Pioneering Automotive Firsts: First Car, First EV, First Technology

To think there was a time when cars lacked modern comfort and convenience features such as air conditioning or a radio, or safety features such as airbags or three-point seatbelts. But what we’ve now come to expect from our vehicles was once inconceivable. It ultimately took someone or something to type “first” in the proverbial comment section of automotive history and bring cars, trucks, and SUVs to the place they are today. These are the pioneering companies, people, or vehicles that took those first steps in terms of technologies, form factors, and much, much more.

First Car

French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot creates the first self-propelled passenger vehicle in 1769. Cugnot’s three-wheeled machine travels at a pace of fewer than 3 mph and runs out of steam (literally) after 10 minutes or so.

First Electric Car

Scottish inventor Robert Anderson straps an electric motor and battery cells to a carriage and creates the first electric vehicle in the 1830s. With lead-acid batteries still years away, the cells powering Anderson’s EV require replacement upon running out of charge.

First Patented Car

Carl Benz applies to patent a “vehicle powered by a gas engine” on January 29, 1886. Benz’s three-wheeled vehicle, famously known as the Patentwagen, boasts a single-cylinder engine with nearly 1 horsepower, as well as seating for two.

First License Plate 

Frenchman and steam car manufacturer Leon Serpollet receives the first license plate in 1889. In 1901, New York State issues the first license plate in the United States.

First Car With a Steering Wheel 

Alfred Vacheron modifies his Panhard and Levassor by replacing its tiller with a steering wheel in 1894.

First Electric Starter 

Electrical engineer H.J. Downing adds an electric starter to his Arnold motor car in 1896. Cadillac adds an electric starter to its 1912 cars and standardizes the technology’s use.

First Gasoline-Electric Hybrid Car 

Harry E. Day completes development work on his gasoline-electric hybrid Armstrong Phaeton in 1896. The car combines an electric motor with a horizontally opposed two-cylinder engine and includes a three-speed transmission and regenerative braking.

First Car With a Continuously Variable Transmission

Milton O. Reeves devises a CVT for his enterprise, the Reeves Pulley Company, to manufacture. He demonstrates the technology on a vehicle bearing the Reeves name in 1896. Positive reviews of the CVT-equipped Reeves results in the company building a handful of the vehicles for public consumption through 1898.

First Bumpers 

The Czech-built Präsident is fit with experimental bumpers in 1897, which fall off following a brief drive. In 1905, the Simms-Welbeck enters the fray as the first salable automobile to offer bumpers as factory-installed equipment. 

First Car With Electric Headlights 

The Columbia Electric Car introduces electric headlights—as opposed to more typical oil, kerosene, or acetylene burning lamps—in 1898.

First Four-Wheel-Drive Car

Lohner-Porsche’s La Toujours Contente electric car boasts individual wheel-hub motors at each wheel. The car enters its first race in November 1900.

First Car With Disc Brakes 

Elmer Ambrose Sperry designs an electric car with disc brakes for the front wheels in 1898.

First Car With Assisted Brakes 

The 1903 Tincher breaks away from the pack with its trick air-assisted braking system. The technologically advanced Tincher’s hefty starting price of $5,000, however, limits its sales appeal.

First Car With an Automatic Transmission 

American T.J. Sturtevant develops a two-speed automatic transmission in 1904. He subsequently offers the gearbox on Sturtevant Touring Car and Flying Roadster models.

First Supercharged Car

The Great Chadwick Six becomes the first car with a supercharger after Lee S. Chadwick and J.T. Nichols install three belt-driven compressors to the car sometime between 1907 and 1908. Following competition success, Chadwick offers the feature as a $375 option. Less than 10 Chadwicks are so equipped.

First Rearview Mirror

Ray Harroun fits a rearview mirror to his Marmon Wasp at the Indianapolis 500 in 1911. In 1912, Marmon adds rearview mirrors to its production cars.

First Car With an Adjustable Seat 

The 1915 Maxwell 25 introduces an adjustable driver’s seat, which allows approximately three inches of fore and aft travel. Maxwell limits the feature to the five-passenger Touring Car model and leaves it off of 25 Roadster, Cabriolet, and Town Car body styles.

First Car With Power Door Locks 

Scripps-Booth develops an electrically operated door locking mechanism for its 1915 Model C. The idea is ahead of its time, though, and fails to take off. Nevertheless, the technology gains traction in the middle of the 20th century and soon becomes a staple item of modern vehicles.

First Low-Beam Headlight 

Guide Lamp Co. introduces a headlamp that manually lowers in order to avoid blinding other drivers in 1915. Alas, the driver must get out of the car to raise or lower the lamps. Less than three years later, Cadillac improves the system by placing the front lights on a trunnion, which allows the driver to raise and lower the car’s headlamps by way of a steering-column-mounted lever. In 1925, Guide Lamp Co. one-ups itself with the introduction of the dual-filament bulb.

First Turn Signal Lamp 

Protex Safety Signal Co. introduces a flashing signal lamp in 1920 as an aftermarket accessory. Eighteen years later, Buick becomes the first automaker to offer factory-mounted turn-signal lamps.

First Car Radio

Chevrolet offers an optional Westinghouse radio in 1922. The $200 feature adds a large roof antenna, batteries under the front seat, and a horn speaker ahead of the rear seat.

First Car With a Reverse Light

Wills Sainte Claire introduces the A-68 Roadster in 1922, which includes a light that turns on when the vehicle is placed in reverse.

First Car With Power-Assist Steering 

Francis W. Davis adds a power-steering unit to his 1921 Pierce-Arrow in 1926. Despite its advantages, power steering fails to catch on as a feature for passenger cars. Things change in the middle of the century, though, when Chrysler adds power steering to the 1951 Imperial and larger Crown Imperial. The feature is a $226 option on the former model and comes standard on the latter.

First Car With a Windshield Defroster 

The windshield defroster gives drivers of 1928 Studebaker President Eight models a better view of the road ahead in winter weather conditions.

First Car With Synchromesh 

Cadillac and LaSalle introduce synchromesh to the manual transmissions of 1929 models. The technology soon spreads throughout the industry.

First Navigation System

The Iter Avto introduces the in-dash navigation system in 1932. The setup uses paper maps that wrap around scrolls, which connect to a vehicle’s speedometer. More than half a century later, Mazda introduces the first GPS-based navigation system in its Eunos Cosmo.

First Passenger Car With a Diesel Engine 

A number of automakers begin experimenting with diesel engines in passenger cars in the early 1930s. However, in 1935, the Citroën Rosalie becomes the first passenger car to offer a factory diesel engine option, barely beating the 1936 Mercedes-Benz 260 D to market. 

First Car With Hidden Headlights 

Cord introduces hidden headlights on its state-of-the-art (for the time) 810 in 1936. The front-wheel-drive luxury car features a coffin-like hood and headlights that rise from the front of the sweeping fenders. 

First Car With Air-Conditioning

Packard kicks off the in-car air-conditioning trend with its 1940 Super Eight 160.

First Car With Power Windows 

The 1941 Packard 180 emerges as the first car with power windows. The switch-operated hydraulic lifts allow all four side windows to go up and down without the need for a hand crank.

First Power-Adjustable Seat 

Buick offers buyers an optional two-way power seat in 1946.

First Car With a Rear-Window Defroster

Cadillac makes reversing in cold weather easier by offering a rear-window defroster as an option in its 1948 models.

First Car With a Rotary Engine 

The 1964 NSU Spider packs a 50-hp single-rotor engine aft of its rear axle. A few years later, Mazda places a 110-hp two-rotor engine under the hood of its Cosmo Sport 110S sports car.

First Car With Heated Seats

Cold mornings are never the same after Cadillac introduces heated seats in its 1966 models. The brand charges $60.20 for the option.

First Car With Anti-Lock Brakes 

The 1966 Jensen FF sedan boasts an anti-lock braking system developed by Road Research Laboratories in England.

First Car With Cruise Control 

Chrysler welcomes cruise control to its 1958 model line. Dubbed Auto Pilot, the setup is an $88.70 option on Imperial models.

First Car With Three-Point Seatbelts

Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invents the three-point seatbelt in 1958. In 1959, the Swedish automaker soon offers the tech in two of its models: the Amazon and PV 544. 

First Turbocharged Passenger Car 

Both Chevrolet and Oldsmobile embrace turbochargers in 1962. The Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder sports a 150-hp turbocharged flat-six engine aft of its rear axle, while the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire relies on a front-mounted 215-hp turbocharged V-8 for motivation.

First Car with Traction Control

Buick’s 1971 Riviera arrives with sensational new looks and an available computerized traction-control system. Dubbed Max-Trac, the setup uses sensors to measure the speed of the rear wheels relative to the front ones and adjusts engine ignition if a difference is detected.

First Car With an Airbag 

The Mercury Monterey offers an optional passenger-side airbag in 1972. Shortly thereafter, General Motors offers airbags in various Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile models.

First Car With a Touchscreen

Buick brings touchscreen technology to its Riviera for the 1986 model year. The dashboard-mounted screen is both kitschy and distracting—much like today’s touchscreen infotainment systems.

First Car With a Head-Up Display

The 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Indy Pace Car convertible sports the first factory-backed head-up display. The unit projects the likes of a digital speedometer, turn signal status, and high-beam headlight and low-fuel warning indicators onto the windshield as a means of keeping the driver’s eyes fixated on the road ahead.

First Car With Ventilated Seats

Saab introduces ventilated seats in 1997. The feature debuts on the mid-size Saab 9-5, which reaches the U.S. as a 1999-model-year vehicle.

First Car With Night Vision

An available night-vision camera accompanies the 2000 Cadillac DeVille’s 21st century looks. The system projects a thermal image of what’s ahead onto the DeVille’s windscreen by way of the car’s head-up display system.

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