The CAR Top 10: US innovation hits and misses

Published: 10 July 2015

Cord 810

Their gadgets didn't always work, but America's car makers often whupped our European bottoms in auto innovation.

1) Air conditioning

Demand made air conditioning standard fit in many US cars decades ago

Even in sweaty southern Europe, demand from the hairy backed for in-car air-con didn’t really heat up until the late 1990s. On the other side of the pond, however, luxury brand Packard had introduced it in 1939, and its big rival Cadillac fitted the first fully automatic climate control system in 1964.

2) Power steering

1951 Imperial featured 'Hydraguide' power steering

Chrysler’s up-scale Imperial brand introduced ‘Hydraguide’ power steering in 1951, seven years after giving us cruise control. Then in ’73, and despite a child dying during trials, GM ruined steering wheel design forever with the first airbag – though customer apathy meant the option was dropped three years later.

3) Hidden headlights

Cord 810 featured hidden headlights in 1936

Flip-up lights are as ’80s as shoulder pads and bubble perms, but Detroit was awash with hidden headlamps in the 1960s. That’s not where it started though: Indiana-based Cord’s coffin-nosed 810 got there first in 1936. You had to crank each cover open manually, so not exactly handy for flashing someone out.

4) Self-dipping headlights

GM Autronic Eye

GM introduced its automatic beam-dipping Autronic Eye gizmo in 1952, nearly 60 years before Mercedes gave us an updated version of the same idea. The GM one apparently struggled with the reflective signs introduced in the mid ’60s, flashing on and off enough to earn an epilepsy warning.

5) Turbocharged road cars

Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire

Porsche 911 Turbo? BMW 2002 turbo? Nope, Oldsmobile’s 1962 F-85 Jetfire got there over a decade earlier. Unfortunately, punters kept forgetting to refill its ‘turbo-rocket fluid’ anti-knock reservoir (actually just water and alcohol) and it died the following year. GM even offered to convert existing cars to a regular carburettor, free of charge.

6) Cylinder deactivation

Cadillac V8-6-4

Bentley’s new V8 Conti GT shuts down half of its cylinders at a cruise to save fuel, something Cadillac’s V8-6-4 was doing over 30 years ago. V8-6-4-0 might have been more accurate because the things were less reliable than an Italian earthquake prediction, and even with all eight pots pumping it only made 140bhp from 6.0 litres. But by the mid-noughties advances in computer tech re-ignited the fire for displacement on demand.

7) Traction control

Buick Maxtrac traction control system

Although Mercedes is credited with inventing the tech, Buick’s Maxtrac system was fitted to production Rivieras back in 1971. A basic computer compared front and rear wheel speeds, cutting the ignition. A welcome aid on a 7.5-litre car fitted with crossplies, you’d think, but it didn’t sell and was junked two years later

8) Modern 4x4


Land Rover talks a good game but America gave us the original off roader, the Willys MB Jeep, the same company’s Grand Wagoneer pioneered the luxury SUV genre nearly a decade before the Range Rover hit the streets, and parent company AMC’s Eagle kick-started the modern crossover boom. Not that it got them anywhere but six feet under.

9) Impact-resistant bumpers

Jaguar E-Type with US 5mph impact bumpers

Pontiac began offering flush-fitting colour-coded Endura bumpers in 1968 but solutions to federal demands five years later for bumpers resistant to 5mph impacts weren’t so successful. Someone buy that E-type a bra.

10) Auto transmissions

Oldsmobile Hydramatic

Sickened by Ferrari’s decision to abandon the manual gearbox? The rot started with Oldsmobile’s 1939 Hydramatic, the first trans to handle both drive take-up and shifting. Can’t imagine Travolta singing about Ferrari’s dual-clutch F1 ’box though.

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker