There is no better time for Filipinos when it comes to car ownership than now. These days, cars are loaded with features and technologies unheard of in the early days of motoring. With a wide array of choices, from thrifty city cars to go-anywhere SUVs, there’s now an option for every Juan.
However, what many of us may not know is that the modern car has had a long and colorful history that spans for over a century. The creature comforts and technological advancements that we enjoy today stemmed from the breakthroughs of innovative individuals and companies from decades past. Let’s take a journey through time to learn about the evolution of the automobile, from its early roots to its current status as an integral part of our modern society.
Throughout the 18th and 19th century, many inventors created their own interpretations of the horseless carriage. Getting credit for inventing the first modern automobile goes to Karl Benz (yes, the first car was a “chedeng”). In 1885, he developed the Benz Motorwagen, a 3-wheeled vehicle powered by a four-stroke combustion engine. It proved to be an engineering success as his wife made a 200 km cross-country journey through Germany with her 2 teenage sons, completing the first ever “road trip”.
It didn’t take long for the Philippines to jump in on the automotive hype. In 1904, the firm Estrella del Norte brought in a 9-horsepower, 2-cylinder roadster made by Richard-Brasier, a French car company. At the time, car ownership remained an elite affair and it was not until 1908 when Henry Ford opened the doors for the ordinary man to purchase a car, with the release of the Model T. Ford was able to keep the costs of the Model T down by introducing a revolutionary assembly line process which allowed them to sell each car for only Php 165,000 at today’s prices. This allowed Ford to sell 16.5 million Model T’s, a feat that very few other cars have managed to surpass to this day.
Pre-World War II – A Wave of Innovations that Shaped Today’s Cars
Not to be outdone by the Americans, the British launched the Austin 7 in 1922. It distinguishes itself as the first mass-market car that came with the conventional driving layout that we follow until today – a steering wheel on the right side of the cabin, three pedals for the gas, brake, and clutch, and a floor-mounted gearshift.
Along with design innovations, cars also benefitted from radical developments in drivetrain technology. Up until 1936, virtually all cars were propelled by gasoline engines. However, Mercedes-Benz broke the norm by releasing the first mass-produced diesel-powered car – the 260 D. It featured a 2.5L, 4-cylinder engine that generated 45 horsepower. The success of the 260 D paved the way for other manufacturers to join in on the development of diesel engines, paving the way to today’s modern automotive landscape filled with clean and efficient turbo-diesels.
Another revolution of the era that benefits motorists to this day was the introduction of the automatic transmission. General Motors realized the need for a more convenient driving experience, and in 1939, released the Hydra-Matic Drive. It was a 4-speed automatic, and was first offered on Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs. Over time, manufacturers refined the “slushbox” and offered more gears, smoother shifting, and better fuel economy. What started out as a convenient add-on eventually became a must-have, in light of the heavy traffic in our metropolises all over the country.
Post-World War II – Making the Car Safer and More Accessible
Unfortunately, the rapid advancement of automotive technology was halted in the 1940’s because of a crazed German with a funny moustache. Perhaps the biggest project that was affected by the Second World War was Germany’s own Volkswagen Type 1, later known as the Beetle. First launched in 1938 by Ferdinand Porsche (yes, the renowned 911 and the simple Beetle are cousins), it was only mass-produced after the war in 1945. Like the Ford Model T, the Beetle was envisioned to be a car for the masses. This reflected in its very name as Volkswagen means “People’s Car” in German. Not only was the Beetle cheap to buy, it was also cheap to run with its simple maintenance and economical engine (it could reach 15 km/L on the highway). It paved the way for succeeding generations of affordable mini cars, something that remains in flavor to this day. As a testament to its success, the Beetle sold over 21 million units and was produced for 65 years until 2004, making it the longest-running production cycle of any car.
With more and more people driving cars, it was inevitable that safety would become a priority for manufacturers in order to avoid fatal road accidents. One of the pioneer breakthroughs in automotive safety was the introduction of crumple zones, first featured on the Mercedes-Benz W111 Fintail, a predecessor the present S-Class. In the event of a collision, these crumple zones (usually the front part of the vehicle) absorb most of the impact instead of transferring the kinetic energy to the rest of the car, effectively keeping the cabin intact and its occupants away from harm.
Along with the crumple-zone, seatbelts are regarded as one of the greatest innovations in automotive safety. While rudimentary seatbelts were available as early as the 19th century, it was not until 1959 when the first 3-point seatbelt was invented by Nils Bohlin, an engineer from Volvo. He successfully demonstrated how it prevented fatalities for collisions under 100 km/h, and in the same year, seatbelts became standard on the Volvo Amazon. Both the seatbelt and the crumple-zone have proven very effective, and these passive safety features have become standard on all modern cars today.
At the time, little did people know, these groundbreaking vehicles would shape the modern car as we know it.
For part two, we run through the cars that defined the motoring landscape from the 60's to the 80's here and worldwide.