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Automobile History Timeline

Vehicles have transformed drastically since the spring day in 1886 when Karl Benz first put his name on a motor car. As car technology has advanced over the decades, the way people use cars and drive has also evolved. While the first cars were engineering feats of the day, the cars rolling off of the assembly lines today are also impressive feats of not only engineering but also technology. The electrical and electronic systems on board today's vehicles have revolutionized driving to the point that drivers often have much less to do behind the wheel than they once did. Safety features also have improved by leaps and bounds through the years, making today's cars and trucks much stronger and safer, both for avoiding accidents and withstanding them if they happen.

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen, The First Motor Vehicle; Credit: DaimlerChrysler AG

May 14, 1886: Karl Benz built the first motor car, and he named it the Benz Patent-Motorwagen.

June 4, 1895: Michelin created the first pneumatic tire for cars, made out of reinforced rubber and inflated with compressed air.

July 19, 1903: The Ford Motor Company began, selling 1,700 cars in its first year of business.

1908: William Durant formed General Motors, and it eventually became the biggest corporation in the world.

Nov. 16, 1908: The Ford Motor Company debuted the first Model-T automobile, which gained the nickname "Tin Lizzie."

Electric starter debuts on Cadillac Model 30 Touring (Credit: Iwao, Cadillac Model Thirty 1912 (6863771531), CC-BY 2.0)

1911: The first electric starters were invented, eliminating the cranking mechanism needed to start cars until this time. The electric ignition debuted one year later.

May 30, 1912: A police officer invented the first electric traffic light. It was installed on a street in Cleveland, Ohio, two years later.

1913: The Ford Motor Company invented and began using the first moving assembly line for building cars.

1914: Dodge was the first company to introduce a car body that was made completely of steel.

4-wheel hydraulic brakes debut on the Duesenberg Model A

1921: Four-wheel brakes were invented, making it easier for motorists to stop safely.

1925: The first cigarette lighter was added to cars.

April 28, 1926: John Godfrey Parry-Thomas set a new land speed record, driving at 272 kilometers per hour.

1931: Mercedes-Benz introduced the first independent front suspension system, which greatly improved the handling and ride of these cars.

Oct. 8, 1933: Galvin Manufacturing created and installed the first car radio.

1935: The Delaware Company devised the first flashing turn signal.

June 4, 1938: Volkswagen started producing the Beetle in Germany.

1939 Nash Weather Eye air conditioning ad (Courtesy:

1939: The first air conditioning system was added to vehicles by the Nash Motor Company.

1940: Karl Pabst designed the Jeep, which became an important vehicle for the Allied forces in World War II.

1950s: Cruise control was invented by a blind man named Ralph Teetor.

1956: Power steering wheel was invented and added to cars.

May 4, 1958: The first seat belt was installed in a car in Sweden.

1965: Music options were enhanced with the addition of eight-track tape players in vehicles.

PRND21 3-speed automatic transmission pattern (Courtesy: Classic Instruments)

1969: Automatic transmissions with three speeds debuted and quickly became standard.

1970: Cassette decks began appearing in some cars.

June 19, 1974: GM cars were fitted for the first airbags.

October 4, 1983: Richard Noble drove a car in the Black Rock Desert, setting a new land speed record of 1,019 kilometers per hour.

1984: The first car CD players were installed.

1985: Anti-lock braking systems became available on U.S. cars.

1988: Chrysler began the first production airbag, initially just on the driver's side.

On-board diagnostic computer debuts (Courtesy: Holley)

1994: The first on-board diagnostic computers were installed in Ford vehicles, eventually becoming the standard for all vehicles.

2000: Hybrid motors that combined a combustion engine with an electric engine were rolled out in the Toyota Prius.

2002: Reversing cameras were added to the Nissan Primera for the first time.

2003: The first Intelligent Parking Assist system was added to some vehicles by Toyota.

2014: Elon Musk debuted the first autopilot technology on his Model S, making it the first car that could steer and change lanes independently of the driver.

2020: Google announced a plan to debut a self-driving car, which became Waymo.

Updated By Mark Houlahan