A Brief History of Car Design – Part 1


What’s the first thing you notice when you look at a car? Is it the size of the wheels? Is it the slope of the windshield or the size of the doors? Perhaps it’s the height of the roof or the wheelbase? I’d be surprised. But I’d place a lot of money on it being the vehicle’s style, its design.

Yet these features all combine to be that very thing. So what is design? Why is it so influential on our decision making? Have cars always looked the same? And what will they look like in the future? It’s a serious topic that needs serious consideration. So we’re going to take you on a journey through the history of car design in a series of articles, starting this week with part one; enjoy.

Benz’s Motorwagen

Horse to Horsepower

Ever since Karl Benz received his patent, DRP No. 37435, for the world’s first internal combustion powered practical automobile, or Motorwagen as he called it, on January 29th, 1886, we as humans have been obsessed with the motor car; and the individual freedom it perpetuates. I think we can all agree that our lives, and the world around us, have been irrevocably changed by its invention and things will never be the same.

Whether visiting the shops, collecting someone from the airport or taking the kids to school, the automobile is the transport of choice. The internal combustion engine allowed us to move away from horses and their power, and whilst we’re now moving towards the age of electrification, which will certainly enable changes to vehicle design, it is autonomy, or self-driving, that will have a much bigger impact on the industry. Probably the biggest single change since equine power was replaced with that very combustion engine. But what will that future look like? It’s a question with no definitive answer, not yet anyway, but by looking back at the journey thus far, we might find some clues. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

De Dion Steam Car

To understand our fascination with the car, we must go all the way back to 1672 when, possibly, the first “car” was made, a self-driving trolley created by a Flemish Jesuit missionary for the Kangxi Emperor, the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty. It relied on steam, produced by burning coal, which drove a belt that moved wheels. It’s not clear how true this is, but shows that the human race have harboured dreams of individual transportation for centuries.

A century later, in 1769, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot produced the first steam powered automobile, the “Fardier à vapeur”. It weighed 2.5 tonnes and was a simple structure with three wheels, a steam boiler and a driving mechanism; it was designed for carrying military equipment, not for individual luxurious travel, but the blueprint had been laid, albeit a heavy and cumbersome one.

1807 saw the first internal combustion engine-powered automobile, but again the design was large, awkward and it limited the space for any form of passenger; but we were getting closer. In 1870, and the years that followed, the engine became smaller, developed into a four stroke cycle, and evolved from one cylinder to two, then two to four. Humanity, and its finest minds, had realised the importance of getting something small and powerful as a form of propulsion. If this could be cracked, we would finally have a form of self-propelled transportation. Then came Benz and his Motorwagen.

 But why am I talking about the engine? “Wasn’t this supposed to be about car design?” I hear you cry. Absolutely. And this was the first obstacle to the motor car and the design of realistic individual transport. Otherwise we’d be driving round in vehicles like the steam car above. Yeah, exactly.

1899 Fiat 4hp


 So, now that the basic premise of the propulsion system was established, and the horses were well and truly kicked into the dirt, the fourteen years that followed Karl Benz’s patent and creation saw the motor car evolve an extra wheel, a roof and lights to help guide you on your way during bad light, or back from the pub after a late one; drink driving wasn’t really a thing back then. They became more integrated into society, as politicians campaigned in vehicles for the first time and songwriters used them for inspiration. The overall usability of the motor vehicle gained much more focus and, as it became increasingly popular amongst wealthy folk and important people, more makers appeared, all keen to grab a share of the ever increasing pie.

 By 1905, there were automotive companies in many countries around the world including: Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Italy, as well as the obvious France, Germany, Britain, and the USA, plus exports to India, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran. Naturally, this brought a huge range of new clients to the doors of car manufacturers, but it also saw the car become a genuine mode of reliable transport, rather than a flightful fancy for the few (say that quickly).

It saw hundreds of mechanical developments that actually reduced the technological diversity within the vehicles, as suspension systems, brakes, propulsion and basic running gear became standardised. Cars also became more practical, attracting more people to purchase them and spend longer within them. Which then led to a greater focus on interior design. And whilst steam powered vehicles were amongst the fastest on the road, the vast majority of vehicles were moving in a different route, with buyers wanting to enjoy their journeys and the time spent in the vehicle. And then came the step change; The Ford Model T.

Ford Model T Touring

Mass Production

 A lot of people consider the 27th September, 1908, as a day when the manufacture of automobiles changed forever; when the first Ford Model T rolled off the production line. And they’d be absolutely right. But it’s also when car design changed forever, because it brought motor cars to the masses for the first time, made the automobile a genuine purchase for millions of people and opened up not only millions of new customers, but the opportunity for greater diversity.

What we’ve learned so far, from the very early developments, through Benz’s patent of 1885 to September 1908, is that technology and practicality had driven the vehicle’s design. The propulsion system, the structure to support it, the seats, lights and a roof, were the fundamentals of the vehicle and nothing else mattered. Manufacturers drove the demand, not the customer, because very few people had the money to own one and there was therefore little competition. But once you open up the possibility of something new and realistic to millions of people, it doesn’t take long for other companies to arrive, with their own proposals. Some would call it the “iPhone Moment”. I prefer to call the iPhone the ‘Model T Moment‘.

Ford Model T in Production

So Ford began to churn out motor vehicles, 15,000 pre-orders having been placed in the first few days of release alone. It was cheap, reliable and easily maintained, the three things the motor car had not been to that point. And although initial vehicles had taken 12.5 hours to build, still remarkably quicker than Oldsmobile’s manufacturing line – the world’s first automotive mass production line – by 1914 they were rolling off the line every 3 minutes, taking just over an hour and a half to make a full vehicle! Such was their success that by the 26th May 1927, 15,000,000 had been made.

Henry Ford’s design remit had been very simple:

I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

And boy did he achieve it.

Alfa Romeo G1

Integration and Consolidation

So, whilst Ford was dominating the market in the US, Europe was being well and truly battered by WWI, meaning the manufacture of frivolous items such as cars was halted immediately. Production soon picked up again afterwards, however, and it didn’t take long before brand new designs were also rolling off the line. And it is during this period, between 1920 and 1938, that we see the car really progress, from a rudimentary piece of equipment with four wheels, a canopy roof, two lamps and a flimsy screen upfront to a vehicle with a genuine personality, a style, a design.

In 1919, 90% of vehicles that were sold were open; by 1929, 90% were closed, as vehicles became more reliable, journeys lasted longer and the potential uses for the car increased dramatically. Of course, it also brought many changes in design. Body types multiplied as tax rules in many countries began to consider reduced or even zero tax for small vehicles, namely cyclecars or voiturettes (in France), whilst wealthy lifestyles demanded tourers for journeys to the country, but closed vehicles for practicality. And of course, humanity’s thirst for speed created more and more racer-type bodies, such as the Alfa Romeo G1.

The Pioneering “Baby Austin” 7

And then in 1922, a small British firm decided to create a car that was everything but a cyclecar, it’s clever design allowing it to be classed as a small car, targeted directly at young families aspiring to own an affordable motor vehicle; the Austin 7.

Up to this point, Austin as a company sold predominantly large cars and limousines for conservative clients, so Herbert Austin’s initial idea was fiercely resisted by his board. But not taking no for an answer, he decided to carry out the project himself, on his own account, and in 1921 hired an 18-year-old draughtsman from the Austin factory at Longbridge, Birmingham, to aid in the drawing of detailed plans. The work was carried out in the billiard room of his home!

The first four years saw the Austin 7 remain as a “tourer”, an open bodied vehicle with a fabric closing roof, but by 1926 there was a saloon option that would soon come to be used by many British coachbuilders keen to put their own stamp on the vehicle. A sports version also arrived in the same year, a Coupe arrived two years later and by 1934 there was a Cabriolet version of the saloon. It was arguably the first vehicle to demonstrate this level of versatility, the first vehicle to create a “platform” from which multiple body derivatives could be produced to match the needs of different companies and customers.

Austin 7 Saloon

 Such was its popularity that it was licensed for production all over the world, including the US, Germany (where they were, technically, BMWs first ever car), France, Japan (Datsun, now under Nissan) and Australia.

Design & The Depression

The popularity of closed vehicles saw hundreds of companies jump on the bandwagon from 1925 onwards, although it arguably brought a period of stagnation to car design, the market quickly filling with an awful lot of similar looking vehicles. 1929 brought the Great Depression which tightened the belt of most people; a car fell way down the priority list and, as a result, car sales fell dramatically between 1929 and 1933.

As a side note, a similar pattern can be seen in the build up to 2008, when car companies had become complacent thanks to prosperity bringing disposable income to millions of new customers. During periods of wealth and success, customers tend to be less conscientious, encouraging producers of consumable products to become complacent, and this often leads to an unconscious reduction in quality. It took an economic crisis to bring a level of scrutiny back to the market, and the quality of products grew rapidly once more.

1937 BMW 327

Between 1933 and 1938, as a reaction to economic hardship, an interesting trend developed that had a very positive impact on vehicle design. Much like the current automotive industry, there was widespread consolidation of both mechanical components and companies themselves, as manufacturers sought to save money whilst increasing diversity of options for the scrupulous customer.

Evolving manufacturing techniques, newer regulations and customer lifestyle changes, plus changing priorities towards safety, enabled sleeker designs to progress, including integrated fenders, fully closed bodies and a new saloon/sedan body style which usually incorporated a trunk or boot at the rear for storage. The old open-top runabouts, phaetons, and touring cars were largely phased out by the end of the ‘30s as wings, running boards, and headlights were gradually integrated into the body of the car. The motor vehicle was becoming a practical necessity and was evolving to suit the very voice of the consumer.

1937 Talbot Lago T-150C SS Goutte d’Eau

And, as always, the stock market crash also produced incredible wealth for a handful of people, meaning sports cars remained popular as the world looked to rebound, whilst luxury and ultra-luxury vehicles maintained their volumes. One of the most beautiful vehicles ever produced, the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300, sat proudly alongside other coach built sports cars such as the Delage D8 120 S Pourtout Aero Coupe and the Talbot Lago T150 C SS Teardrop Coupe, demonstrating a clearly evolving trend towards handcrafted, shapely designs, integrated body-panels and improved aerodynamics.

Consolidation & Coachbuilding

Although coachbuilders had existed as far back as the 16th century doing, well, exactly that, building the coaches for horse-drawn carriage processions, the invention and proliferation of the motor car and its many interpretations enabled an entire industry to be created, especially prior to WWII.

Low volume and luxury car manufacturers, to save costs, built the structure, assembled the wheels, running gear, propulsion systems and some interior parts and then sold this “rolling chassis” to the end customer, or to coachbuilders to apply their own aesthetic interpretations. The cost of dies and presses has always been very high – metallic body panels are very expensive – so most coachbuilders, to this day, use skilled experts to hand-beat metal panels over constructed wooden frames.

Rarer than hen’s teeth – Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic SC

In the late ‘20s and ‘30s, there were hundreds: from Vanden Plas, Tickford and SSC of England, Pourtout and Vanvooren of France and Erdmann & Rossi of Germany, to famous Italian names like Bertone, Giugiaro, Pininfarina, Ghia, Scaglietti, Touring, Vignale & Zagato, and LaBaron and Rollston of the US. In fact, all ultra-luxury vehicles built before WWII were coachbuilt. Some of the best to sprout from the established manufacturers during the depression years include the Cadillac V-16 (1930), Hispano-Suiza J12 (1931), Packard Twelve (1933), Bugatti Type 57 (1934) and the Rolls Royce Phantom III (1936).

 Yet some of the most special vehicles of this era are credited to the unique design of the coachbuilders themselves, and although we’ll cover this in a separate CLT article later in the year, if you get a chance, take a look at any one of the below to get your juices flowing:

  1. 1930 Mercedes-Benz 710 SSK Trossi Roadster
  2. 1931 Stutz DV-32 LeBaron Convertible Victoria
  3. 1934 Packard Twelve Stationary Coupe
  4. 1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Jonckheere Coupe
  5. 1935 Mercedes-Benz 500 K Erdmann & Rossi
  6. 1936 Lancia Astura Pinin Farina Cabriolet
  7. 1936 Peugeot 402 Darl’mat Pourtouts coupe
  8. 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster
  9. 1937 Talbot Lago T-150C SS Goutte d’Eau
  10. 1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton
  11. 1937 Delage D8 120S Pourtouts Aero Coupe
  12. 1938 Hispano-Suiza H6B Xenia
  13. 1938 Phantom Corsair
  15. 1938 Delahaye 165 Figoni & Falaschi Cabriolet
GM’s Futurliners in a “Parade of Progress”

Cars & Culture Collide

In fact, quite a few vehicles from the time began to reflect, for perhaps the first time, popular art and design movements, particularly Art Deco. Luxury European vehicles including the BMW 328, Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic and 1935 Amilcar G36 Pegase Boattail Roadster possess elegantly shaped grills, lavish chrome and aluminium features and curvaceous fenders. American counterparts such as the Oldsmobile L-38 and concept cars such as the Buick Y Job have tall, proud noses lined with long chrome features that extend towards the rear of the vehicle, but still accentuate curvaceous fenders and extensive use of new and contrasting materials.

GM were so ahead of their time that they designed and created 8 Futurliners, a collection of huge and stunningly designed Art Deco-inspired tour buses, that were driven around the US between 1936 & 1941 (then later, between ‘53 & ‘56) showcasing the future of technology as they saw it, including heating and cooling technology, air travel and the world of science. And, of course, marketing themselves at the forefront of these developments.

 But for most of us, who didn’t have huge piles of cash lying around, it was the small, family cars that were leading an evolution of design as vehicles like the Tatra V570 from Czechia (the Czech Republic), the Peugeot 402 and the Renault Juvaquatre were all released towards the end of the ’30s, each one progressing independent styles whilst sharing a few similarities, in particular the sloping rear end. But nothing compared to the debut, in 1938, of the Volkswagen Beetle.

The original VW Beetle

The Bug

Conceived by none other than Adolf Hitler as a car for the people, a volk’s wagen, or Volkswagen as you know today, the Beetle was conceived long before the war began and was designed by Ferdinand Porsche of, well, Porsche, who had a real affinity for rear-engined vehicles.

When the Beetle went into production, just over 200 were made before the war began and all the factories were used for… other matters. But as soon as the war was over, production kicked back into gear, though limited by post-war political agreements and availability of resources. As the years went by, however, it became the resounding success we all know, the most popular car in automotive history, the longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single platform ever made. But why was it so popular, and why is it still to this day?

The VW Beetle – An icon for all time

Well for one, it represents simplicity, not unlike the Austin 7 and Ford Model T, except it is radically different from anything that came before it and set a template for future vehicles that wouldn’t be produced until after WWII. Remember that Hitler rose to power in a Germany that was financially on its knees and relatively poor for a western economy, having been forced by allied forces to pay huge sums of money to repair the damage of WWI. Any “car for the people” would have needed to be very cheap, simple and usable.

But, thanks to the vision of Ferdinand Porsche and his team, the Beetle also proved to be remarkably elegant, with smooth, consistent lines, integrated headlamps and perfect proportions. Moving the engine to the rear allowed the front to be used as storage, whilst there was plenty of room inside for four people and more storage under the rear seat.

Two Iconic Designs – VW Beetle & Golden Gate Bridge

As we’ll soon see, the economic situation of Europe post-WWII produced several more iconic compact cars that really progressed vehicle design, in stark contrast to the golden era of American car design which also shaped appearances in a very different way.

But we’ll end it there for now. Part 2 will bring you the end of the ‘40s and the expansive years of the ‘50s, a decade that produced some of the most beautiful cars ever created. The Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, the Citroen DS, the Porsche 500 Spyder and the Chevrolet Corvette will be joined by icons including the Fiat 500, the Mini, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider and the Plymouth Belvedere. And that’s just the start.

I hope you’ve already gained a brief insight into the history of car design and how it evolved from the pioneers of vehicle creation, where only the necessities were required, to an industry that, even by the end of WWII, was becoming more consumer driven, more design focused and more conscious of looks and ergonomics as opposed to just technology.

We’ve seen the motor car progress from a three wheeled, rear engine carriage to a four-wheeled, canopy covered motorcart, then on to an enclosed body, whilst the types of cars available has exploded in diversity. Already we’ve covered legendary cars such as the VW Beetle, Buick Y Job , Austin 7, Bugatti Type 57 and the Model T Ford. If that’s not a diverse introduction to car design, I don’t know what is!


So, if you’ve enjoyed this, please follow us and be the first to know of any new articles. You won’t want to miss part two in our A Brief History of Car Design series.

The stunning Buick Y Job concept

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