6 Of History’s Most Influential Cars
Cars have changed our world, for better or worse. While they’ve added mobility and shrunk the distance between people, they’ve also played a large part in damaging our climate, and the combination of vehicle ownership and ill-thought-out legislation has served to deepen wealth inequality. Yet, the history of how all this happened is often unknown. Part of this historical ignorance is due to intentional obfuscation on the part of the fossil fuel industry (did you know, for instance, that electric cars had been developed as early as the 1800s?).
But, it is possible to piece together some of that history/. And one of the best ways to do that is to look at the vehicles that had the biggest impact on the growth of the automobile. By knowing a little about each of these, you can start to piece together, yourself, the story of the automobile’s rise in the Western world.
Where better to start than the beginning?
The Benz Patent-Motorwagen
Looking at the 1885 “patent motorcar” built by Carl Benz (yes, of Mercedes-Benz fame), you might be hard-pressed to call it a car. The early versions had three wheels that look like they were pulled from an old-timey bicycle (the kind with the giant front wheel). But, no: they were Benz’s own design. The engine was in the back, and you steered it with something like a joystick crossed with a crank. It had no “inside” to speak of, nor any safety systems… which didn’t really matter, because the engine had a whopping 2/3rds horsepower.
But, despite how unrecognizable this ride is to modern eyes, it had all the trappings that make an automobile: a carburetor, a four-stroke engine, you name it. It was cheap, too: adjusted for inflation, it would have run you $4,321 in today’s money.
While it wasn’t the absolute first automobile, there’s one big reason that its patent date marks the birth of the car: the Motorwagen was the first car to gain any public notice or acceptance. Benz’s wife, Bertha, knew it needed publicity, and drove it on the first long-distance combustion-engine-automobile roadtrip to prove that it worked. That was all the public needed.
The Ford Model T
Despite the Motorwagen’s crown as the first automobile, many people don’t consider it to mark the birth of the auto age. No, for that, they look to the Ford Model T.
The first Ford Model T was produced on October 1st, 1908. And, unlike the Motorwagen, it is still eminently recognizable. Dated, perhaps—it looks like something pulled out of a silent movie, lacking doors and still bearing narrow, spoked wheels—but clearly the stock from which later cars were pulled.
What makes the Ford Model T so important was its price. It’s considered the first affordable, mass-produced automobile, which made it (and the travel it enabled) available to middle-class Americans. This was, in large part, because of the efficient assembly-line system Ford had developed for his factories.
By and large, the popularity of the Model T is what brought us into the auto age.
The Volkswagen Beetle
The Beetle has a… sordid history. It was made by German manufacturer Volkswagen starting in 1938, and you may have immediately noticed something about that date. And your assumptions are right: the car was first made under the Nazis. In fact, the concept that led to its development was crafted by their evil leader, Hitler himself. It was supposed to be a “cheap, simple car mass-produced for the country’s new road network.”
Luckily, the car’s production didn’t reach significant numbers until after the Nazis were out of power.
The Beetle stood out for a few reasons: first, like the Model T, it was affordable. Likewise, it was an attractive vehicle that was well-designed and fun to drive, making it a blast on Germany’s favorite Autobahn. The engine was gas efficient, making it cheap to drive. People loved its cute design, too.
But more than anything? The Beetle was reliable. There are many old-model Beetles still on the road today. The car set a new standard for design and reliability that has since been taken up by other manufacturers, like Subaru.
Hildebrand & Wolfmuller
Surprise: this one’s not a car! The Hildebrand & Wolfmuller is, instead, notable for being the first commercially mass-produced motorcycle. While it wasn’t the first motorcycle ever invented, it was the first vehicle to be called a “motorcycle” and to be available to the wider public. It was patented in 1894 and could get up to then-high speeds of 28 mph.
Unfortunately for the manufacturers, it wasn’t as successful as they’d hoped. It faced harsh competition from people who kept improving on the design, and the high purchase price was too steep a barrier.
The Ford Model T Runabout
Pickup trucks are hugely popular vehicles, making up about 20% of new car sales in America. While they’re known for their functionality, their owners aren’t always making use of them for that. In fact, many owners may wind up frustrated, because they mostly wind up using that pickup to help friends move.
Either way, pickup trucks have had a big influence on people. It allowed folks—especially blue collar workers and laborers—to efficiently move their supplies, allowing them to take their show on the road. It may have had an influence on the growth of suburbia, too.
The Ford Model T Runabout is important because it was the first popular pickup truck. That trend started here. Really, it looks like a Model T with the back sawn off, but we can still see the influence it had on our culture every time we see an F150 blast down the road…
Future Forward: VinFast VF 8
The VinFast VF 8 is notable for being Vetnamense automaker VinFast’s first foray into the North American car market, but it’s also notable for offering another first—a battery subscription model. And while we’ll let history be the judge, the VinFast Battery Subscription Program is an innovative service model that promises to make premium electric vehicles (EVs) more accessible to everyone. When a VinFast customer opts for this program, the battery cost is excluded from the vehicle purchase price. Instead, customers will pay a monthly subscription fee where VinFast bears responsibility for battery repairs, maintenance, and replacement costs to provide a worry-free experience for the life of the vehicle.
For VinFast customers who purchase a VF 8 in 2022, permanent subscription rates will apply for the entire life of their vehicle.
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