Transforming cars. You expected to see this car, right? The all famous Bumblebee Camaro from the 2007 movie 'Transformers'. Yes, that is a transforming car but I was thinking about cars that transformed our country, the world and how cars have been made and sold for the last 100+ years.
To define and determine what makes a car one that created transformation in the automobile world some rules need to be set. First we need to agree on what defines a car. Next, we will need to know what is considered a major transformation. There are literally hundreds of cars and manufacturers who have made progress or invented something that changed cars as we know them but we will limit this piece to those that the average non-car person can identify or agree with. For this discussion the transformation doesn't apply only to the technology of the car but also to how the car changed society, how it influenced our world and, generally, anything that created water cooler discussions. And since I am writing this, I get to decide if my example follows my rules.
What was the first car has been argued for many years. There were steam powered horseless carriages as early as the 1770's but with limited distance, difficult to use, and expensive to make those don't count. Let's define a car then as one with more than two wheels, has a maintainable engine, and can seat more than one. Using that definition I will submit to you that Daimler and Benz each created the first car. In 1885 the three-wheeled Benz was driven on roads and in 1886 both Benz and Daimler filed for patents on the same day in different cities with the main difference being Mr. Daimler's car having four wheels. What can be more transformational in the auto world than the first car, or cars in this case.
Once the first internal combustion cars were invented, many, many people copied and created cars of their own (over 100 brands of horseless carriages in 1900 alone). Most of these I will skip over because while they were cars and while they invented new features and made cars easier to use, most were really one off automobiles and due to exorbitant prices were only available to the Rockefeller's and Carnegie's of the world. Those cars didn't change the world.
That leaves us with, the 'of course' car, the Model T. Henry Ford, love him or hate him, revolutionized not only how to make cars but changed the entire U.S. society and economy. His brilliant idea of paying people enough so they could actually afford the cars they made created a full and robust middle class society, as well as just a 'few' wealthy people. Maybe someone else would have come up with the same idea, but Mr. Ford did so first, so he wins. His affordable, reliable, tough and readily available 1908 Model T made the car the ubiquitous family addition that it is today. The Model T confidently fits the transforming car definition.
Honestly, for the next 51 years there really weren't any transformational cars or ideas. Don't get me wrong. We improved how we made cars. Some of the most beautiful cars ever produced were created during those 51 years. But they were all still just cars, 4 wheels, internal engines, doors, windows, etc. Yes we saw the invention of automatic transmissions, air conditioning, power steering and other necessary and fun items but all of those items only enhanced the car, not transform it.
Not until the 1959 Volvo Amazon (122S in the United States) did we see what I deem the next true automobile transformation with the first real focus on safety. It was started with what we call the 3-point seat belt. Volvo, the small Swedish company had been playing with safety since the early 50's, but the seat belt changed how the world saw and interpreted safety for cars. Volvo earns the award for a truly transformational automobile.
The invention of the seat belt was extremely fortuitous as for the next 10-12 years the horsepower wars were fought. The big 3 U.S. auto-manufacturers battled tooth and nail, or I guess I should say, piston and valve, to put the largest and most powerful engine in the smallest car that could handle it. A wonderful time for fast, straight-line vehicles that could hit 100 MPH faster than Takeru Kobayashi can eat a hot dog all the while gulping gas as if it cost next to nothing - which it did. The cars of the 60's represent a set of cars that transformed how we viewed, and used cars in the U.S. and around the world. Fast? Yes. Quality? Sometimes. Handling? Almost never.
1986 saw the next revolution. Hyundai, yes, Hyundai proved that in an industry that economists say have 'high barriers to entry', i.e. expensive, that a no nothing, cheap, and actually unreliable car could break into the American market and not only survive but thrive. Hyundai, and its sister Kia, are now recognized forces in the auto industry with a car line that many other car makers envy and with a warranty that consumers love. Applause for Hyundai for showing that a little company can change the car industry.
The final vehicle that transformed the car industry is, wait for it, Saturn. I said Saturn and you thought 'Have you lost your mind?' Saturn as a vehicle really had nothing transformational, in fact, by the time it came to market it was practically behind the times. However, the company that in 1999 touted itself 'a different kind of car company' transformed how we bought cars.
The checkered coat, yellow tie, slicked back hair salesperson was gone and replaced with a consultant who determined what you really needed all without you having to worry about making a deal. The novel idea that there is one listed price was invented and car shopping changed for many. We now have Used Car Supermarkets with 'true pricing' and whole dealerships that discount their car prices before you show up. Sometimes car shopping can actually be fun. Thank you goes to Saturn for transforming the car shopping experience.
What's next? I guess hybrid, electric, hydrogen powered, and even flying cars will constitute the next transformation but we aren't there yet. Think about it, you may be driving the car that will one day change the world, or at least your local dealership. Your decision about the car you drive may transform an entire nation and generation. Ponder that for a bit and walk with your head held high.
That's the thing about cars that transform, you usually don't know that's what they will do until it has already happened.