Chrysler has spent its life in the shadow of its two larger Detroit rivals, General Motors and Ford.
But this hasn’t stopped it from producing some of the most notable new technologies for the first time on a production car. And the various firms it has swallowed up over the years also did their bit.
Over the water, its future partner at Fiat and its various consitutent parts also contributed greatly to the modern car as we know it today – all of which means this story has a particularly Italian-American feel to it. So grab yourself a slice of pepperoni pizza and join us for a look at everything Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) did for the first time on a production car, ahead of everyone else:
ALL-STEEL BODYSHELL: Dodge (1913)
Philadelphia businessman Edward Budd set up a company in 1912 to make steel components and within a year he'd got a contract from Dodge to build 70,000 bodyshells. At the time, many cars incorporated wood in their construction and outer panels were often made of fabric, but an all-steel bodyshell was strong and rigid yet still relatively light. Before long Budd would also be making steel panels and/or bodyshells for Cadillac, Chrysler, Mercedes, Citroën and Ford, among others.
Crashing a steel car is no fun but imagine crashing in a wooden one? And steel makes cars much easier to shape and bond. Dodge became part of Chrysler in 1928.
HEATER: Nash (1933)
Crude heaters were available as early as the early 1920s, although they were always aftermarket items rather than factory-fit. It wasn’t until 1933 that a relatively compact and efficient factory-fitted heater was available, when Nash introduced its new range. And car drivers have been grateful for the invention ever since.
Wisconsin-based Nash eventually became part of American Motors Corporation (AMC), purchased by Chrysler in 1987.
OVERDRIVE: Chrysler Airflow (1934)
Degined to maintain cruising speed at lower engine-speeds and thus aiding fuel economy, Overdrive would become very popular on upmarket cars from the 1950s onwards, but it was introduced several years before the Second World War on the innovative, influential and ill-fated Airflow.
Developed with the help of Orville Wright (yes, that Orville Wright), the Airflow’s aircraft-inspired aerodynamic design and overdrive were among the earliest efforts for a car to focus on fuel economy. A high purchase price, poor reliability and a design ambitiously ahead of its time harmed the car, and it was axed in 1937, after just three years on sale, together with its cheaper DeSoto Airflow stablemate. 55,155 Airflows were produced.
POWER CONVERTIBLE ROOF: Plymouth (1939)
Plymouth was the only division of Chrysler to offer open-topped cars in 1939, and while rivals were also selling convertibles, none had one on its books with a power-operated roof. The car pictured is a 1939 Plymouth Deluxe convertible, which was powered by a 201ci (3.3-litre) six-cylinder engine. Today it’s hard to find a convertible without the feature.
DISC BRAKES: Chrysler Crown Imperial (1948)
It would be another decade before most car makers would discover disc brakes but as early as 1948 the Chrysler Crown Imperial featured them, on all four wheels. Even now, seven decades on, some economy cars still feature disc brakes only at the front. Disc brakes have a number of advantages over drum brakes; chiefly, they have more stopping power.
FIVE SPEED MANUAL: Lancia Ardea (1948)
Time for the Italian half of the company to put in an appearance. Lancia introduced the Ardea in 1939 with a four-speed manual gearbox. When the third series appeared in 1948 it featured an extra ratio in the transmission – making it the first car in the world to be fitted with a five-speed manual gearbox. This saved fuel at cruising speeds. Lancia became part of Fiat in 1969.
V6 ENGINE: Lancia Aurelia (1950)
The V6 engine’s advantage over a straight-six is that it’s usually smaller which helps with weight distribution and packaging. The first car to use a V6 was the Lancia Aurelia of 1950, which featured a 1.8-litre good for 56bhp; a year later it would grow to become a 2.0-litre. The engine stayed in production until 1970.
LAPBELTS: Nash Statesman & Ambassador (1950)
Doctors became aware of the importance of seat belts in the 1930s; they saw so many head injuries as drivers impacted windshields in a sudden deceleration, and some even retro-fitted them to their own cars. In 1950 Nash became the first company to offer lap belts in the front seats as a factory option, at an extra cost. Fitted-as-standard belts would have to wait for Saab with its GT750 in 1958, while the three-point belts that we’re all familiar with today would arrive courtesy of Volvo in 1959.
The fitting of seat belts in new cars didn’t become a legal requirement in the UK until 1965. UK usage of them became mandatory in the front in 1983, and in the rear in 1991. PICTURE: Nash Ambassador Airflyte
ELECTRIC WINDOWS: Chrysler (1951)
The first power-assisted windows were fitted to the 1940 Packard 180, but a hydraulic system of suspect reliability was used. It wasn’t until 1951 that purely electric windows were fitted to a car; the Chrysler Imperial was the first production car to feature them. Today, electric windows are present in virtually all new cars.
POWER STEERING: Imperial (1951)
We take it for granted now, but until Chrysler's Imperial started to offer power assisted steering (PAS) on its 1951 models, drivers just had to accept that city driving was a pain. PAS made a profound impact; prior to that one’s physical strength, or lack of it, was a key consideration when buying a car. Today, even the heaviest cars can be driven by anyone.
Imperial’s system was called Hydraguide, but it didn’t have a monopoly for long; GM quickly followed suit, and by 1956 25% of all cars on US roads had the feature, and the technology was one part of explaining how large American cars became during the decade. Today, finding a car without PAS is almost impossible.
AIR CONDITIONING: Nash Ambassador (1954)
Packard offered air conditioning on its cars in 1940-42, but the system was very costly and grossly inefficient; it also took up the entire boot space. Nash overcame such hurdles, helped along by being sister company to refrigerator manufacturer Kelvinator. Using that firm's know-how Nash was first to offer an affordable and practical fully integrated heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system from 1954, in its Ambassador.
Other companies caught up in this area fast, however, and by 1957 the Nash name had disappeared from American new car production. Everyone loves air-con today – and driving in some parts of the world would be unbearable without it – but we have this now largely forgotten company to thank for first bringing it to the world.
MPV: Fiat 600 Multipla (1956)
Nearly three decades before the term multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) was coined as Chrysler launched its Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, Fiat built arguably the world's first. It was tiny and cramped, but the Multipla could carry six people - just.
MPVs became a major trend in America and to a lesser extent Europe and Asia in the 1980s, though they have become eclipsed in many markets by the SUV in recent years. Ironically perhaps, the cash generated by Chrysler’s successful first MPVs enabled it to buy AMC, which it coveted for its Jeep SUV brand.
CRUISE CONTROL: Imperial (1957)
American roads have long been the perfect environment for cruise control, but until Imperial - by this stage a standlone brand within Chrysler - introduced the feature on its 1957 models, you had to be disciplined with the accelerator. Cruise control transformed long-distance driving for the better, though we’d have to wait another forty years more for radar and cameras to be added to perfect the technology in the form of adaptive cruise control. PICTURE: Imperial LeBaron
REAR WINDOW WIPER: Lancia Flaminia (1957)
GM’s Buick offered a vacuum-operated rear window wiper on some of its saloons and coupés as early as 1941, but it wasn't until 1957 that an electrically operated system was fitted as standard. That was to the Lancia Flaminia saloon launched in 1957 which got two chrome wipers for its back window, just like those up front.
ELECTRONIC FUEL INJECTION: Chrysler 300D (1958)
Electronic fuel injection technology got off to a rough start. In 1956 AMC experimented with an early system named Electrojector from Bendix but it was never sold to the public. Then, in 1958 Chrysler made a tiny number of 300Ds equipped with Bendix’s system, and sister brands Plymouth, DeSoto and Dodge also offered the system on some of their cars.
Electrojector rarely worked as intended, forcing the firm to issue a recall campaign in late summer 1958 to retrofit Electrojector-equipped cars with dual four-barrel carburetors. Bendix’s patents were later sold to German engineering giant Bosch, which perfected the technology to great success with its long-running Jetronic system; it was sold to car makers practically everywhere. Fuel injection made engines much more refined and reliable.
AUTO-DIMMING REAR-VIEW MIRROR: Chrysler 300E (1959)
Chrysler went to surprising lengths to design the first auto-dimming rear-view mirror. Called Mirror-Matic, it relied on a photocell that measured the intensity of the light it received through the car’s rear window. The mirror automatically pivoted by a few degrees when the intensity of the light reached a certain level. The system sourced power from the car’s electrical system and the driver could use a switch to select one of three modes called city, highway and off, respectively.
The Mirror-Matic option cost $186 in 2019 money on the 1959 300E (pictured). Sister brands Dodge, DeSoto, Plymouth and Imperial also offered it. Today, the feature is very common.
ALTERNATOR: Plymouth Valiant (1960)
Until the alternator came along, car systems like lighting used power derived from dynamos. But these proved increasingly unviable as the demands for larger quantities of in-car electricity grew as new power-hungry innovations arrived like heating and air conditioning.
Alternators are far more efficient, but they didn't arrive until 1960, when the Plymouth Valiant got the first one.
ELECTRONIC IGNITION: Fiat Dino (1968)
Nowadays, one of the most popular upgrades for classic cars is to convert the old points-based ignition system to an electronic alternative. If you’ve got a Fiat Dino you don’t need to swap though; when it arrived in 1968 it was the first car to be produced with electronic ignition as standard. It made cars more reliable and made them require less frequent maintenance.
FAST HATCHBACK: Simca 1100Ti (1973)
We've included this one simply to explode a myth – that the Volkswagen Golf GTi was the first fast hatchback. If the Mini Cooper had been a hatchback, or the BMC 1300 (specifically in 1300GT form), the Brits could have claimed the first hot hatch.
But it was actually France’s Simca, then under Chrysler ownership, in the form of the Simca 1100 Ti that pipped VW to the post. With its 82bhp twin-carb 1.3-litre engine the Simca could manage 105mph along with 0-60mph in under 12 seconds. The Golf GTi arrived three years later.
ACTIVE FRONT SPOILER: Alfa Romeo 90 (1984)
You may have forgotten the Alfa Romeo 90. However, more than 56,000 were made between 1984 and 1987 and each one was fitted with an electrically adjustable chin spoiler which automatically angled itself over a set speed to direct more air into the engine bay for better cooling. So rather than being a spoiler for aerodynamics, it was really an adjustable air duct.
POP-UP SPOILER: Lancia Thema 8.32 (1986)
We've got used to active aerodynamics, with pop-up spoilers now par for the course on high-performance sports cars. But it was Lancia that was the first to build a car with such tech as standard, with its fabulously mad Thema 8.32 (8 cylinders, 32 valves). Powered by a V8 derived from the one seen in the Ferrari 308, the Thema 8.32 had just 212bhp – which wasn't much more than the 185bhp of the far cheaper four-cylinder Thema 2.0 Turbo. The 8.32's spoiler went up at 80mph.
V10 ENGINE: Dodge Viper (1991)
Very few production cars have been fitted with a V10 engine and the first of them all was the Dodge Viper that went on sale in 1991, although the first deliveries weren't until 1992. The 8.0-litre V10 engine fitted to the first cars was rated at 395bhp and 465lb ft of torque; the powerplant alone weighed 323kg.
COMMON RAIL DIESEL: Alfa Romeo 156 JTD (1997)
Common rail fuel delivery was pioneered in the 1960s, but it wasn't fitted to a production car until 1997, when it arrived in Fiat Group products, badged as JTD, or uniJet Turbo Diesel. The technology made diesel engines vibrate less, quieter, and deliver lower emissions.
APPLE CARPLAY: Ferrari FF (2014)
Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari long argued that his cars were all about the engine, and for a long time Ferrari interiors seemed modest. And, as a full part of the Fiat group since 1988, much Ferrari interior technology and more recently, multimedia systems, were inherited from the parent and often of a standard associated with rather lower price-points.
So it comes as a surprise to see the Ferrari FF take the title as the first production car to be fitted with the very useful technology that is Apple CarPlay. This system allows many of the functions of the driver’s iPhone to be operated from the car’s central control screen; in 2015 the Hyundai Sonata became the first car to be fitted with Android Auto, which operates in much the same way, but for Android phones. Today’s most new cars support both systems.
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