10 Cars That Were Years Ahead of Their Time

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Many seemingly new ideas in automobile design have actually been around for a long time. Features such as hybrid engines, anti-lock brakes and collision-avoidance systems had early forerunners, often in little-known concept cars. Here are 10 cars that introduced unique automotive concepts. These were not custom cars, of which there are thousands of goofy designs constructed purely for show; these were all vehicles designed as either proof of concept, or actually put into production. One wonders just what ideas put forth today will be standard features tomorrow, and what will fall by the wayside as ultimately impractical.

 

10. The First Electric Cars of the 1890s

Columbia's electric car was the best-selling vehicle in 1900.

A 1904 Columbia Electric Runabout, the best-selling car in America at the turn of that century. © Mario Ortiz

Long before Tesla, the first cars were electric, before even the advent of the combustion engine. In fact, by the turn of the early 20th century, 40 percent of the cars on the road were electric, and another 40 percent were powered by steam. Many believed the automobile would simply be an off-track extension of the locomotive. The advent of cheap gas coupled with more powerful internal combustion engines capable of longer driving ranges killed the early electric car, although the concept is maturing today.

 

9. 1900 Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus

Prof. Ferdinand Porsche introduced the first gas-electric hybrid car in 1900. © Porsche

Prof. Ferdinand Porsche introduced the first gas-electric hybrid car in 1900. © Porsche

A hybrid car … in 1900? This isn’t some steam-punk fantasy. Developed by Ferdinand Porsche, the Lohner-Porsche hybrid featured both gasoline and battery-powered engines. Porsche unveiled the first electric-gas hybrid concept in 1898, and he would continue to refine the design over the next few years. Unfortunately, the cars were heavy, had a limited range, and were prohibitively expense. Only about 65 Lohner-Porsche hybrids were sold.

 

8. 1929 Cord L-29

The 1929 Cord L-29 became the first commercially available front-wheel drive car in the United States.

The 1929 Cord L-29 became the first commercially available front-wheel-drive car in the United States.

In 1929, the Cord automobile company based in Connersville, Ind., produced the first front-wheel-drive car for sale, one year after a British automaker offered the same feature. The idea might have proven more popular had the design not arrived just months before the Great Depression. Cord also released its 810 model in 1936, which featured hidden headlights; these would become a popular feature more than 30 years later. Those cars were certainly not attractive — with a flat front and a louvered grille design, the 810 earned the nickname “coffin-nose.”

 

7. 1935 Chevrolet Carryall Suburban: The First SUV

Chevrolet's 1935 Carryall Suburban was an early forerunner of the SUV. © General Motors

Chevrolet’s 1935 Carryall Suburban was an early forerunner of the SUV. © General Motors

The 1984 Jeep Cherokee XJ is widely hailed as the first modern sport utility vehicle (SUV), inspiring millions of copycats. But the Cherokee was based on earlier vehicle designs inspired by World War II military vehicles, such as the Willy’s Jeep and the Land Rover. Many returning GIs were impressed with the performance of these rugged vehicles during the war, and procured them via surplus. But even before the conflict, Chevrolet released the 1935 Carryall Suburban, featuring a long wheelbase built on a truck frame. If it’s not actually the first SUV, it is certainly at the head of the same evolutionary tree.

 

6. 1948 Tucker

Preston Tucker's Tucker Torpedo was hailed as a car ahead of its time.

The 1948 Tucker sedan included features that would not become standard for years to come. © Sean O’Flaherty

Made famous by the 1988 movie of the same name, this groundbreaking automobile designed by Preston Tucker boasted some radical design features. The Tucker incorporated an anti-theft lock, a third “cyclops eye” headlight that rotated in the steering direction, and a shatterproof windshield that was an early forerunner to safety glass. Some proposed features that never made it on the production model but are familiar to us today include disc brakes, fuel injection, self-sealing tubeless tires and magnesium wheels.

 

5. 1948 Davis Divan

Is the three-wheel 1948 Davis Divan a sign of things to come? © Jaydec

Is the three-wheel Davis Divan a sign of things to come? © Jaydec

Built in 1947 and 1948, this three-wheeled convertible was conceived by Glen Gordon Davis and based on the custom roadsters of the day. The Davis Divan drew inspiration from aircraft design, and featured similar extras such as built-in jacks, hidden headlights, and disc brakes. And although three-wheeled cars haven’t caught on in the mass market, Elon Musk’s Tesla automobile company may just bring them back soon.

 

4. 1955 Ford Mercury D528

Ford used the 1955 Mercury as a test model for innovations in air conditioning and body design. © VV Productions

Ford used the 1955 Mercury as a test model for innovations in air conditioning and body design. © VV Productions

Incorporating several firsts — such as a power rear window and a fiberglass frame — Ford used the 1955 Mercury D528 to test new concepts such as air conditioning, front-frame design and enhanced safety features. This “rolling laboratory” also featured Ford’s powerful Y block XY-3 motor. Although never displayed publicly, a D528 nicknamed “Beldone” made an appearance in the 1964 Jerry Lewis film The Patsy.

 

3. 1959 Cadillac Cyclone

The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone featured a collision-avoidance system. © General Motors

The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone featured a collision-avoidance system. © General Motors

Because no man cave is truly complete without a “Batmobile,” this futuristic car actually had an onboard radar-powered collision-avoidance system. One of the last automobiles conceived by legendary designer Harley Earl, the Cyclone had all-wheel independent suspension, a bubble-top canopy, and UV-resistant coating. Strangely, the exhaust outlet was located at the front of the vehicle. A test-bed for future innovations, the Cyclone was, like many automobiles of the 1950s and ’60s, inspired by space age and jet aviation technology.

 

2. General Motors Firebird Concept Cars

The 1950s GM Firebirds featured jet engines.

GM’s Firebird series of concept cars included not just rocket engines, but more useful innovations such as keyless entry and anti-lock brakes. © GM

Because who wouldn’t want a rocket car? Sleek and torpedo-shaped, the General Motors Firebird I was the first of three high-tech, rocket-powered concept models introduced between 1953 and 1959. These models unveiled some useful innovations, such as four-wheel disc brakes, anti-lock brakes and the first keyless entry. The Firebird II also used an automated guidance system, built for the “electronic highway of the future” that we’re still anticipating today. But they really did have gas turbine jet engines; we’re guessing they would not have had many tailgaters.

 

1. 1975 Volvo 240

The Volvo 240 series introduced in 1975 showcased several safety features that later became the standard for the automotive industry. © Volvo

The Volvo 240 series introduced in 1975 showcased several safety features that later became the standard for the automotive industry. © Volvo

The first design for this groundbreaking car featured a backup camera — a feature that is still not standard equipment today. Originally conceived as a demonstrator for safety technology, the 1975 Volvo 240 incorporated airbags, anti-lock brakes, and crumple zones to absorb impact — all safety features considered standard today, but mostly unheard of in the 1970s. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration even used the Volvo 240 to set side-impact and safety standards required for all automakers. While the factory production model for the Volvo 240 did not include that backup camera, the car proved immensely popular during its 20-year production run. Even in 1991, two years before Volvo ceased production of the 240, it was voted the Safest Vehicle in America.

 

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Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.