9 Automotive Firsts We Take For Granted

Car Culture / 16 Comments

Who put Bluetooth, paddle shifters, or automatic windscreen wipers in a production car first?

The list of automotive firsts is incredibly long when it comes to features we take for granted in today's cars. For example, the first company that thought to put brakes on all four wheels of a car to sell was Italian (Isotta Fraschini) and did so in 1910. The first windscreen washer didn't arrive until 1936, courtesy of Studebaker. Built-in cupholders were a late arrival in 1983 with the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager, yet the first radio available in a car from the factory came from Daimler in 1922. The first factory-installed stereo system arrived in the mid-1960s. We're going to keep the rest of this list more modern, though, and look for things we take for granted but someone had to think to do first.

Saab

1. First Twincharged Car

Currently, Volvo is offering engines that are both turbocharged and supercharged on its highest trim levels. The idea is that each form of forcing extra air into the combustion chamber makes up for the other's deficiencies. The supercharger works earlier to make up for lag from the turbo, while a larger turbo keeps the volume pumping into the upper RPM range. The idea was first executed successfully in 1985 on the Lancia Delta S4 Group B rally car and its street-legal homologation version, the Delta S4 Stradale. Less than 100 of the homologation Stradale were built, and it featured the same three-differential four-wheel drive system as the rally car. It produced 247 horsepower and 215 lb-ft of torque, making the road-going Stradale more potent than a top-spec Ferrari 308 at the time.

Lancia
Lancia
Lancia
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2. First Six-Speed Automatic Transmission

There was a time when a five-speed transmission was only available in higher-end cars built for cruising, but now six- and seven-speed automatics are common. The first six-speed auto arrived in the fourth-generation BMW 7 Series in 2001, courtesy of the transmission specialists Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen, more commonly known as ZF. Not to be outdone, Mercedes put a seven-speed transmission in its cars from 2003 with the E500, S430, S500, CL 500, and SL 500 models. Curiously, the Mercedes 7G-Tronic transmission has two reverse gear ratios.

BMW also added another first to fourth-generation 7 Series models that has permeated its way into a majority of modern production cars: a switch-based electronic parking brake.

BMW
BMW
Mercedes
Mercedes

3. First Production Car With Paddle Shifters

One of the biggest game-changers in Formula 1 racing was an entirely new gearbox management system operated by paddles behind the steering wheel. Ferrari debuted the system in 1989 and instantly won its first race, the Brazilian Grand Prix. The trickle-down from racing to road cars, in this case, was incredibly slow. The Ferrari F355 went into production five years later, but it wasn't until 1997 that the system appeared in the F355 F1 Berlinetta model. Exactly 3,829 customers optioned the system over the manual transmission out of the 4,871 Berlinetta models built in total. Now, you can find steering wheel paddles on just about any kind of car, and not just sports or supercars.

Ferrari
Ferrari
Ferrari

4. First Rain-Sensing Windshield Wipers

Rain-sensing windshield wipers are reasonably common on upper-trim leveled affordable cars and standard on premium cars now. However, it wasn't BMW or Mercedes that pioneered the feature. Cadillac is often credited for putting them on a production car in 1996, but actually, Nissan got there first. They first appeared in 1984 on its enthusiast's cult classic S12-generation Nissan 200SX and Silvia models. If Nissan had been even more forward-thinking, someone would have invented side window wipers for the 200SX as well, since many examples these days are used to ruin rubber.

Nissan
Nissan
Nissan

5. First Full-LED Taillights And Headlights

LED headlights and taillights are a regular sight on new cars, but each end came separately as firsts. Maserati claims to have introduced the first all-LED taillights on a production car with the 3200 GT luxury coupe in 1998. Only 4,795 of these 3200 GT models were produced over four years, so it was not a particularly well-known model before the Maserati Coupé replaced it. The first all-LED headlights (including daytime running lights, turn signals, dipped low beam and high beam lights), came on a much more well-known car - the Audi R8 in 2007. The Audi R8 can also brag it had the first laser headlights in 2014. The first car to dispense with tradition lightbulbs altogether, both inside and out, was the 2014 model-year Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Maserati
Maserati
Audi
Audi

6.First Cooled Seats

If you live in a hot climate and know the sheer joy of cooled seats, you can thank the Lincoln Navigator for bringing them to market first in 2001. That was towards the end of the first generation of Navigator, and it was also the first luxury SUV to feature power-adjustable pedals. Cooled seats didn't come from out of nowhere though, and it was Saab that came first with ventilated seats in 1998 with the 9-5. The Saab 9-5 was also the first car to make use of extensive side-crash protection and introduced Saab's active head restraint system that could prevent or lessen whiplash if the vehicle is rear-ended.

Lincoln
Lincoln
Saab
Saab

7. First Bluetooth-Enabled Cars

Mazda claimed to be the first automaker to equip a factory-installed MP3 player when it did so in the 2001 Protegé. Before that, the first cars with auxiliary inputs for portable devices were the 1991 Mitsubishi 3000GT and Galant VR-4. In 2004, BMW got a lot of publicity by introducing iPod player integration to its infotainment system. However, the big one is now-ubiquitous Bluetooth connectivity, and that came to us around 2000 with Chrysler often cited as the first automaker to experiment in production models for hands-free connectivity with the Chrysler 300. Arguably as important was Kia putting a USB port into the Rondo in 2006.

Acura also has some audio firsts in production cars, like the first DVD-Audio 5.1 surround sound system in 2004 with the TL sedan, and the first active noise cancellation technology appeared in the 2005 Acura RL. Acura itself also claimed that the TL was the first vehicle in North America to come with a standard Bluetooth hands-free phone system. In case you're curious, the first karaoke system available in a production car arrived in the 2003 Geely BL model, long before Tesla's "Car-aoke" arrived.

Chrysler
Kia
Mazda

8. First Composite Wheels Offered As Standard

Currently, you'll find composite wheels as an option on some high-end sports cars and standard on some supercars. However, back in 1987, the Dodge Shadow and Plymouth Sundance-based Shelby CSX (Carroll Shelby eXperimental) came with "Fiberide" composite wheels. Nowadays, composite wheels tend to be based around carbon fiber, but the Shelby's wheels were made from fiberglass-reinforced plastic. That doesn't sound particularly strong, but Shelby claimed they were stronger than aluminum wheels at the time.

Shelby
Shelby
Shelby
Shelby

9. First Active Exhaust

Active exhaust systems control the amount of noise emitted so a car can be quieter when starting up and at low speeds, and reduce drone on the freeway. They've become common on sportier trim levels of cars as well as on full-blooded sports cars, but the first production car to arrive with one was the 1991 Mitsubishi 3000GT. Current active exhaust systems are more advanced, but in 1991 this was ahead of the curve. Switching to Sport mode opens up the exhaust system, but in Touring mode, a cable-operated plate restricts the exhaust through a 2 5/8-inch opening when the engine is operati under 3,000 rpm. When the engine rises over 3,000 rpm, the exhaust automatically opens back up.

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