Car History Timeline: From 3-Wheeled Buggies to Self-Driving Vehicles

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Car History Timeline

Few inventions in history have transformed our lives, culture and environment as much as the automobile. Before 1900, most people spent their lives within a few miles of where they were born. Cars changed all that, allowing people to travel easily, with empowering freedom and autonomy. Henry Ford’s Model T—and factory assembly line—opened a world of mass production, echoed today in every sneaker and smartphone.

Car History Timeline

During World War II, Detroit’s automakers helped secure Allied victory by transforming their factories into “arsenals of democracy,” producing jeeps, tanks, fighter planes and more. After the war, highways began girdling the globe, giving birth to suburbia, the Interstate, the road trip, the drive-in. Hollywood and TV heightened the fantasy, amplifying the endless allure of speed, racing, exploration and adventure Car History Timeline.

Naturally, there’s a darker side: The 1.4 billion cars on the road today may reach 2 billion by 2035, most emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. While cars are exponentially safer than ever before, about 1.35 million people die on the world’s roadways each year. New technological revolutions seek remedies for those dark consequences: electric cars to beat back climate change, and self-driving cars that might dramatically reduce collisions, deaths and injuries Car History Timeline.

Below is a timeline of the automotive revolution—an epic, and literal, reinvention of the wheel.

Jan. 29, 1886: Carl Benz Patents World’s First Automobile

German mechanical engineer Carl Benz kicks off a transportation revolution when he applies for a patent for a “vehicle powered by a gas engine”—or what Mercedes-Benz now calls “the birth certificate of the automobile.” By July 1886, newspapers report public road sightings of the Benz Patent Motorwagen. The three-wheeled vehicle’s engine has just one cylinder, less than one horsepower and a 10-m.p.h. top speed Car History Timeline.

1900: Porsche Shows First Hybrid Car at Paris World’s Fair

Nearly a century before the Toyota Prius, Ferdinand Porsche debuts Austria’s Lohner-Porsche, a radical hybrid car that generates electricity from two small gasoline engines to power its front wheels. Buyers of the pricey model—which costs $2,900 to $6,840, or $91,000 to $216,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars—include Emil Jellinek, whose daughter Mercedes became the namesake for Mercedes-Benz Car History Timeline.

Nov. 10, 1903: Woman Invents Windshield Wiper. Industry Ignores Her.

Mary Anderson receives a patent for the first windshield wiper, a handle-operated, rubber-bladed system “to remove snow, rain or sleet” from the window of “modern electric motor cars.” (Yes, electric cars were a thing in 1903.) The Alabama native was inspired on a trip to New York, observing how streetcar drivers had to open windows to see ahead in poor weather. Not one automaker took interest in this woman’s game-changing invention. But by 1922, Cadillac made windshield wipers standard on its cars Car History Timeline.

Dec. 1906: Newcomer Rolls-Royce Introduces ‘The Best Car in the World’

Rolls-Royce shows its 40/50, the prototype for its iconic Silver Ghost. It’s among history’s most famously durable, luxurious and well-engineered cars—and the polar opposite of Henry Ford’s mass-market approach. The company hand-builds fewer than 8,000 copies of the Silver Ghost from 1907 to 1926, with the chassis alone (minus a custom body) costing $11,750, about $370,000 in today’s dollars Car History Timeline.

50-Plus Years of Hollywood’s Coolest Movie Cars

Car chases. Drag races. Spy maneuvers and more. The film world has long had a love affair with its four-wheeled stars Car History Timeline.

Which are the most famous film cars? Vehicles have always played a central role in Hollywood—whether for police chases, drag races, spy maneuvers or just cruising the strip. Here are 12 of the most iconic four-wheeled film stars.


American Graffiti (1973)

Arguably filmdom’s most famous hot rod. Graffiti director George Lucas ordered the deuce coupe hugely customized to evoke the street rods he remembered from his youth. As the centerpiece of a movie that celebrated early-’60s California street-cruising culture, it sported bad-boy features like a chopped top, motorcycle front fenders, elongated exhaust pipes and a (visible) small-block Chevy engine fronted by a sectioned radiator shell. In the film, the town’s top drag racer, Milner (dressed James Dean-tough with a cig pack rolled in his white t-shirt sleeve), drove the rod up and down the strip with an unexpected teenybopper in tow. Of course, the canary-yellow coupe triumphed during the film’s climactic drag race. For decades after the film’s release, it was owned by a Graffiti fan who has exhibited it regularly at car shows. Replicas abound Car History Timeline.


Goldfinger (1964)

James Bond’s bespoke British grand tourer wasn’t just suave. It was also menacing, which likely had something to do with all that supercool spyware: pop-out machine guns and tire slashers, rotating license plates, and a smoke screen and oil-slick sprayer that (temporarily) foiled the baddies in hot pursuit Car History Timeline.

Most memorable? Its fully functional passenger-side ejector seat, activated by a button hidden on the gear-shift knob—an audience favorite despite the fact that the villain flung from it barely cleared the top of the car. In 1964, Corgi made a toy die-cast model complete with machine guns, an ejector seat, and a little toy bad guy to launch from it.

Read More: 12 of the Most Iconic Cars in TV History

The DB5 went on to appear in ThunderballCasino Royale and many other Bond films, becoming synonymous with 007. Of the two DB5s actually used in the film (two others were used for promotion), the one originally kitted out with all the gadgetry has disappeared, stolen from a Florida airplane hangar in 1997. The other, used in road scenes and later retrofitted with the spy goodies, sold at auction in 2010 for $4.6 million.

WATCH: Full Episodes of The Cars That Built the World online now.


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Ohhhh yeahhhh. Remember the Ferrari that Ferris so blithely borrowed from his buddy’s dad’s garage to play hooky in the city? The one with his girlfriend Sloan riding shotgun and his depressive pal Cameron jammed in the back? It was actually a Faux-rrari, a lovingly designed replica built in California, based on the legendary Ferrari 250 GT and fitted with a powerful 1963 Ford V-8 engine.

Director John Hughes commissioned three to be made for the film in just four weeks, according to former Modena Design partner Neil Glassmoyer, who built the cars. One was the “hero” version. Another, a non-running chassis on wheels, was the one that (oops!) busted backward out of its glass garage. (That one was ultimately bought for use as ceiling decoration in a Planet Hollywood restaurant.) The one driven for stunts—remember the wild-eyed garage attendant scorching down the ramp?—sold at auction in 2015 for $246,100, after undergoing a 10-year restoration by Glassmoyer.


The Love Bug (1969)

Disney auditioned Toyotas, Volvos and a few British sports cars before casting 11 Volkswagen Beetles to play the role of “Herbie” in Disney’s first Love Bug movie. A Disney producer chose Herbie’s racing number, 53, as a tribute to popular Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, Don Drysdale.

Read More: The Cars That Made America

Mischievous and loyal, Herbie pops wheelies, gets drunk on Irish coffee and does some romantic matchmaking for Jim, the down-on-his-luck racecar driver at the center of the story. The little Beetle punks the movie’s meanie, dribbling oil on his shoe and backfiring whipped cream all over him after a race. Occasionally moody, Herbie even considers hurling himself off the Golden Gate Bridge when the going gets tough.

Despite his humble econo-car origins, Herbie’s got surprising speed (at least one of the 11 was fitted with a Porsche 356 engine), enough to resurrect Jim’s career. One of the original Love Bugs sold at auction in 2015 for $126,500, a record price for a VW. Still, that’s modest compared to another car featured in the film, a 1956 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta “Tour de France” with a distinguished racing history. That one sold in 2012 for $6.7 million.


Thelma & Louise (1991)

With its female leads and less-than-happy ending, Thelma & Louise turned the buddy-trip-turned-outlaw-movie genre squarely on its head. For car lovers, the film had a third star: a turquoise 1966 Thunderbird convertible. Five were used for the film, but none received any customizing. One of the drop-tops sold at auction for $71,500 in 2008, complete with Brad Pitt’s signature on the back armrest and Geena Davis’s on the visor.

In addition to appearing in Thelma and Louise, the ’66 T-bird convertible has rolled its way to fame in several other films, including Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 teen drama The Outsiders and David Lynch’s road movie Wild at Heart (1990).


Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)

When it comes to leading cops on a chase, few scenes can match the climactic one in Nicolas Cage’s star vehicle Gone in 60 Seconds. Eleven cars were custom-made for the film, only three of which were driveable. One of those three, the “beauty car” Cage drove in that infamous chase (sporting a not-too-shabby 400 horsepower Ford V-B engine and its much copied “Go-Baby-Go” shifter knob), sold for $1.07 million at auction in 2013. A few years earlier, the other two fetched roughly $200,000 and $100,000 respectively. A cottage industry has emerged selling replicas.


Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt’s iconic car chase over the hills of San Francisco—a tire-squealing, exhaust-spewing, suspension-crunching affair if there ever was one—lasted 10 rollicking minutes on film. But it took four weeks to shoot in block-by-block chunks, reported stunt driver Loren Janes in a 2011 interview. He shared piloting duties with fellow stuntman Bud Ekins and star Steve McQueen, himself no slouch behind the wheel. To survive the constant airborne launches over the hills, the Highland green fastback was heavily customized with features like racecar shocks and overinflated tires, said Janes. Thirty years later, the chase remains one of moviedom’s most visceral, much of it shot from an over-the-driver’s-shoulder vantage point.

Read More: These Vintage Hot Wheels Toys Are Worth Thousands of Dollars

Ford has since made and marketed several limited-edition versions of the Bullitt Mustang. One of the movie’s originals disappeared shortly after filming, and McQueen was said to have avidly pursued it for his own collection. According to The Los Angeles Times, a pair of restorers claim to have found the car earlier this year in a junkyard in Mexico. It has since been authenticated by a Ford expert who confirmed not only that the VIN (or vehicle identification number) was real, but that the modifications to the car’s suspension match those detailed in film-related documents.


The Fast and the Furious (2001)

“I used to drag here back in high school.” Those words launched one of the film world’s most epic street races—between Paul Walker’s souped-up neon-orange Supra and Vin Diesel’s beastly black Charger, a capital-M muscle car with a sentimental back story and a flair for reincarnation after being wrecked. In the first film of this ongoing franchise, the main character Dominic Toretto (played by Diesel) tells his friend Brian (the late Walker) that he’ll never drive the Charger he and his dad built in their garage because it scares the bleep out of him. Yeah, right. When he takes it out on the street, with its blistering 900-horsepower engine, he pops a wheelie off the line and guns it for the train tracks. You know what’s coming, right?


Wayne’s World (1992)

The baby-blue Pacer, a.k.a. the “Mirthmobile,” will go down in movie history as the vehicle in which Wayne, Garth and their buddies sang—and collectively head-bobbed—along to Queen’s operatic rock anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The famed “party-on” pair, played by SNL stars Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, also shared some stoner-worthy heart-to-hearts while lying atop the Pacer’s windshield. (Garth: “Did you ever find Bugs Bunny attractive when you put on a dress and played a girl bunny?”)

Read More: Giant Teapots and Other Quirky Gas Station Designs

Filmmakers used just one Mirthmobile, which was customized with exterior flame decals and a ceiling-mounted licorice dispenser to feed Garth’s candy habit. The car appeared in a 2015 episode of HISTORY Channel’s Pawn Stars, in which program star Rick Harrison agreed to purchase the car, in a derelict state, from a Florida collector for $9,500. The Pacer sold at auction the following year for $37,400 Car History Timeline.


The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

James Bond’s Aston Martin may have helped him defend Queen and country with an impressive collection of spy gear, but could it … swim? The 10th Bond film featured a funky disco soundtrack, a leggy Russian spy and a villain with mouthful of metal. And if that wasn’t enough, it showcased “Wet Nellie,” a futuristic, wedge-shaped Lotus best remembered for the shocking moment when it dove into the water, sprouted fins and retracted its wheels—essentially transforming into a submarine. (Reportedly, the bubbles it left in its wake were created with a cache of Alka-Seltzer tablets.) When it motored back up on the beach, it morphed back into a proper Car History Timeline.

The Lotus earned its spot in the 007 sports-car pantheon in a distinctly sneaky way: Lotus’s PR manager, on hearing of a new Bond film in the making, strategically parked the striking vehicle outside the office of franchise producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, hoping to catch his attention. Apparently, it worked Car History Timeline.


Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Diverting police attention from a scheme to smuggle 400 cases of Coors beer across state lines can be tough on a car. The movie was essentially one long high-speed chase through the deep South, inflicting heavy damage on the four Trans Ams used during filming. The one deployed for the famous bridge-jump scene was kitted out with a booster rocket similar to one used by stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel during his failed Snake River Canyon jump. Director Hal Needham, a longtime stunt driver, was behind the wheel Car History Timeline.

Read More: The United States of Motoring

Smokey was the second-grossing movie of 1977, after Star Wars. After the movie debuted, starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields, sales of the Trans Am jumped by more than 50,000 units between 1977 and 1979. A car used in the film’s promotion sold in 2016 for $550,000 Car History Timeline.

Three of the prop cars are known to still exist. Tesla founder Elon Musk bought one in 2013 for $860,000, vowing to make it operational as a submarine. Another surfaced on eBay with a $1 million price tag after being featured on HISTORY Channel’s American Renovation. The only one that had been operational in the movie as a submarine languished for a decade in a Long Island storage locker until the rent-delinquent unit was sold blind to unsuspecting, but lucky, buyers for the grand sum of $100. They sent it to auction in London, where it fetched $968,600.


Back to the Future (1986)

John DeLorean may have been one of the most visionary car engineers in Detroit history, but his vanity creation, the DMC-12 from DeLorean Motor Cars, was an expensive dud, produced for just a single year. Not that it matters. The futuristic ride, with its snub-nosed front, distinctive flip-up gull-wing doors and plutonium-fueled “flux capacitor” (that accidentally whisked Marty McFly back to 1955), remains one of the most memorable cars in movie history. One DeLorean used in the trilogy’s third film, Back to the Future 3, fetched $541,200 at auction in 2011.

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