10 modern car ‘inventions’ you thought were new

Hannah Elliott
Bloomberg News

After checking out everything luxury at the Detroit auto show last week, I spent time at General Motor’s Heritage Center in Sterling Heights. Multiple warehouses there hold more than 400 cars made at one time or another over GM’s 100-year history.

The center is not open to the public, but you can make an appointment for a private visit. If you do go, I suspect you’ll both have a great time and be surprised by what you find.

Seeing all that early technology in one place, I was struck by how much of it is not too different from what we expect in cars today. In fact, much of the stuff that many drivers think is new and freshly innovative was actually innovated decades ago.

Alternative fuels — 1956 Firebird II Experimental: GM used kerosene (jet fuel, basically) to propel the four-seat “land-bound aircraft” to 200 horsepower. What’s more, the Firebird II was the first car to have four-wheel disc brakes, a fully independent suspension, and a guidance system that was supposed to use an electrical wire embedded into the road that would send signals to guide the car and help avoid accidents.

High beams — 1915 Cadillac Type 51: OK, these are a far cry from the automatic, road-smart, powerful LED headlamps we have today. But the idea behind them definitely started in 1915. That was the year Caddy introduced tilt-beam headlights, which were operated by a handle on the dash and were an early form of high beams. It proved a major advance in nighttime visibility and set the standard for others to follow.

Radar for crash avoidance — 1959 Cadillac Cyclone Concept: Two dark domes on the front of the car housed detectors that would alert the driver in case another car got too close. The Cyclone also had tiny sliding doors like on a minivan, only much smaller.

16-cylinder engine — 1931 Cadillac V16: The marque became the first domestic car manufacturer to release a production model version of a V16 automobile. It made 165 horsepower, could hit 80 mph and came in 10 body styles with nearly limitless color options. Consider it the Ferrari LaFerrari of its day. The MSRP was an expensive $6,500, roughly $100,000 today.

Push-button ignition — 1914 Ford Model T: Oops, did you stall it? No problem. Put on the emergency brake; place your left foot on the clutch to keep the car neutral (it will jump into second if you don’t); adjust the slim silver electric moderator lever on the steering wheel, and reach down below the bench to your left by the door to push the start button. Just like every luxury car today with their push-button starts, only way more complicated.

Alternate drive modes — 1933 Cadillacs: These cars with a ride selector allowed the driver to adjust the suspension damping/rigidity to improve the drive and handling on the fly. Tighter for smooth, fast roads. Looser for uneven terrain. There wasn’t quite a “sport” or “eco” mode, but this got the process started.

Automatic rain sensors — Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible: While a Le Sabre concept car first showed a novel rain sensor in 1951, the technology debuted in production on the 1958 Biarritz convertible. The system worked by automatically closing the convertible top and raising the windows when sensors on the side of the car detected rain.

Removable back seats — 1903 Model A Runabout: The single-cylinder Model A had a bench seat up front, but the back came with two removable seats — one positioned on each side.

Hidden gas caps — 1955 Caddy Coupe DeVille: Cadillac and many other smaller brands (Tucker) had a lot of models in the 1940s through the ’60s that obscured the fuel input — all the better for making wide, clean lines along the sides of the body. An ingenious one made by GM was the 1955 Caddy Coupe DeVille, which hid it under one of the large tail fins. To access it, you pushed a little button and lifted up the top of the cap over the light at the top of the fin.

Electric motors: In 1911, Woods Motor Vehicle Company introduced the first gasoline-electric hybrid car in Chicago. (Germany was producing electric cars as early as the 1880s.) More recently, in 1973, General Motors made the Urban Electric Car and promoted it for its electric battery and tiny two-seat design. GM hasn’t released too many stats about that car — it was just a concept — but it was heavily discussed and photographed at an important symposium on low-pollution power system development.