke all ties with DeSoto’s previous models thanks to an aerodynamic design characterised by smooth lines and headlights integrated into the front end. It was just as revolutionary under the sheet metal because it used unibody construction instead of riding on a separate frame. DeSoto offered the Airflow in four body styles including a coupe (pictured) and a saloon.
DeSoto sold nearly 14,000 cars in 1934, down from 22,736 the previous year. Motorists clearly had a difficult time getting used to the Airflow’s futuristic lines and the company launched a more conventional-looking model named Airstream the following year. Chrysler’s version of the car didn’t fare better. And, across the Atlantic, Volvo ran into similar problems when it launched the PV36 Carioca in 1935. These cars were too far ahead of their time but they moved design forward.
Stout Scarab (1935)
William Stout (1880-1956) deserves credit for creating one of the world’s first minivans and one of the most futuristic cars made available to the public during the 1930s. Long, tall and narrow, the Scarab looked like nothing else on American roads at the time. It was just as futuristic inside, where the passengers enjoyed ambient lighting, power locks and a dust filter that was extremely useful on dirt roads. Owners could move the leather-upholstered seats around the cabin as-needed.
Stout wasn’t interest in chasing volume. It priced the Scarab at about $5000 (around $95,000 in 2020) and sold it by invitation only. Nine units were built until World War 2 ended production.
Cord 810/812 (1936)
Envisioned as an entry-level Duesenberg, the 810 was assigned to the Cord brand when executives adopted front-wheel drive in order to make it lower. Although this configuration wasn’t new, it was rare enough to make the 810 an extremely unusual car in a market dominated by rear-wheel drive.
Visually, the 810 stood out with a tall, long hood that earned it the nickname “coffin nose” and headlights hidden under retractable flaps. It became the 812 (pictured) in 1937, the same year Cord added a supercharger to the list of options. Although the 812 could have credibly challenged the world’s most prestigious cars, company founder Errett Lobban Cord (1894-1974) was in the process of exiting the automotive industry. His industrial empire was collapsing; Auburn and Duesenberg both closed in 1937. 812 production ended that same year and the numerous revival attempts were unsuccessful.
Willys Jeep (1941)
In July 1941, Willys secured a lucrative contract to provide the American military with a light-duty utility vehicle that could allow soldiers to navigate battlefields around the world should the government decide to enter World War II. Affectionately nicknamed Jeep, the off-roader played a significant role in liberating Europe and it was copied by over a dozen companies around the world during the 1940s and the 1950s. In 2020, its spirit lives on in the fourth-generation Wrangler introduced in 2017.
Tucker 48 (1948)
Tucker nearly entered the pantheon of automotive history as one of the most innovative carmakers in America. Founded by Preston Tucker (1903-1956), it planned to release a big, rear-engined saloon called 48 packed with innovations like a directional headlight added to the middle of the front fascia, a padded dashboard, a roll bar integrated into the roof and a windscreen made with shatterproof glass.
Safety was Tucker’s claim to fame but it’s the firm’s fundraising efforts that caught the attention of the American government. It sold accessories like a radio and seat covers before it launched production, a questionable practice that landed some of the company’s top executives in court. Although the charges were abandoned, the bad publicity drove the final nail in Tucker’s coffin after it built 51 cars.
Nash Metropolitan (1953)
Nash deserves an award for innovation because its Metropolitan illustrated that motorists didn’t need to commute in a barge of a car. It was right-sized in the sense that it was much smaller than the average American car made during the 1950s but far more user-friendly than earlier attempts at downsizing made by companies like Crosley. Built in England by Austin, it enjoyed a small but loyal following.
Chevrolet Corvair (1959)
Over six decades after its introduction, the Corvair remains one of Chevrolet’s most controversial nameplates. At launch, it was celebrated as one of its most innovative models. It was powered by a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat-six engine in an era when a vast majority of American cars were front-engined and rear-wheel drive. It proved the company could think outside the box when pressed to. It retired without a successor after two generations so it’s Chevrolet’s first, last and only rear-engined car.
Oldsmobile Jetfire (1962)
Oldsmobile’s quest to bring performance to the masses led it to experiment with forced induction. It introduced the Jetfire, a coupe based on the F-85, for the 1962 model year. Power came from a turbocharged V8 that made 218 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, though motorists needed to keep the Turbo Rocket Fluid tank topped off with a blend of distilled water, methanol and rust inhibitor.
Jetfire production totalled 3765 units in 1962 and 5842 units in 1963 (pictured). Oldsmobile put turbo technology on the backburner and later celebrated displacement as a cheaper, simpler way to deliver horsepower. Sister company Chevrolet, which offered a turbo on the Corvair, came to the same conclusion.
Chrysler Turbine Car (1963)
Several carmakers spoke a great deal about turbine-powered cars during the 1950s and the 1960s, and Rover even raced one in the 1963 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but Chrysler took the technology a step further than most when it put one in the hands of real-world customers. 50 examples of its gorgeous Turbine Car were tested for over one million miles by 203 hand-selected drivers located in 133 cities across America, according to the company’s archives department. It was a luxurious four-seater with several eye-catching styling cues that hinted at the turbine under the bonnet; it could have morphed into Chrysler’s answer to the Ford Thunderbird. Most examples were destroyed in the late 1960s after engineers had extracted all of the information they could get from the fleet.
While Chrysler continued improving its turbine technology (it even tested it in a tank), it never put it in a mass-produced car. It planned to introduced a turbine-powered New Yorker in 1981 but it cancelled the project in order to receive the loans it needed to stay afloat from the American government.
Meyers Manx (1965)
Innovation doesn’t always need to be complicated or far-fetched. Bruce Meyers (born 1926) proved that point when he chopped up a Volkswagen Beetle chassis and topped it with a door-less, one-piece glassfibre shell to create a buggy suitable for racing in the California desert. Known as the Manx, it was sold as a kit (and, later, as a turn-key car) starting in 1965. At first, there was nothing like it.
It didn’t take long for companies big and small to rush to the dune buggy segment. Some shut down after building a handful of cars while others were moderately successful. German coachbuilder Karmann notably sold a Manx-like buggy named GF in Europe. On a secondary level, the Manx inspired many of the beach cars sold in Europe during the 1960s and the 1970s, like the Citroën Mehari.
Bricklin SV-1 (1974)
American businessman Malcolm Bricklin (born 1939) made a name for himself in the automotive industry by introducing Subaru to the United States. In the 1970s, he laid the groundwork for a new type of car that he hoped would offer performance and safety in equal amounts. His guidelines created the Safety Vehicle 1 (SV-1), which was ahead of its time when it entered production in Canada in 1974.
Designed and sold only in America the SV-1 offered built-in roll bars, gull-wing doors and rails to protect the occupants in a side impact. It was powered by an AMC-sourced V8, though later models received a Ford engine. Early cars suffered from a panoply of problems, and they were more expensive than planned, so sales struggled to take off. Bricklin closed in 1975 after government officials in New Brunswick, Canada, refused to inject more money into the project. Less than 3000 cars were built.
AMC Pacer (1975)
AMC took a highly unusual approach to developing a compact car. It argued city-friendly dimensions and generous interior space weren’t mutually exclusive when it introduced the Pacer in 1975. Marketed as the world’s first wide small car, it stood apart from its rivals with an unusual hatchback body, large glass surfaces made possible by a low belt line and a passenger-side door that was longer than the driver-side door to facilitate the task of accessing the rear seats. It could have been even more innovative: AMC planned to launch the Pacer with a rotary Wankel engine sourced from General Motors. It redesigned the engine bay around a straight-six in record time when the Wankel project was cancelled.
AMC Eagle (1979)
AMC displayed a surprising amount of foresight when it introduced the Eagle in 1979 for the 1980 model year. At least partially motivated by Subaru’s success, the company put a Concord on stilts and fitted it with a four-wheel drive system developed in England by Ferguson. Blending the better attributes of an estate and an SUV didn’t save AMC, it collapsed in 1987, but the Eagle had a formative influence on the modern crossover. Several other body styles (including a saloon) joined the Eagle range during the 1980s.
Cadillac V8-6-4 engine (1980)
Cadillac’s V8-6-4 engine is not remembered as one of America’s best automotive innovations but it was nonetheless a smart solution to a common problem. After weathering two oil crises, the company knew it needed to build more fuel-efficient cars to fend off competition from German rivals. It developed a relatively complicated, microprocessor-powered cylinder deactivation system which turned the 6.0-liter V8 into a 4.5-liter V6 or a 3.0-liter V4 by closing the corresponding valves when its full output wasn’t needed. This engine was standard in every 1981 Cadillac with the exception of the Seville, which shipped with a diesel-burning V8 built by Oldsmobile.
It didn’t take long for motorists to complain about problems - some said the engine took too long to wake up the sleeping cylinders - and Cadillac chose to abandon the technology instead of fine-tuning it. It was replaced for the 1982 model year. Cylinder deactivation made a comeback in the 2000s.
Jeep Cherokee (XJ, 1983)
Jeep released the significantly downsized XJ-generation Cherokee in 1983 for the 1984 model year. Offered with two or four doors, it shared little more than a name with its predecessor. Ditching the first Cherokee’s truck-derived underpinnings in favour of unibody construction made the XJ considerably more comfortable on the pavement yet it remained exceptionally capable off-road.
AMC’s bet paid off; the Cherokee nearly doubled Jeep’s retail sales in 1984. XJ production lasted until 2001 in the United States, though it survived even longer in China, and its basic template influenced dozens of SUVs introduced during the 1990s. It shifted the segment in a more car-like direction.
Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager (1983)
Chrysler mastered the art of doing a lot with a little under chief executive Lee Iacocca (1924-2019). Although it didn’t invent the minivan, it perfected the concept by building the Dodge Caravan (pictured) and the Plymouth Voyager introduced in 1983 for the 1984 model year on a car-derived front-wheel drive platform. Both vans were small enough to fit in a garage and they offered reasonable fuel economy yet their cabin was spacious enough to comfortably carry a family and their gear on a long trip.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the SUV has overtaken the minivan as America’s family car of choice. And yet, the few remaining entries in this wilting segment of the market (including Chrysler’s Voyager and Pacifica) all trace their roots directly to the first-generation Caravan/Voyager duo.
Buick Riviera (seventh generation, 1986)
Buick was the first carmaker to offer a touchscreen in a series-produced model. Launched for the 1986 model year, the seventh-generation Riviera was smaller and more tech-savvy than its predecessor because the company wanted it to lure younger buyers. Its most unusual feature in an era when the Nintendo Entertainment System was considered cutting-edge was a 9.0in touchscreen embedded into the dashboard that displayed a primitive infotainment system called Graphic Control Center (GCC).
Motorists could poke the screen to adjust the radio volume and set the climate control, among other functions. GCC also provided key information, like the amount of fuel left in the tank. Buick improved the technology during the 1980s, and sister company Oldsmobile received its own version of it in 1990, but motorists argued it was a dangerous distraction. It disappeared during the 1990s.
Saturn S-Series (1990)
General Motors could have proved that an electric car doesn’t need to be as anodyne as a golf cart over a decade before Tesla introduced its first model. Launched in 1996 as a 1997 model, the EV1 represented a serious attempt at making a modern, highway-capable electric car suited to the needs of commuters. It was put in the hands of over 1000 motorists across America through a lease program.
Officials warned motorists that they were participating in “a real-world engineering evaluation” and that they could be asked to return the car at any moment. That’s exactly what happened. General Motors recalled all 1117 examples of the EV1 before the end of 2003 and crushed most of them. It didn’t introduce another electric car until it began manufacturing the Chevrolet Bolt in 2016.
Cadillac’s 1997 range (1996)
Cadillac earned the honour of inaugurating the OnStar technology developed by parent company General Motors in 1996. Offered on the 1997 DeVille (pictured), Eldorado, and Seville, it connected users to a call centre whose employees were trained to provide directions, diagnose a problem with the car and remotely unlock it if needed, among other tasks. Operators also notified emergency services if they detected the car was involved in an accident severe enough to trigger the airbags. In the late 1990s, before touchscreen-based navigation became widespread, OnStar was considered extremely futuristic.
Buyers were charged $1000 (about $1650 in 2020) for the feature. It quickly spread across the General Motors range and across the planet; Opel and Vauxhall even made OnStar available in the 2000s. Both companies stopped offering it in 2019 because it’s proprietary technology and they’re now owned by Peugeot but Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC continue to make it available.
Cadillac DeVille (1999)
At first glance, there is nothing remarkable about the eighth and final generation of the Cadillac DeVille. And yet, it was the first mass-produced car available with a night-vision camera. Priced at $2000 (about $3000 in 2020), this technology was built around an infrared camera that detected the heat generated by people, animals and objects like cars in the driver’s line of sight. It then generated an image that was displayed on the car’s head-up display. 7000 motorists purchased night-vision in 2000.
Here again, Cadillac parent company General Motors was too far ahead of the curve for its own good. Demand for the feature fell during the early 2000s and only 600 buyers ordered it during the 2004 model year. It fell off the list of options in September 2005 and Cadillac didn’t offer another night-vision system until it made a much-improved version of the technology available on the CT6 in 2016.