50 fascinating facts about the automotive industry
Few industries have had a more transformative impact on society than the automobile industry. Since it first challenged the horse for transportation supremacy in the late 19th century, the automobile has been a source of fascination, as well as a springboard for innovation and ambition.
Supporters see the car as a symbol of freedom and millions of jobs. Detractors blame automobiles for suburban sprawl, the decline of cities, pollution, traffic, and fatalities.
For more than 120 years, the automobile has spawned interesting facts and data that have accounted for famous firsts (the first accident or traffic ticket); zany customized options (cars outfitted with flamethrowers—no, not a James Bond car), trends (from the electric car to the combustion engine and back to electric), and quirky laws pertaining to cars (in California, it's illegal to jump from cars traveling over 65 miles per hour).
Stacker compiled its list of 50 fascinating facts about the automotive industry by reviewing a variety of sources that included industry resources such as HotCars, Road & Track, Automotive News, and Car Throttle, government sources such as the Federal Highway Administration, news outlets including PBS and U.S. News and World Report, and online resources like History and car company websites.
Given the volume of facts about an industry that has had such an outsized influence on society, we chose ones that were informative, entertaining, and provocative to try to capture the scope of the impact of the automobile.
Keep reading to find out 50 fascinating facts about the automotive industry.
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Paint it black
The man who invented mass production of autos, Henry Ford, coined the phrase “tune-up.” The first ignition systems were composed of spark plugs and ignition coils. If the coils worked together properly, they would buzz at the same level and be in tune. If they did not, it meant the vehicle wasn’t running at its optimum level and the coils needed to be adjusted, or tuned up.
54 hours in traffic
A 2019 report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that the average American commuter spends 54 extra hours a year in traffic delays. “Extra hours" means the extra time spent traveling at congested speeds. In Los Angeles, the most congested metro area, commuters spent an average of 119 hours in traffic in 2017.
Rolls on the road
Don't slam car doors in Switzerland
It was once against the law to slam your car door in a city in Switzerland. And if we’re going to get technical, it still is between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
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Ford dominated the early auto market
An example of market dominance was the Ford Model T. In 1916, 55% of all the cars in the world were Model T Fords.
First speeding ticket
On Jan. 28, 1896, Walter Arnold was arrested for driving four times the speed limit in the countryside of Kent in England. Arnold was ticketed for driving at the hair-raising speed of 8 miles an hour and had to pay a fine of 1 shilling, plus other costs. The London resident was nabbed by a police officer on a bicycle.
Upside-down speed of 120 mph
1.32 billion cars currently on the road
Eyes on the road
A car crash typically occurs within an average of three seconds after a driver is distracted. Up to 80% of all automobile crashes involve some form of driver distraction.
The first accident involving an automobile occurred in 1891. James Lambert was driving in his single-cylinder gasoline automobile with another passenger in Ohio City, Ohio, when he struck a tree root and slammed into a hitching post. The injuries were minor, but the accident led to improved safety equipment for drivers.
Faster engine replacement
About 65% of the world's motorists drive on the right side of the road.
Odds of dying in a car accident
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Cruise control inventor was blind
3 million miles
Long Island resident Irvin Gordon bought a Volvo P1800S in 1966 and didn't stop driving it. The school teacher, who died in 2018 at age 77, paid $4,150 for the car and put more than 3 million miles on it, a Guinness World Record. Over the years, Gordon rebuilt the engine twice, got 857 oil changes, 30 drive belts, and 120 bottles of transmission fluid. Gordon's Facebook page put the vehicle’s mileage at 3,250,257, in May 2018.
The first car
In 1885, German inventor and engineer Karl Benz, who co-founded Mercedes-Benz, built the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, which was powered by an internal combustion engine and is considered to be the world’s first production car. Benz’s company built its first four-wheel automobile in 1893 and developed the first of a series of racing cars six years later.
Check under your car in Denmark
Don't jump and drive in California
A hot car, literally
Here’s an option that not even gadget genius Q from the James Bond movies could have dreamed up: BMW in South Africa offered a flamethrower option called the Blaster to prevent carjackings, which had soared in South Africa in the 1990s. The flamethrower was a liquified petroleum gas installed along the sides of the vehicle under its doors. If the driver felt threatened, he or she could flip a switch to shoot flames from the vehicle at the intruder. Because of the steep price of the Blaster, relatively few drivers opted for it.
Highest speeding fine
The Swedish word for ouch! is “aj!” A Swedish man probably said that and other, more colorful expletives after he was fined $1.15 million for speeding while driving his Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG at 186 miles an hour in Switzerland, twice the legal limit, in 2010. In Switzerland, speeding fines are tied proportionately to one's income.
Top speed in 1938
In 1938, the Mercedes-Benz W125 reached a top speed of 268.8 miles per hour, a record for the fastest land-speed vehicle on a public road that stood for 80 years until it was broken by the Koenigsegg Agera RS in 2018. The W125 had been modified and was driven by Rudolf Caracciola, the 1935, 1937, and 1938 European Drivers' Champion. The vehicle is now housed at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.
Balking at female GPS voice
GPS has made traveling easier for motorists, but not all voices on GPS devices resonate with drivers. BMW had to recall its GPS models in Germany because drivers were dissatisfied that the GPS voice was female and did not take directions.
Oldest car sold for $4.62 million
The first built car, known as the De Dion Bouton et Trepardoux Dos-a-Dos Steam Runabout, was constructed in 1884 and sold at an auction in Hershey, Pennsylvania, for $4.62 million in 2011.
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French drivers must have breathalyzer kit
If you're driving in France, make sure that you have an unused breathalyzer kit in your car at all times. Drivers also need to have a fluorescent vest, a hazard triangle, replacement headlamp bulbs, and a first-aid kit.
Films featuring car chases such as “Bullitt” and the “Fast & Furious” movies are among the favorites of the movie-going public. The reality is that the average car spends about 95% of its time parked.
NASCAR was actually created because of Prohibition. Moonshiners had to transport their beverages quickly without raising suspicion, which led to the creation of souped-up cars that were tuned up to outrun highway patrol cars. These were the precursors to stock cars, which eventually led to stock car races of today.
The famous Audi rings
Car logos are among the most distinct emblems in commerce, and Audi’s rings are among the most famous. The four overlapping rings of Audi represent the four manufacturers of Auto Union: Audi, Horch, DKW, and Wanderer.
Public was charged by electric cars
Elon Musk’s Tesla is popularizing the electric car today, but electric cars are hardly new. In fact, electric as well as steam-powered vehicles were more popular than gas-powered cars at the start of the 20th century. In 1900, 38% of all cars were electric. Electric cars were quiet and didn’t spew smelly gas pollutants. Thomas Edison believed electric cars were the future of transportation and tried to develop a better car battery, while Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the eponymous sports car, built the world's first hybrid electric car in 1901.
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Tuning in car horns
Until the mid-1960s, most American car horns were tuned to E flat or C. Since then, many automakers have included the notes F sharp and A sharp. Bells were the preferred noise signal for American motorists in the early part of the 20th century, but horns proved to be louder and more effective.
Model T mass production
From 1909 to 1927, Ford built more than 15 million cars. At first it took 12 hours to assemble a Model T, but more efficient assembly line technology sped up the process, cutting the time to eight minutes for each car in 1913. By 1927, during the last years of the production of the Model T, the factory could produce a completely assembled car in 24 seconds. The Model T cost around $850 in 1908, but because of production efficiencies, the price was lowered to $260 in 1925.
R.I.P., cassette players in cars
The 2011 Ford Crown Victoria was the last car to offer a cassette player as an option. Ford also shut down production of the Crown Victoria itself that year.
Research from the Federal Highway Administration found that there are about 280 million tires discarded each year by American motorists, nearly one tire for every person in the country. Around 30 million of these tires are retreaded or reused. It has been estimated that there may be up to 3 billion tires contained in numerous stockpiles.
Smart name change
The British car company Jaguar was originally called the Swallow Sidecar Co. and, from 1934, were called SS Cars. After World War II, the company changed its name because of the notorious reputation of the Nazi SS, the paramilitary organization that committed atrocities throughout much of Europe during the war.
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Many defects, dipping sales
Following World War II, cars that were made in the United States became bigger, heavier, and fancier. They also became less safe and reliable—cars in the 1960s had an average of 24 defects, many safety-related. Adding to the American industry’s problem, competition from foreign carmakers cut into domestic market share, too; after selling 12.87 million units in 1978, sales of American-made cars tumbled to 6.95 million in 1982, while imports lifted their U.S. market share to 27.9% from 17.7%.
Henry Ford's anti-Semitism
We know Henry Ford as the man who put America on wheels. However, he was also a virulent anti-Semite whose views reflected those of many Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about the Jewish people. Ford-owned newspaper The Dearborn Independent published scurrilous articles that referred to Jews as the source of America’s and the world's ills. The newspaper circulated at Ford dealerships throughout the country.
Downshifting the stick shift
Only about 18% of Americans can drive a stick shift, and just 5% of the cars sold in the United States have manual transmissions, creating a disincentive to learn how to drive a stick. Another factor is traffic congestion, which discourages drivers from buying cars with a manual transmission. People used to get cars with stick shifts because upfront costs were lower, they were better on gas, they were more durable, and they engaged the driver more. Today, manual transmissions can be found mostly in sports cars.
Whale oil was used in car transmissions
Until 1973, the auto industry used sperm whale oil as an ingredient in automatic transmission fluid. Automakers like General Motors continued to use it until 1973, when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act forbidding the use of sperm whale oil. Until the act was passed, thousands of sperm whales were killed every year to get nearly 29 million pounds of the whale oil used in automatic transmission fluid.
14 Ferraris per day
Traffic firsts in America
The world’s first electric traffic signal was installed at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland in 1914. The first center-painted dividing line appeared in Michigan in 1911, and the first sign prohibiting left turns debuted in Buffalo, New York, in 1916.
A trip changed automotive history
In 1950, 36-year-old engineer Eiji Toyoda was sent by the U.S. Army, which was still occupying Japan, to learn about mass production from Ford at the sprawling Ford Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan. The Army needed Toyoda’s family-owned car company, Toyota, to build trucks for U.S. troops fighting in Korea, and Toyoda was looking for ways to help his family’s struggling company survive. He helped develop a production process in Japan that over the next 20 years created the modern Toyota colossus.
Norway looks ahead
Norway is among the more environmentally conscious nations in the world, and that is reflected in that country’s choice of transportation. Half of all new cars sold in Norway are electric or hybrid.
Per-year car costs
For the more budget-conscious among us, the decision to own a car can be an important one. The average cost of owning a car in the United States is $8,876 per year for a sedan or an average car.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Beetle
The Volkswagen Beetle is one of the world’s most loved cars and the most popular of the 20th century. In 2018, the company announced that after 80 years, it was discontinuing production of the car the following year. The “Bug” had its origins in 1938 when Nazi leader Adolf Hitler commissioned engineer Ferdinand Porsche to design a simple, economical vehicle for the German people.
Toyota Corolla is No. 1
Most stolen car
Honda Accords and Civics are usually the most stolen cars in the United States. The 1994 Honda Accord is the most stolen car in the history of the United States.
Keeping a Rolls in the family
M. Allen Swift, a resident of West Hartford, Connecticut, owned a Rolls-Royce—a 1928 Phantom I, S273 FP—for 77 years. The car was given to him by his father on his 26th birthday, a reward for remaining with the family business. Swift is credited with owning his 1928 Rolls-Royce longer than any other Rolls owner and presented the vehicle to the Wood Museum of Springfield History two months before his death in 2005.
The Ferrari logo
The Ferrari logo is among the most well known of automakers’ emblems. The horse silhouette on a yellow background was painted on Ferrari vehicles to honor Italian fighter pilot and World War I hero Count Francesco Barraca, who painted a similar horse on his plane.
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