Automobile history from the year you were born
Automobile history from the year you were born
A century ago in 1921, America was basking in the victory of World War I and cozying up to its new role on the world stage as a global power. That power was particularly evident in the country’s massive industrial might—and that industrial might was nowhere more obvious than it was in America’s booming auto industry.
Since Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908 and revolutionized how manufacturers turned raw materials into consumer goods, the United States had become the epicenter of the vehicle-producing world. America was essentially the world’s car factory for decades to come—until one day, it wasn’t.
The last century has witnessed transformational change in automobiles—how they’re made, to whom they’re marketed, how they’re used, and what they represent. In those years, foreign competition grew from a trickle to a tidal wave as cars got bigger and more powerful, then smaller and cheaper, then bigger and more powerful again. Conversation was replaced by radios, then stereos, then 8-tracks, tapes, CDs, and streaming media.
Everything from tires and suspensions to seats and safety features improved in leaps and bounds. Laws and regulations became stricter, new carmakers came and went while old ones endured, and maverick innovators shook the industry and changed the very nature of how people viewed their cars. Outsized historical figures like Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, Enzo Ferrari, Ferdinand Porsche, and even Adolf Hitler left permanent marks on the evolution of the automobile, while millions of blue-collar workers earned a living putting those automobiles together.
Using sources like government records, news accounts, company press releases, and historical retrospectives, Stacker compiled a list of 100 events that combine to chronicle a century of automotive evolution. Here’s a look at the people, laws, inventions, industries, accidents, tragedies, and, of course, the cars, trucks, and SUVs that had the biggest impact on 100 years of automobile history.
1921: Harding signs Federal Aid Highway Act
Although more than a dozen years had passed since Ford launched America’s car craze with the Model T in 1908, the rubber still had very little road to meet in much of the country. In 1921, President Warren Harding moved the United States toward a more mobile future when he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which financed massive road-building in 11 Western states plus Alaska and Hawaii. The sprawling country’s motorists would soon be united by asphalt.
1922: Ford acquires Lincoln
By the early 1920s, Ford was losing ground to its competitor GM, largely because GM offered vehicles for a range of purposes and budgets, while Ford was still pretty much all in on the Model T, which, amazingly, was still available only in black. That all changed on February 4, 1922, when Ford bought the struggling luxury car maker Lincoln. It would become the basis for the vehicle that would soon revitalize Ford and reinvent the brand: the Model A.
1923: The flying car waiting game begins
For many Americans, the future won’t truly arrive until they finally get behind the wheel of a flying car. That tantalizing, but still-unrealized, generational dream is often credited to “The Jetsons,” but the concept can actually be traced to May 1923, when “Science and Invention” imagined the Helicar. The concept imagined a nearly indestructible flying vehicle that could go airborne at a moment’s notice to relieve traffic congestion—the publication predicted something similar would be standard technology 50 years later in 1973.
1924: A&W introduces ‘tray boys’
One year later in 1924, A&W began hiring casual waiters called “tray boys” who ferried drinks and snacks from root beer stands to customers waiting in nearby cars. Unlike the Helicar, it was truly a glimpse into America’s future. Soon, tray boys would mostly be replaced with tray girls, in the drive-ins that would become the central hubs of 1950s and ’60s youth car culture.
1925: Chrysler joins the club
Veteran GM executive Walter Chrysler rescued the Maxwell-Chalmers Company from bankruptcy, and in 1925, the automaker that emerged was renamed the Chrysler Corporation. It proved to be a ferocious and innovative competitor to GM and Ford, and when Chrysler bought the Dodge Brothers Company three years later, it joined the old giants as Detroit’s Big Three. Also that year, an automotive era ended when the Stanley company, which made the last steam-powered car, finally closed.
1926: GM unveils the 1926 Pontiac
Before 1926, six-cylinder cars with closed body styles were available, but only to those who could afford their high cost. GM changed all that with the 1926 Pontiac, which was built with cheap, mass-produced Chevy components that made it affordable for the masses. The common driver could now enjoy the all-weather protection of a closed body and the smooth, swift ride of a six-cylinder engine.
1927: Ford introduces the Model A
In 1927, a page in automotive history was turned when Ford finally retired the outdated Model T nearly two decades after it first put America on the road. Its replacement was Henry Ford’s second grand achievement, the Model A. Ford sold more than 4.3 million Model As during its legendary four-year production run.
1928: Mass consolidation transforms the industry
In the last year of the 1920s, the Big Three—Chrysler, GM, and Ford—combined for 80% of all output. By the following year in 1929, there were only 44 automakers left in the United States, compared to 253 in 1908.
1929: American auto sales peak
The year 1929 represented the pinnacle of auto sales before the stock market crash and the Great Depression sent demand and production plummeting. America’s automakers sold 5.3 million cars that year compared, to 1.3 million in 1932. Industry sales numbers wouldn’t reach 1929 numbers again for 20 more years, in 1949.
1930: The first commercial car radio debuts
Others had tinkered before, but the first successful, commercially produced car radio brought sound to the interior of an automobile in 1930. Made by the Galvin brothers, it cost $130. For context as to just how unaffordable that was for most, a Ford Model A Deluxe coupe cost $540.
1931: Mercedes revolutionizes the front suspension
The world met the Mercedes-Benz 170 at the 1931 Paris Motor Show, where the automaker stunned audiences with its brand new swing axle suspension. The revolutionary independent-wheel suspension became the blueprint for the future, and earned Mercedes-Benz its early reputation for safe, comfortable vehicles with exceptional handling.
1932: Ford ignites America’s V8 love affair
After the Model T and Model A, Henry Ford’s third and final act came in 1932 with his last great achievement. The Ford flathead V8 stands as Ford’s second-greatest and most influential advancement, behind only the development of assembly-line mass production. The flathead was not the first eight-cylinder engine, but it is the common ancestor of all modern V8s and one of the greatest leaps forward in the history of car engines.
1934: Vehicles get front-wheel drive
Front-wheel drive emerged in Europe a little more than 85 years ago when the French automaker Citroën—known for luxury executive cars—unveiled the Traction Avant. It was also an early pioneer of rack-and-pinion steering.
1935: Parking meters arrive
The bane of urban drivers everywhere first appeared in the United States in 1935. That year, Park-O-Meter No. 1 was installed on the corner of Robinson Ave. and First Street in Oklahoma City. Metered parking was now a reality.
1936: BMW introduces the 328 roadster
One of the proudest racing traditions in automotive history began in 1936 when BMW introduced the 328 roadster. It proved its motorsports mettle from the outset, winning some of the most important races in the world, and positioned BMW as an industry leader synonymous with performance and innovation.
1937: The Volkswagen legacy begins
In 1937, Adolf Hitler ordered the creation of a state-owned automaker, and the company that would go on to become Volkswagen was born. Its mission, led by Ferdinand Porsche, was to develop a fast, reliable, and affordable car for the German masses—“Volkswagen” means “people’s car.” After World War II, VW would play a major role in rebuilding the German auto industry.
1938: Automakers begin predicting the future
The modern concept car can be traced to the 1938 Buick Y-Job, which represented designer Harley Earl’s vision for what the media dubbed “the Car of the Future.” Equipped with exciting technologies like power windows and hidden headlights, the world’s first concept car gave audiences a glimpse into Buick’s possible future.
1939: Packer cools things off
In 1939, Packer beat the Big Three by 30 years when it offered its first car with factory-installed air conditioning—Ford, Chrysler, and GM wouldn’t catch up until 1969. Others had experimented with vehicle air conditioning throughout the 1930s, largely to no avail. Packer’s practical solution worked through compressor-powered refrigerator coils located behind the back seat.
1940: War gives birth to the Jeep
One of the most iconic and enduring vehicles in history was born in 1940 when the military solicited bids for a simple but capable four-wheel-drive utility vehicle for American’s modern and fast-moving Armed Forces. A collaboration by Ford, Bantam, and Willys-Overland produced the Willys Quad, the prototype for what would become the modern Jeep.
1941: The Chrysler Town and Country starts a legend
In 1941, Chrysler unveiled the Town and Country, the auto industry’s first luxury station wagon. Although production was short-lived due to the outbreak of World War II, it was responsible for setting one of the most enduring and iconic trends in automotive history. The T&C was the world’s first woodie.
1942: U.S. automakers switch to war production
The major players in the U.S. auto industry were already deeply involved in war production when the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor and pulled America into World War II. In 1942, however, the creation of the War Production Board brought virtually all civilian vehicle production to a screeching halt. The vast and sprawling auto manufacturing sector was repurposed to churn out impossibly huge quantities of vehicles, engines, and weapons destined for faraway battlefields.
1943: The automobile’s dark side emerges
In the summer of 1943, Los Angeles residents blamed a nearby chemical company when the air quality diminished so badly that visibility spanned only three blocks and people began suffering from nausea and burning in the lungs and eyes. It was the first documented case of smog. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the connection was made between smog and auto emissions.
1944: A vehicle shortage looms
In February 1942, all production of passenger vehicles, commercial trucks, and auto parts was halted and by April 1944, the stockpile of new 1942 model cars had dwindled down to just 30,000. Potential buyers needed a permit to purchase a car.
1945: A new age begins
When the war ended in 1945, America’s automakers began the monumental task of reverting their factories, machines, supply chains, and labor forces back to civilian peacetime production. With many of the world’s major urban industrial centers obliterated across Europe, Asia, and North Africa, U.S. carmakers were the only game in town.
1946: Michelin modernizes tires
Although engineers and inventors had been tinkering with the concept since the ’20s, Michelin finally secured a patent for steel-belted radial tires in 1946. Superior to all tires that came before in terms of performance, design, and reliability, they would earn a 100% market share in North America within two decades as they became standard on all vehicles.
1947: The automation era begins
In 1947, Ford made yet another innovative contribution to vehicle manufacturing when it created its Automation Department, the first of its kind in the world. Also that year, the company’s namesake Henry Ford, the most important and influential figure in the history of the global auto industry, died at the age of 83.
1948: Honda enters the market
1949: The ignition key is born
Before 1949, car engines would only engage when the starter was triggered with the push of a button. That year, Chrysler introduced the world’s first ignition key that—like modern keys and modern cars—started the engine by turning the ignition tumbler.
1950: An automotive golden age begins
With pre-Depression peak production numbers from 1929 fully restored, 1950 signaled the start of one of the most exciting and consequential decades in automotive history. As the postwar boom period began in earnest, GM introduced the vehicle that would come to define the 1950s and classic cars in general: the Chevy Bel Air.
1951: Steering gets easier
Anyone who has driven a car without power steering knows just how much effort is required to turn the wheel while parking or driving at low speeds. In 1951, Chrysler changed the game with hydraulic pumps that amplified the mechanical power of human beings turning the steering wheel. Power steering was born.
1952: FM becomes music to motorists’ ears
Before 1952, lonely motorists had only simple AM radios to keep them company. That year, the Blaupunkt company released the first in-car receiver that broadcasted through frequency modulation (FM). For both music and talk, audio was now much clearer, truer, and less shaky.
1953: An American icon is born
The 1953 GM Motorama show in New York City was a before-and-after moment in American automotive history. Audiences at the event were the first to lay eyes on the vehicle that would come to be known as “America’s sports car”: the Chevrolet Corvette.
1954: Benz raises the bar
The arrival of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL in 1954 was a game changer for two reasons. One, it was the first foreign car mass-produced specifically for buyers in the United States. Second, it re-established the German automaker’s reputation for excellence and innovation, with features like radial tires, independent suspension, disc brakes, and fuel-injection—all in the same gorgeous, racetrack-proven sports car.
1955: The muscle car era begins
1955 signaled the start of an engine-based arms race, driven by popular demand that auto manufacturers around the world responded to with ever-larger, more powerful engines. Chrysler debuted its new Hemi V-8 engine that year in the ’55 C-300—America’s most powerful car, its name came from its horsepower. That year’s other great engine evolution was Chevy’s small-block V-8, which gave birth to the drag-racing movement.
1956: Interstate Highway Act
Very legitimate Cold War fears led to the creation of one of the greatest engineering and construction achievements in history. Worries about an inability to evacuate and relocate on a national scale in case of a nuclear attack fueled the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act. The legislation funded the construction of a 41,000-mile “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” that millions of Americans used while hoping that they never had to use it for its original purpose.
1957: Boats with fins rule the highways
Big, sleek, long, low bodies with sweeping angles and dramatic tail fins were the hallmarks of American car culture in 1957, which witnessed the arrival of some of the most aesthetically pleasing cars ever made. The DeSoto Adventurer entered its first full year of production in 1957, the same year that saw the debut of the Studebaker Silver Hawk, the Rambler Rebel, the Pontiac Bonneville, and the Plymouth Fury. The Ford Thunderbird was at its pinnacle in ’57, which was also the first year for the Chevy Impala, the Packard Hawk, the Edsel Corsair, the ’58 Dodge, and the Ford Galaxie.
1958: Nissan plants a flag
While Americans were fawning over enormous, highly stylized land boats, the big Japanese automakers were taking a much more utilitarian approach to vehicle manufacturing, which would serve them well in the coming decades. That year, Nissan imported the first Datsun 1200s into the United States, giving the company an early toehold in the American auto market. The next year it did the same thing in the U.S. truck market with its small, simple, and practical Datsun pickups.
1959: The Corvair stands out
The 1950s were defined by big, excessive, and flamboyant cars, but the groundbreaking Chevrolet Corvair swam against the stylistic currents when it debuted in 1959. A compact car, it wasn’t only smaller than the boats that ruled the day, but it had no tail fins and no front grille—but it stands out for reasons dealing with function as much as form. The Corvair remains the first and only mass-produced American car with an air-cooled, rear-mounted engine.
1960: Chrysler innovates again
From World War II through 1960, alternators were unique to vehicles with outsized electrical requirements, like ambulances. That year, however, Chrysler introduced the Valiant, the first passenger car to come with a standard alternator, a highly efficient device that charges the battery while also directing power to the car’s electrical system.
1961: The Chevy 409 finds fame
Many enthusiasts consider the 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS to be America’s first true muscle car. Its revolutionary new big-block V-8 engine displaced 409 cubic inches and generated 360 horsepower. The Chevy 409 became a pop culture phenomenon the following year when the Beach Boys released the hit single “409.”
1962: Wisconsin buckles up
In 1949, Wisconsin automaker Nash Motors became the first American car manufacturer to offer seatbelts, so it’s only fitting that Wisconsin would go on to become the first state to enact laws requiring them. On Sept. 25, 1962, Wisconsin did just that when it mandated that all cars sold in the state come with safety belts in the front seat.
1963: Transistors launch the hi-fi era
Some automakers offered all-transistor radios as aftermarket add-ons in the past, but in 1963, the Becker Monte Carlo became the first truly solid-state in-car transistor radio. The era of vacuum tubes was now a relic of the past.
1964: A pony reimagines horsepower
On April 17, 1964, Ford introduced the world to the brainchild of auto industry legend Lee Iacocca: the Mustang. Based on the Falcon and aimed squarely at the younger demographic, the Mustang was an instant success that sold 22,000 units on the first day, and the pony car era was born. Shell-shocked competitors scrambled to catch up, and rushed to debut 1960s legends like the Rambler Marlin, AMC Javelin, Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, and Ford Capri.
1965: The 8-track launches a movement
In a partnership with Motorola, Ford produced the first cars with optional factory-installed 8-track players in 1965. They were an important innovation and they were popular for a while, but the format was doomed from the outset. The cassette tape actually came first, and by the early 1980s, the superior format rendered the 8-track an obsolete relic and a common butt of audiophile jokes.
1966: Volvo cements its rep for safety
Volvo’s reputation for safety can be traced to 1959, when Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt, which prevented countless millions of auto deaths and injuries and is still saving lives today. In 1966, the company solidified that reputation with the Volvo 144, which introduced groundbreaking new safety features like energy-absorbing zones in the front and rear body, disc brakes on all four wheels, and front seatbelts for both driver and passenger.
1967: Lamborghini launches the supercar era
The automotive world changed forever at the 1966 Geneva International Motor Show when Lamborghini unveiled something no one had ever seen before—a supercar. The Italian automaker debuted the Lamborghini Miura, a 3.5-liter 12-cylinder work of art on wheels designed by Giotto Bizzarrini, who famously gave birth to the Ferrari 250 GTO. The next year in 1967, Lambo began producing Miuras and the race was on to build ever-faster, more-precise, more-exotic, and more-expensive supercars.
1968: The ‘punch-buggy’ reaches its zenith
In one of automotive history’s greatest ironies, a car that was the passion project of Adolf Hitler became one of the most enduring symbols of the hippie movement of peace and love. In 1968, the Volkswagen Type 1—one of the most successful imports ever—was officially renamed the Beetle. “Herbie the Love Bug” was released the following year in 1969, and soon, siblings everywhere returned from road trips with sore arms after marathon bouts of the punch-buggy game.
1969: Cars get stereo sound
Road trips became a little more tolerable in 1969 when Becker unveiled Europa, the world’s first in-car stereo. The device’s tuner amplified not just one channel like all those that came before, but two.
1970: Carmakers clean up
In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act and President Nixon created the EPA. A watershed moment for environmental policy, the new legislation required automakers to cut emissions by 90% by 1975. As most American car manufacturers united in protest that it couldn’t be done, their counterparts in Japan recognized it as the moment they had been waiting for.
1971: Cassettes change everything
The concept of a compact cassette that recorded and played acoustic data on magnetic tape emerged in 1958. Ten years later in 1968, the Philips Type RN582 became the first in-dash car radio with a built-in cassette player. That was followed by a relentless rollout of in-car cassette players between 1970-1977, which made endless on-demand music—and, of course, mix tapes for dates and road trips—a reality for millions regardless of radio reception as they drove.
1972: A bug slays a giant
On Feb. 17, 1972, assembly line workers in Germany produced Volkswagen Beetle #15,007,034. At that moment, the VW Bug passed the Ford Model T as the most mass-produced car in history.
1973: Selt belts get a partner
Prior to 1973, seat belts served alone on the front lines of auto safety. That year, however, the Oldsmobile Toronado became the first car ever available with a passenger-side airbag. GM would later offer an optional driver’s side airbag.
1974: America learns to drive 55
In response to a crushing Middle Eastern oil embargo, President Nixon in 1974 signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act. The law forced America to begrudgingly accept a national speed limit of 55 mph. Gas was expensive and traffic was slow on America’s aging highways.
1975: America’s vehicle is born
Ford’s F-Series of trucks emerged in the boom years after World War II, but in 1975, Ford released a compromise truck that would become the jewel in the F-Series crown and the vehicle that would come to define the United States. The Ford F-150 was offered between the smaller F-100 and larger F-250. By 1981, it was the best-selling vehicle in America of any kind and has held that title ever since.
1976: Lotus hits the big time and big screen
In 1976, legendary Italian auto designer Giorgetto Giugiaro’s polygonal, wedge-shaped masterpiece was released to an awestruck public. The Lotus Esprit S1 put the British automaker in league with the likes of Porsche and Ferrari, and became a pop culture icon when it was featured in the James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me” the following year.
1977: Imports seize the moment
In 1950, America imported just 21,287 foreign cars, but the fuel crises of the 1970s caused a dramatic shift in consumer demand. The country quickly lost interest in big, thirsty muscle cars in favor of those that were small, practical, inexpensive, and fuel-efficient, like the kind the Japanese had become so good at building. By 1977, foreign imports topped 2 million.
1978: U.S. auto sales peak
In 1978, U.S. automakers sold 12.87 million vehicles, a high-water mark that would soon see a rapid decline. That number would plummet by nearly half, to 6.95 million by 1982, as foreign cars vaulted from 17.7% to nearly 28% of the U.S. auto market.
1979: ‘Made in the USA’ takes on new meaning
In 1979, production began at a $25 million Honda motorcycle plant situated on 214 acres of land in Marysville, Ohio. It was the first Japanese auto manufacturing plant on U.S. soil.
1980: Japan takes the throne
In 1980, something happened that until recently would have seemed impossible. That year, Japan passed the United States as the world’s leading automaker, and retained that title until 2009.
1981: DeLorean visits from the future
John DeLorean was a bold and visionary GM engineer with a reputation as a maverick before he founded the DeLorean Motor Company, a daring, renegade brand that has been compared to today’s Tesla. Although his company went bankrupt after a decade of turmoil, controversy, and legal drama, DeLorean left a permanent mark on automotive history with a futuristic, wedge-shaped, rear-engine sports car with gullwing doors and an unpainted stainless steel body. Four years after it first went into production in 1981, the instantly recognizable DeLorean soared to global superstardom as a souped-up time machine in “Back to the Future.”
1982: Toyota builds America’s favorite car
Comfortable, reliable, affordable, and vanilla, the Toyota Camry debuted in 1982, found favor right away, and went on to become America’s car of choice for decades to come. It has been the best-selling car in America virtually every year of the 21st century. Toyota sells more Camrys in the United States every year than Mercedes-Benz sells cars combined across all models throughout the entire world.
1983: Nissan’s American conquest begins
In 1983, a white Nissan pickup truck from an assembly line in Smyrna, Tennessee, became the first vehicle the Japanese automaker ever manufactured on U.S. soil. Today, Nissan is the biggest auto manufacturer in North America, and with its 640,000-vehicle annual capacity, the Smyrna facility is the biggest auto plant on the continent.
1984: The Testarossa defines ’80s excess
When Ferrari unveiled the Testarossa in 1984, it became a must-have status symbol for entertainers, athletes, bankers, brokers, kingpins, and wannabes throughout the decade of decadence and dysfunction that was the 1980s. The 12-cylinder mid-engine high-performance sports car endured through 1991 in one of Ferrari’s longest production runs, and remains one of its best-selling production vehicles ever. It was such a pop-culture icon that Ferrari had to threaten the producers of “Miami Vice” with legal action—and eventually bribe them with free Testarossas—to get them to stop building replica models for the famous TV show.
1985: The CD revolution begins
In 1985, Pioneer introduced the CDX-P1, the world’s first in-dash CD player. Compact disks were slimmer and lighter than cassettes and had no moving parts or strings of tape to turn into tangled messes. Thanks to distortion-free audio and instant track-skipping ability, CDs would soon be playing in—and for some reason, hanging from the rearview mirror of—cars everywhere.
1986: Porsche accels
In 1986, Porsche unveiled the 959, the fastest street-legal production car in the world as well as the most technologically advanced. Its 2.85-liter engine generated 450 horsepower, enough to vault it from 0-60 in 3.6 seconds, with a top-speed of 196 mph. Although those numbers are still impressive by today’s standards, the 959 also stood out for advances that were well ahead of its time, like computer-controlled variable all-wheel drive and driver-adjustable suspension settings.
1987: Total consolidation is completed
Despite the fact that the automaker was on the brink of bankruptcy itself just eight years prior, Chrysler in 1987 purchased American Motors Corp. AMC was the last major independent American automaker that wasn’t part of the Big Three.
1988: Subaru reimagines the wagon
In 1988, Subaru released the Legacy as both a sedan and a wagon for model year 1989 in the United States. Standing out for its standard all-wheel drive—a feature that helped make Subaru famous—it would become the Legacy Outback in 1996 and eventually the Subaru Outback, whose early generations are ranked among the greatest station wagons ever built.
1989: Japan goes luxe
1990: The SUV era begins
The modern SUV is most commonly traced back to the arrival of the Jeep Cherokee in 1984, but the SUV ascended to its current glory in the ’90s. When the decade began in 1990, SUVs accounted for just 7% of all vehicles sold in the U.S. At the close of the decade in 1999, SUVs accounted for about one in five vehicle sales.
1991: The bloated Big Three deflate
In 1991, the writing appeared to be on the wall for the American car companies that had defined the global auto industry throughout the 20th century. Ford, Chrysler, and GM had been steadily forfeiting ever-bigger chunks of the market to the imports that America had grown to love. The Big Three posted a combined $5 billion in losses in the first three quarters of that year alone.
1992: Hummer makes bigger better again
Just like the Jeep before it, the Hummer—first offered for sale in 1992—was born on the battlefield. The civilian version of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV), or Humvees, that AM General had been building for the military since 1983, the Hummer H1 was big, macho, and soon became a high-priced, high-testosterone status symbol. Most importantly, it represented a striking departure from the race toward smaller, cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars that had defined the previous decade.
1993: NAFTA changes the balance of power
American manufacturing declined in the years and decades following the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, but the deal was a boon for Mexico’s auto industry. Audi, Honda, Nissan, Ford, and several other major players dramatically expanded their operations south of the border over the next decades.
1994: Industry employment peaks
In 1994, there were 281,600 people employed in the U.S. auto manufacturing sector, and although that number would hold steady for the rest of the decade, a 21st century, post-NAFTA slide was on the horizon. By the time of the Great Recession, 1994 auto manufacturing employment levels had dropped by half.
1995: The speed limit is finally lifted
In 1987, Congress responded to widespread public disgust over the 55 mph national speed limit by authorizing states to once again set their own regulations. Intense counter-lobbying from highway-safety interest groups forced Congress to relent. Finally, in 1995, advocates of overturning the speed limit won and the law was repealed.
1996: Cars get connected
In 1996, GM partnered with Motorola to create OnStar, a safety feature that allowed motorists in crisis to contact emergency services with voice commands. The connected car was born.
1997: The Boxster rescues Porsche
By the mid-1990s, Porsche was a dying brand whose sales plummeted from 50,000 units in 1986 to just 14,000 in 1993, with only around 3,000 cars sold in the U.S. Its 924/944/968 platform was stale and dated, and the refreshment the company needed came in the form of the Porsche Boxster, a relatively affordable mid-engine, two-seat roadster that was an homage to both the classic Porsche 550 Spyder and the highly successful Mazda Miata at the same time. First manufactured in 1996 for model year 1997, the Boxster was just the success that Porsche needed and became the brand’s best-selling car through 2003, when the Cayenne hit the scene.
1999: The industry booms
The tech industry was roaring in 1999, incomes were rising, and demand for new cars was at an all-time high. That year, the auto industry broke all existing records when the world’s automakers sold 17 million vehicles in the United States.
2000: GM’s EV1 report changes automaker attitudes
The EV era began in earnest in 1996 when GM unveiled the EV1, the world’s first fully-electric vehicle mass-produced by a major car company. GM designed, built, and leased the EV1 through 1999—none were ever sold and GM recalled and destroyed virtually every single one. As the new millennium turned, GM released a report on the program that revealed significant positive interest in the EV1 from the general public, a fact that other automakers would soon seize upon—America finally might have been ready for electric cars.
2001: Prius provides an alternative
Although Toyota had been selling the Prius in Japan since 1997, the OG of all mass-produced hybrid cars hit the United States in 2001. It caught fire with celebrities and commoners alike, all of whom were eager to establish their bona fides as eco-conscious consumers. It remains the best-selling hybrid of all time and contributed more than any other vehicle toward the world’s automotive shift away from fossil fuels.
2002: Tragedy boosts driver-assist tech
In 2002, the Nissan Primera became the first mass-produced car to offer a reversing camera, but a tragedy that occurred that same year was the catalyst for 2018 legislation that required all new cars to come with rear-facing safety cameras. In October, 2002, a pediatrician named Greg Gulbransen backed over and killed his own two-year-old son, one of hundreds of such accidents that took place every year. The doctor dedicated his life to crusading for mandatory reverse cameras to prevent backover accidents of children who can easily disappear into the blind spot below a car’s rear windshield.
2003: Tesla sees a gas-free future
Engineers Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded what was then the Tesla Motor Company in 2003 in San Carlos, California, for the purpose of building fully electric vehicles. The pair, who named the company in honor of 19th-century visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, cited the EV1 report as inspiration. Elon Musk joined the company in 2004 after investing $30 million in Tesla and becoming its chairman of the board of directors.
2004: The slow death of the stick shift accelerates
Most cars came with manual transmissions throughout most of the history of the automobile, but by 2004, the writing was on the wall for the venerable stick shift. The dual clutch transmission—released to the non-racing public the year before by VW—allowed for quick, precise shifting that simply wasn’t possible with a stick but that offered all the ease of an automatic transmission. By 2011, 37% of car models were still available with a manual transmission but as of 2020, that number has dwindled to just 13%.
2005: Mercedes gives pedestrians a break
Cadillac offered an early version of night-vision technology as early as 2000, but Mercedes-Benz raised the bar in 2005. That year, the German automaker debuted its Night View Assist system, which would soon have the ability to identify pedestrians not visible to the driver and highlight them on the dash display.
2007: The Big Three fade
In 2007, a year before the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union was accepting major concessions from the Big Three, including starting-wage concessions. One year later in 2008, Korean automaker Hyundai became the world’s fourth-largest car manufacturer, behind Toyota, GM, and VW.
2008: Detroit faces an apocalypse
In 2008, the already-shaky foundation of the declining U.S. auto industry was nearly swept away by a perfect storm of circumstances that left no sector of the global economy unscathed. In what is now known as the Great Recession, an unprecedented credit crunch combined with high gas prices, unfortunate executive decision-making, and domestic product lines that were already less popular than imports. The Big Three were teetering on the brink of financial insolvency.
2009: Taxpayers come to the rescue
In 2009, the federal government used taxpayer dollars to bail out the Big Three to the tune of more than $80 billion. The stimulus worked, Ford, Chrysler, and GM repaid their loans, hundreds of thousands of jobs were spared, and three iconic American companies were saved from bankruptcy. By the second half of the 2010s, the Big Three were producing 17 million cars per year, nearly double the 9 million they were making at their lowest point.
2010: The Volt sparks an interest in EVs
In March 2019, Chevrolet discontinued the Volt, which had by that point become the best-selling electric vehicle in U.S. history. It all started in 2010 when Chevrolet unveiled it as the world’s first mass-produced fully electric plug-in car available for purchase, which Chevy promoted as being the first affordable and practical daily-use EV. The Tesla Model 3 dethroned the Volt as America’s all-time best-selling EV in 2019.
2011: The world meets the Tesla Model S
In 2008 Tesla’s founders were pushed out and the company’s rich maverick chairman of the board, Elon Musk, took over. In 2011, Musk unveiled the future of the company—and perhaps the auto industry—in the form of the Model S. It would soon set the standard for all electric vehicles to come.
2012: ESC becomes standard
BMW and Mercedes-Benz were the first to develop electronic stability control (ESC) in the mid-1990s. The technology detects when the car slides into a path of travel different than what the steering wheel would indicate and takes action to correct it. By the end of the 2000s its life-saving potential was undeniable, and by 2012, the government required ESC as standard equipment on all new cars.
2013: Cameras take center stage
Cameras in cars have a history dating back to the 1950s, but by 2013, cameras had so thoroughly revolutionized car travel that Automobile Magazine named cameras the technology of the year. By then, cameras were recording the driver’s point of view through the windshield, monitoring blind spots in the rear and from the side mirrors, watching for potential hazards, helping to avoid accidents, and—thanks to pairings with sophisticated software—performing magic like differentiating street signs from pedestrians.
2014: Autonomous driving becomes a reality
In 2014, Tesla began offering its Autopilot technology on a pre-purchase basis. The most advanced self-driving technology ever created, it enabled drivers to summon their cars from parking spots and garages, and, once in motion, could change lanes and stay centered within lanes, self-park, detect obstacles, brake, and accelerate all on its own. By July 2016, more than 70,000 drivers were using it.
2015: Hydrogen offers an EV alternative
On June 10, 2014, a man named Timothy Bush in California received delivery of the first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the world, a Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell crossover. Boasting zero emissions, a short, sub-10-minute refueling time, and a range comparable to a Tucson fueled by gas, the vehicle was silent and generated instant torque, just like plug-in EVs. Instead of plugging into an electrical source, however, it created its own electricity on-board through the conversion of hydrogen.
2016: Auto data piles up
By 2016, vehicles were so computerized that automakers were grappling with how to manage the massive mountains of driver data that their cars were collecting. Embedded sensors and microcomputers were collecting not only data about driving, braking, and steering patterns, but intimate personal data gathered from GPS devices, smartphone pairings, and infotainment software.
2017: The family sedan fades away
In 2017, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced that it was ending production of cars in the U.S. market. FCA was the first to act, but virtually every automaker in the world had conceded by that point that the American consumers had shifted so thoroughly toward a preference for SUVs and crossovers that the venerable passenger sedan would soon be a thing of the past.
2018: GM sees dollar signs in China
By 2018, the U.S. auto industry had spent four decades adjusting to a dramatic shift in American appetites, away from domestic cars in favor of Asian imports. By the end of the 2010s, however, some of that dynamic had reversed. The following year in 2019, GM would sell more vehicles in China than it did in the United States.
2019: Tesla re-invents the truck
In an awkward demonstration that involved the repeated breaking of supposedly indestructible windows, Elon Musk in 2019 unveiled a vehicle he hopes will change the way Americans think about their beloved pickups. Conjuring images of the Lotus Esprit, the DeLorean, and every dystopian-future science-fiction movie ever made, the fully electric Tesla Cybertruck is due out in late 2021. Resembling no other pickup ever produced, it will start under $40,000 and deliver a range of impressive specs—beyond the “Blade Runner” look—like a range up to 500 miles and 0-60 acceleration in under three seconds on the top package.
2020: Automakers thrive in a time of crisis
The coronavirus crisis sent auto sales into a downward spiral—but only for a while. The industry proved that it had evolved since learning the lessons of 2008, and that it was much more adaptable and durable than it had been during the Great Recession. Automakers adjusted their business models to include things like concierge delivery service—even for test drives—and offered tempting incentives and responded to customer concerns. The end result was industry-wide profits that defied all expectations heading into 2021.