Consider the fate of the Cord 810/812. Here was a truly revolutionary Art Deco design by Gordon Buehrig, offering Depression-era America something very different—and ultra-cool. The Cord 810 boasted disappearing headlights, front-wheel drive, independent front suspension and streamlined styling with no running boards. It was a bargain, too.
Although the press loved it, and 1,000 cars per month was bravely projected, in fact Auburn-Cord sold only 1,174 in the first year. Frankly, the car laid an egg, and the company was forced to claim that unsold 1936 models were actually 1937s. There was no 1938 model—the company was liquidated.
A similar fate met Chrysler’s similarly revolutionary Airflow, which was one of the very first cars to use streamlining to cut down on wind resistance. The engine was also moved forward over the front wheels for better weight balance, and the whole package drove extremely well. To my eyes it looks sensational and futuristic, set against the look-alike cars of the 1930s, but the public didn’t see it that way. The Airflow, which also had a DeSoto variant, was a sales disaster. The company’s traditional models outsold it 2.5 to one.
With this in mind—the fact that innovation isn’t always rewarded—let’s look at the fate of some other brave firsts in the marketplace:
- The first car with modern independent front suspension. This was on a six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz model introduced in 1931, according to James Flink’s The Automobile Age. No less than 31 European automakers copied it the next year, so Benz’ ability to capitalize on its innovation was brief, and the rise of the Third Reich soon disrupted auto production anyway. General Motors was using independent front suspension on its 1934 models, but stick-in-the-mud Ford—still controlled by founder Henry—didn’t go that route until 1949.
- The first car with disc brakes. There were earlier contenders, but for one reason or other they weren’t disc brakes as we know them, with a caliper clamping down on a disc. The award really should go to the scrappy minuscule Indiana-built Crosley, which in 1949 had tiny Goodyear/Hawley discs (sourced from the aerospace industry) on all four corners. Unfortunately, as Hemmings reports they weren’t up to the rigors of the constant use seen in cars, and so after only six months Crosley's (Frank Lloyd Wright’s favored make) was back to using drums. Crosley certainly didn’t profit from its mechanical first. Sales had peaked the year before at 24,871, and in the final year of 1952 only 1,522 were sold. Meanwhile, in the 1950s the Citroën DS became the first high-volume production car to have disc brakes, and the Triumph TR3 was the first sports car.
- The first car with a V8 engine. The very first V8 was built by engineer Leon Levavasseur in France, who patented it in 1902 and called it “Antoinette” after the daughter of his banker. Early uses were in speedboats and aircraft, but the design made it into some cars before 1910. Darracq, Rolls-Royce, De-Dion Bouton and others built V8s in small numbers after that. Levavasseur’s name has been mostly lost to history; I’d never heard of him. The first volume V8 is probably the 5.4-liter unit Cadillac introduced in 1914, selling 13,000—pretty good at the time.
And, of course, Ford V8s became legendary, especially after bank robber Clyde Barrow wrote to Henry Ford in 1934 to tell him “what a fine car you got in the V8.”
- The first cars with cruise control. That would be the 1958 Chrysler Imperial, New Yorker and Windsor—and Cadillac-- had it as standard by 1960. The man who invented cruise control (he called it “Speedostat”) never got to benefit from it in a car he himself drove, because Ralph Teetor (he filed his first patent in 1948) was completely blind. I’m sure, though, that Teetor (who was president of both his company Perfect Circle and the Society of Automotive Engineers) got rich, just like (eventually) that fellow who invented the intermittent windshield wiper.
- The first car with seatbelts. Seatbelts were available as an option in Nash automobiles as early as 1949—back when even babies weren’t belted in. Saab was the first company to make them standard, in 1958, around the same time its fellow Swedish manufacturer Volvo was refining the idea with three-point belts. Nash had a bunch of innovations, including “Airflyte” styling on that same 1949 model, the Nash Healey sports car in 1951, and the Nash Metropolitan city runabout, but the brand was absorbed into what became American Motors and there were no more Nashes after 1957. And, of course, Saab is gone too. No one remembers Dr. C. Hunter Shelden today, but the safety-minded physician came up with the idea of retractable belts (in the early 1950s), and also recessed steering wheels, roll bars and passive restraints—including the airbag. Safety standards for cars didn’t happen until 1959.
Poets are often without honor in their own land, and you could say the same about innovators. At least the pioneers profiled here didn’t end up like Gallileo, the telescope designer and creator of modern science, who got called before the Inquisition and put under house arrest for describing the solar system.