Automotive Firsts. (And Here Come the Arguments!)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 04, 2015

Great discussions for armchair car guys and gals are often about “firsts.” Who built the first electric car? Who made the first disc brakes? Who was a pioneer of power windows? I’m sure to generate some arguments here, but I’m taking a stand with these contenders for visionary honors.

The first state-mandated license plates, in New York in 1901, were hand made, affixed to the rear, and featured the owners' initials. ( first state to require license plates was New York, in 1901. Car owners had to make the plates themselves, and affix them on the rear of the car. Instead of state-issued numbers, the plates had the owner’s initials. According to, “Use of the owner’s initials as a means of identification greatly facilitated law enforcement and made drivers more accountable for the way in which they operated their automobiles.”

The 1949 Crosley introduced disc brakes, but they were a bit of a flop.The first disc brakes, according to Hemmings Motor News, were on the made-in-Indiana Crosley of 1949. The Goodyear/Hawley set-up, on all four wheels, proved so troublesome that the company was back to drums within six months. Of course, it’s complicated. A 1902 Lanchester had a primitive disc brake setup. And for 1949, Chrysler introduced a “disc brake,” option on the Imperial, but it wasn’t what we think of as discs today. Instead of calipers, it had discs pushing against the inside of a cast-iron drum. Disqualified, I’d say. In 1955, Austin-Healey put four-wheel discs on the 100S, but that was a limited-edition racing car; in 1956, Jensen did the honors for the 1956 541 Deluxe.

The first car to sport fully independent rear suspension was the magnificent Jaguar E-Type of 1961. Many were filched for hot rods. (Jaguar photo)The first independent rear suspension was on the sporty and beautiful Jaguar E-Type in 1961, Hot Rod tells us. Chevy introduced the innovation two years later on the Corvette, “and hot rodders have been installing them in earlier cars ever since.” That Jag IRS is popular in lots of customs.  

John Boyd Dunlop, an Irishman, got the glory for the pneumatic tire, but a Scotsman, Robert W. Thomson, actually invented it. The first person to develop pneumatic (as opposed to solid rubber) tires was Robert W. Thomson, a Scottish fellow, in 1845. He patented the idea, but nobody paid any attention. In 1888, an Irishman, John Boyd Dunlop, invented pneumatic tires all over again—claiming to have no knowledge of Thomson’s work. They both had huge beards. This time a tire holding air caught on, just in time for automobiles.

Before turn signals, drivers (and bicyclists) used hand signals. (Flickr/Mark Stosberg)The first person to develop the idea of electrically operated turn signals was, arguably, an actress named Florence Lawrence, in 1920. She told The Green Book Magazine, “I have invented an ‘auto-signaling arm,’ which, when placed on the back of the fender, can be raised or lowered by electrical push buttons. The one indicating ‘stop’ works automatically whenever the foot brake is pressed.” She didn’t patent the idea, or manufacture the invention, and so people kept right on using hand signals. Buick was the first automaker to introduced commercial turn signals, on 1939 models.

You bet Olds heavily promoted its lead with automatic transmissions. (GM graphic)The first fully mass-produced automatic transmission, the Hydramatic, was on 1940 Cadillac and Oldsmobiles. Credit for the invention, though, goes to a Canadian steam engineer named Alfred Horner Munro. His invention used compressed air instead of hydraulic fluid, so it didn’t work all that well and was commercial flop.

The Semper Vivus, a hybrid car before its time, was the work of the brilliant Ferdinand Porsche. Later he built a car you may have heard of. (Porsche photo)The first hybrid car, was arguably, the Semper Vivus of 1900, built by automotive innovator Ferdinand Porsche. Two generators paired to gas engines as a generator charging unit, supplying electricity to a battery pack and electric motors in the wheels. “Prof. Porsche had entered uncharted territory,” the company says. And how! As the rather different (and less complicated) Mixte, this Lohner-Porsche went into production of sorts in 1903 and was actually built until 1915. The Semper Vivus has been painstakingly recreated by Porsche, and it's quite splendid--and operational.

Got corrections for us? We're ready-- but cite your sources! Want us to investigate more automotive firsts? Let us know! There are no shortage of “firsts” to write about, so expect a second round on this topic in the near future. In the mean time, here's how Olds advertised their early automatic transmission. Just keeping track of the ways this ad patronized women will keep you busy for a week!


Get the Car Talk Newsletter