Who invented that in your car?

By David Linklater

BMW was the first to add iPod integration into cars. Photo / Supplied
BMW was the first to add iPod integration into cars. Photo / Supplied

Ever wondered which car companies pioneered the features and technology we now take for granted? We do, which is why we've compiled a list of 10 equipment items that are now very familiar to new-car buyers, and taken a look back to see where they started.

Some you're sure to know already. Others might surprise ...

CUPHOLDERS

The latest Honda Jazz is a tiny supermini that has 10 places to put drinks. Suffice to say, this cupholder thing is now well out of control.

But where did it start? It will not surprise you to learn that the idea came from America, land of drive-in and drive-through -- sorry, drive-thru -- dining. The car industry flirted with the idea of add-on food and beverage trays as accessories through the 1950s, but the invention of the properly integrated cupholder came hand-in-hand with the invention of a whole new type of car: the 1983 Chrysler Minivan, the world's first people-mover.

There were only two cupholders in that first Minivan, though. What were they thinking?

AIR CONDITIONING

The United States again: trust America to show the automotive world how to be cool. Many companies experimented with air conditioning in cars during the 1930s and 1940s, but the hardware was bulky and crude.

The first proper automotive air conditioning system was in the 1953 Chrysler Imperial: it was reliable, relatively compact, could be adjusted for strength and recirculated the air, rather than simply blowing cold into the cabin.

SEATBELTS

Volvo Bohlin seatbelt.
Volvo Bohlin seatbelt.

An easy one, this. An engineer named Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt for Volvo, which put it into production as standard equipment in its cars from 1959. Another Swedish brand, Saab, was actually the first carmaker to fit seatbelts as standard, in 1958 -- albeit the lap-only variety.

iPOD INTERFACE

Having personal music in your car is an essential part of the automotive experience and has been for a long time, from the HiWay Hi-Fi in-car record player of the 1950s (true!) to the first in-dash CD players of the 1990s.

These days, we pretty much take it for granted that we can plug a portable music player into a new car. If there's a USB port provided, we take it as read that you'll get full integration for an iPod.

This has come about because early on the automotive industry realised that Apple's music player would be the dominant product in its segment. BMW was the first carmaker to offer iPod integration, in 2004 -- just three years after the launch of the very first iPod.

Users could plug their Apple player into the car and have full control of tracks and playlists via the car's own audio system.

Now, the majority of new-car buyers can do that too.

Before you go, I've got a Microsoft Zune going cheap. Anybody?

THE HATCHBACK

Station wagons have been around for a long time, but it took the car industry a while to click to the idea of putting a tailgate on to the back of a small car to make it more practical.


While there were many special or limited-run models that incorporated the idea, it is generally agreed that the first production hatchback was the 1961 Renault 4 -- although in design rather than nomenclature, as the company never referred to it as such and the term "hatchback" did not come into common use for another decade.

POWER STEERING

By the time we're finished here you're going to be scouring Ebay for Chrysler Imperials -- the 1951 model was the first production car in the world to have power steering, under the brand Hydraguide. The technology took off quickly in America, which no doubt had something to do with the massive size and weight of contemporary vehicles in that country at that time.

Power steering took longer to become truly mainstream in other markets. In New Zealand, it was by no means a standard feature in new cars until the Japanese used imports of the late-1980s and 1990s changed people's perceptions about what standard equipment cars should have.

REMOTE UNLOCKING

Who would consider unlocking their car by putting a key in the door these days? We all take the "key fob" for granted.

The first car to have remote locking was the 1982 Renault Fuego, a distinctively styled coupe that is also notable for being the first car to have remote controls for the audio on the steering wheel.

A further development of remote unlocking is keyless entry, in which the locking system has sensors that recognise when you have the key and will allow you to unlock a door without actually touching the key fob. The first car to have such a system was the 1993 Chevrolet Corvette.

SATELLITE NAVIGATION

Honda worked with Alpine as far back as 1981 to create an in-car navigation system, although it did not have access to the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Instead, it combined mapping with a simple gyroscope.

Oldsmobile was the first car brand to offer integrated satellite navigation in a production vehicle. The system was called GuideStar.

AIRBAGS

Ford and General Motors fitted airbags to a number of prototype vehicles for government use in America in the early 1970s, but GM was arguably first to market the technology in production vehicles from Cadillac and Oldsmobile. Back then, the airbag was considered a replacement for a three-point seatbelt.

The next phase of development didn't come until much later, when the airbag became a Supplementary Restraint System (SRS). From there, the airbag really took hold as a globally accepted safety technology. The first production car to feature an airbag as we know it today was the 1981 Mercedes-Benz S-class.

ANTI-LOCK BRAKING

The magnificent 1967 Jensen FF was the first production car in the world to have anti-lock braking -- a system developed from that used in heavy vehicles and aircraft. Incidentally, the FF was also the first production road car to four-wheel drive.

However, Mercedes-Benz has long claimed that it brought anti-lock braking into series production cars in 1978, with some justification. The electronically controlled system offered on the S-class had the ability to prevent lock-up on the front wheels, meaning the car could still be steered out of trouble.

Some claim that the Americans still got there first, with a system called Sure-Brake in 1971. This was also able to prevent lock-up on all four wheels, albeit without the benefit of digital control.

Sure-Brake was available on the Chrysler Imperial. Of course.

- NZ Herald

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