RAC Cars News


How The Americans Led Auto Innovation

By raccars Published

Image Source

The American auto industry, despite its size, doesn't receive a lot of respect from its more sophisticated Euro counterparts - much like the cars themselves. Apart from the guilty pleasure of muscle cars, American vehicles are considered very similar to junk food - rather unappetising and nutritionally deficient. However, the USA was actually the world leader in a lot of the auto innovation we now take for granted.

Air con

Believe it or not, Packard started fitting air conditioning to its cars way back in 1939, and the first fully automated climate control system was found on a Cadillac in 1964. Meanwhile, European drivers continued imprinting sweat patches onto their seats until the late Nineties.

Powered steering

Chrysler managed cruise control in the Forties and then in 1951 offered 'Hydraguide' powered steering on its posh Imperial sub-brand. Airbags were first used by GM in 1973, although in inefficient and unreliable form. Customer demand was non-existent so, three years later, they were discontinued.

Flip up headlights

Not just an Eighties trend, the Cord 810 boasted manually operated hidden headlamps back in 1936, and they were all the rage in auto city Detroit in the Sixties.

Automatic headlights

GM debuted the Autronic Eye in 1952 - a great idea which failed in its execution. Apparently, it got confused by reflective road signs and flashed on and off more like an indicator signal.


The Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire from 1962 required drivers to refill the unit reservoir with 'turbo rocket fluid' regularly. Actually, this hi-tech sounding mixture was simply water and alcohol and lazy owners kept forgetting to do it, so the technology failed completely. GM ended up supplying many of them with standard carburettors, free of charge.

Selective cylinder activation

Cylinder deactivation isn't just a modern fuel saving trick - it was used by Cadillac more than three decades ago in the V8-6-4. However, the car was a lumbering beast and the system temperamental, so it never really caught on until the more advanced computer programming of the Noughties.

Traction control

Beating Mercedes to it by a few decades, in 1971 Buick offered its Riviera with Maxtrac, a basic traction control system. The car buying public was unimpressed and Buick withdrew the technology after two years.

Four wheel drive

Land Rover may have taken the credit but, in fact, the British off roader was inspired by the Willys B Jeep. The same brand also previewed the Range Rover luxury SUV by about a decade with its Grand Wagoneer, while AMC's Eagle could be considered a crossover before that segment became trendy.

Looking to Buy?
Search for cars