How Classic Cars Paved the Way for New Cars Today

Everything in your car, from the all-weather tires to the Bluetooth-ready stereo, is a result of years of technological progress. Carmakers introduced each feature to fulfill a particular need at the time. For example, the stereo first found its way inside cars in the 1930s because it's inventor wondered, "What if I could listen to the radio while driving"?

how classic cars paved the way for new cars today

Even the car as a whole fulfills a particular need to make transportation more efficient. Pioneers like Karl Benz and Henry Ford got to work, culminating in designs that would influence those that came later. In short, you have the boxlike first cars of the early 20th century to thank for the sleek speed demons of the 21st.

Understanding how we went from driving boxes on wheels to more intricate designs requires understanding what each era contributed. Researchers have identified seven periods: invention, innovation, manufacturing, capsule, classic, integration, and modern. Much like Rome, the modern car found in dealerships like wasn't built in a day. It had to go through countless hoops, mainly through trial and error.

1. Invention Era (1885-1896)

The cars of this era can hardly be called cars. Really, they were more like carriages with steam- or gas-powered engines. It bewildered a lot of people, seeing that this carriage could move without the aid of horses. Later cars became more akin in function, featuring wire wheels, a four-stroke engine, and drive chains, making them more self-propelled.

2. Innovation Era (1896-1909)

antique automobile history

Though horses were still widely used, cars of this era gained interest among innovators. Realizing that the carriage body wasn't suitable, they drew up new designs that emphasized speed. The turn of the 20th century saw significant changes in lifestyles, moving to a fast-paced one that influenced such car designs.

3. Manufacturing Era (1908-1914)

Until this era, cars were reserved for the rich and famous due to the exorbitant cost. As innovations like assembly lines and mass production came online, cars dropped in price enough for the average individual to afford one. Carmakers came up with simpler designs, moving away from Edwardian architecture that defined prior years. Development stalled after this era due to World War I.

4. Capsule Era (1920-1930)

antique automobile

Closed body designs had existed as early as the early 1910s but weren't widely adopted until after World War I. It gave rise to the term 'sedan', which referred to a covered chair on poles before the car's invention. Researchers found out that the changes in partitions of the interior had a profound emotional effect on drivers and passengers.

5. Classic Era (1930-1940)

antique Nash automobile

Despite the economic crash that defined the decade, the automobile industry continued to innovate. Moving away from rectangular bodies, car designers began to consider aerodynamics, which resulted in curves being standard in cars. They took notes from trains and aircraft, as they had a better grasp on the concept of speed. Again, development stalled after this era due to World War II.

6. Integration Era (1947-1965)

classic cars of the fifties

Development continued in the postwar economy as carmakers took lessons from military hardware used during the war. For example, Cadillac took the frame of the dreaded V2 rocket and integrated it into their designs. Performance also took center stage during this time, specifically the 1950s, as cars boasted more powerful racing-grade engines.

7. Modern Era (1965-Present)

history of classic cars

Car designs underwent an overhaul once more as carmakers looked beyond planes and trains for inspiration, one example being animal mimicry. The era gave rise to at least three more body types: hatchback, minivan, and SUV. It also marked a major shift in the consumer base, with more people taking to the road than ever before.

Looking to the Future

The car is unlikely to stop evolving anytime soon as long as people continue to find a use for them in their daily lives. Problems encourage solutions, and each day that passes presents challenges the automobile industry is more than willing to take. Are cities getting too crowded? Build a compact car. Is climate change inevitable? Build an electric engine to go with the compact. Is a fuel shortage impending? Build an engine that runs on alternative fuel sources.

modern car driving on empty country road

No matter how far the car has come or how far it will go, its humble roots will stay the same. The unwieldy, boxlike pioneers will always influence their sleeker grandchildren. Somewhere along the way, the industry may seek advice from these eras to solve the challenges that define the modern world -- and that isn't a bad thing. It would better to take a step back than to move forward blindly.