By on April 5, 2013

Once I get to ranting on the subject, I’ll fulminate that the true modern era of the automobile didn’t start until about 1990, when carburetors and points ignitions finally disappeared from new cars sold in the United States. Before and after that point, however, a lot of progress— and backsliding— has taken place in the automotive industry. Which brings up the question: what ten-year period, starting with Karl Benz’s Patent Motorwagen in 1886, saw the most improvement, innovation, whatever you want to call it, in the automotive world?
You may choose to give most emphasis to advances in engineering and materials, in which case the advances made by GM and its rivals during the 1946-1956 period might be most important. Or maybe Mr. Ford’s greatest hit and resulting huge lowering of the cost of a new car could give the win to 1909-1919. European cars sure looked beautiful from, say, 1958 through 1968, and you can’t write off the bang-per-buck advances in build quality accomplished by Japanese automakers during the 1975-1985 period. But wait— how about electronic fuel injection and engine controls, which became standard equipment on even the lowliest econoboxes during the 1980s? And do we even consider any period containing 1939-45, a period during which the major carmaking countries were too busy blasting one another to crap to do much automotive innovation, but which produced a lot of engineering advances that went into cars later on? Or, what the heck, we’re living in the Golden Age of Ridiculous Horsepower right now— could be that 2003-2013 gets your vote! Your thoughts?

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59 Comments on “Question: What Ten-Year Period Was the Auto Industry’s Greatest Leap Forward?...”

  • avatar


    • 0 avatar


      I’d nudge it just a little later 1985-1995 or 1986-1996. The reason: in 1994 dual airbags and ABS were luxury items, but by 1996, both items were standard on mainstream cars. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, multi-port digital fuel injection and electronic ignition became ubiquitous. Cars simply ran better and ran longer with less maintenance. This decade also saw the near extinction of the 3-speed automatic. Four-speed (with OD) and a few five-speed automatics made for quiet interstate cruising with much better economy. This period also saw better rust-proofing. A 5-year old 1985 model was an old car. A 5 year-old 1995 model was a middle aged car.

  • avatar

    2000’s for sure. No decade combines the fuel efficiency, cleanest running gas and diesel, safest operating, and best built cars.

    Today’s cars can barely match it.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ll second this one, possibly narrow it down to 2004-2009 or 2010. Cars are larger, but also the most efficient or getting to be that way. Just enough electronics for safety, comfort and convenience on even the cheapest basic car. Even cheapest car has airbags and can be driven 15000 miles without anything but an oil and filter change, most cars are capable of lasting 100k with no problem. Cars are more expensive, but last longer, even if neglected (mostly)

      Enthusiasts like us might lament some of these “improvements” and it can be argued that we are worse off as a driving population for letting the nanny aids take over. But your average Joe Carbuyer doesn’t care about driving and isn’t going to learn to do it properly. If equipping my car with 90 airbags and other devices will lessen my chances of dying when I.Cannot-Drive hits me, I’ll take it.

      My 08 Mazda 5 only has ABS and TPMS as nanny aids. The next year, Mazda added VSC and I believe TCS because of a mandate. I’m fine with these, but let me turn them off if I want, especially TCS on FWD. 2010 and up, we are seeing still the improvements in power and efficiency, but also more complication.

  • avatar

    1904-1914. Steering wheels replaced tillers, Model T production started, and self-starter/electrical system was developed. Probably lots more.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Got it in one. This was also the period when the Otto-cycle gasoline engine achieved lasting supremacy over steam and electric cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Darth Lefty

      This is a good answer.

      I also like the late 80’s through early 90’s which saw universal adoption of computer engine management, ignition, fuel injection, emissions controls that don’t squelch the car, bumper covers, crumple zones, and air bags. Since then it seems like everything has been on a plateau except the silly horsepower war sideshow.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        Not to mention keyless-entry and the standardization of OBD-II circa 1996. Two “innovations” that caused more trouble than good—due to thin, cheap wiring—were GM’s Passlock/Passlock-II and Ford’s V.A.T.S./P.A.T.S.

    • 0 avatar

      I would agree too, these hard line physical fundamentals were essential for further change to follow.

      I guess it is an age thing but I am perplexed by the number of entries that reference the ’80’s to ’90’s timeframe. Many 1980’s models were pure crap and only improved moderately into the ’90’s. The tech may have improved but the cars weren’t that much better and are mostly forgettable.

      One poster indicated that the 2010’s are starting to go over the top in complexity as a result of marketing direction, etc. and I agree with that too; I want a car, not a rolling tech center. Nevertheless, I am amazed at the technological prowess, efficiency and reliability that has appeared in the last ten years; a true, significant step change.

      • 0 avatar

        I think that the improvements made in design, testing and manufacture, not to mention safety over the last 20 years has essentially leveled the playing field. Whereas you needed to buy Japanese for reliability between 1980-2000, nowadays the worst assembled cars are still better than the best cars from 1990.

        This is probably the reason why automakers are pushing hard on the infotainment and design front now: it’s really the only way to differentiate yourself from the herd.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, or at least some period like 1904-1914 to 1908-1918.

      Before that cars were still toys and each one was operated in its on way.

      After that, at least with premium cars (RR, Daimler, Benz, Cadillac, Packard) you got in and drove them virtually the same as you drive a basic car today, including electric starters using a key, self lubricating engines, electric lights, pedals about where they still are, roll up windows, heaters…Five minutes learning the mysteries of chokes and spark advances on the steering wheel and you are good to go.

  • avatar

    If we’re going true zero-to-zero decade, 1980-1990. Barely-downsized carbureted monsters to rounded fuel-injected efficient compacts that weren’t even necessarily penalty boxes.

    I mean, unless you chose the wrong one or didn’t order any options, but my point stands…

    • 0 avatar

      This decade or the decade 1984-94 (suggested above) – I agree with both. Think what an advance the 1988-91 Honda Civic was versus the 1980-83, for example.

      As for American car design independent of drivetrain, I’d say 1961-70. At the end of the decade, in addition to mandated safety features (breakaway steering column, steel beams in doors, etc.), the typical 1970 car offered standard features such as curved side glass (and, on convertibles, glass rear window), as well as standard or optional front disc brakes, FM stereo and/or 8-track player, etc., that were quite scarce or unavailable in 1960. All this made a typical 1961 American car seem quite antiquated by 1970 – just imagine a 1970 GTO (not a Judge, thanks) next to any 1961 GM 2-door.

  • avatar

    It still has to come! Probably around 2020-2030 when gasoline prices really force us to rethink mobility.
    The current car proposition is completely insane! It is a non-specialized tractor/do all that has not evolved into something more high tech than a mechanical horse.

    Cars drive around with an average of 1,3 person and still weigh +3000 lbs. It brings you to your work on average and you do some groceries once or twice a weak. But it’s also capable of moving all your friends furniture or transport you,your family and your boat to a holiday location within 700 miles.

    We really don’t need such vehicles to move us from a-b. Buy a small car and rent something if you need a truck/work vehicle.

    Tesla is the most successful experiment in showing how conservative the general thought on cars is however. An electric car is limited by its inferior battery (in terms of energy storage compared to gasoline), what happens? We put in a big battery to compensate. Just make a small car for commuters who will do with a 60 miles range.

    I really like cars and the technology behind them. Racecars as well, heck I did FSAE.
    I also love to see that old Jag driving around with a person in it with a big grin. But generally speaking we don’t need that on a day to day basis.

  • avatar

    1988-1998, with the advent and standardization of tuned port and multi-port fuel injection.

  • avatar

    I would say late eighties to late nineties. All of the important stuff we take for granted now started becoming mainstream – fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, airbags, traction control, climate control, sound system etc. After 2000 things got completely out of hand. Cars are now loaded with marketing driven marvels/gizmos like electric power steering, computer controlled oil pumps, satellite navigation, active cruise control, blue teeth and who knows what else.

  • avatar

    Probably about 1922 to 1932. Most people today would have no clue how to drive a car from 1922, spark advance, the weird three pedal setup of the Model T, hand cranks, etc. By 1932 the now familiar 3 pedal layout was standard and you could turn a key and go with a choke adjustment at most.

    • 0 avatar

      Not to mention after setting the spark advance, choke, and throttle positions, you had to start the Model T with an upward pull on the crank. Pushing down on the crank meant you were risking a broken arm if engine misfired. Once the engine started, you had to vault over the fake driver’s door and quickly adjust the spark advance and throttle before the engine stalled out.

      I definitely agree with you. I think most people today have little idea how bizarre and varied the control systems were on many cars until, as you say, things standardized around the 3-pedal layout, steering wheel, electric self-starter, etc. The only other problem a modern driver might have with a Model A or B from the 1930’s is the non-synchromesh gearbox.

      Today we think a 1980’s Peugeot is strange because the turn signal stalk is on the right side of the steering wheel. That’s nothing compared to cars like the Model T and older.

  • avatar

    I would say the late 80’s early 90s when the technology to weld galvanized steel was adopted and the demon rust was vanquished to a very significant degree.

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    I was born in 1964 and within my lifetime I would say the mid-1970’s to mid-1980’s was the greatest period of change and innovation. This was the era of dramatic downsizing and also the time when the domestics finally transitioned to front-wheel drive. This period saw the decline of the station wagon and personal luxury coupe and the rise of the minivan and SUV. This was also the time when Japan became firmly established as a world automotive superpower.

  • avatar

    I would say 1931 through 1941. By 1941, cars were no longer motorized carriages.

    By 1941, independent front suspension and hydraulic brakes were standard (except at Ford for the former, and the company was suffering for it), GM had introduced Hydramatic on Oldsmobile and then Cadillac, Nash had introduced the modern heating and ventilation system, Packard had introduced an early, but crude, form of air conditioning, and all-steel bodies completely eliminated the use of wood and fabric.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with Geeber. The advances in nearly every area of motoring, from brakes, all-steel bodies, better components, the first serious streamlining, etc., etc.

  • avatar

    I vote 1960s:
    Debut of Porsche 911, Ford Mustang, Alfa Romeo Giulia, BMW -02 and E9. To just name a few iconic cars from that decade.

  • avatar


    In this decade tens of thousands of miles of roads were constructed within and between cities and towns, thus allowing for the full transportation utility of vehicles to be implemented. Roads allowed for the evolution of cars from carriage/tractors to modern comfortable vehicles. Those routes and roads till exist today though substantially modified, formed the backbone of the transportation system. What is astounding is that most of the work of constructing these roads was by hand labor, horses, and steam shovels.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al from Oz

      Yeah. Without the infrastructure to allow cars to drive we would all have Jeeps.

      And a lot of what we are discussing wouldn’t exist.

  • avatar

    I can’t pick one period. It’s all been pretty steady innovation. Even in the 70’s they were figuring out how to make cars lighter, less rusty, better for the environment (albeit done poorly), safer and it worked.

    It might seem like nothing is happening right now, but somewhere there is an engineer designing some awesome battery that will be the next leap forward.

  • avatar

    Ill not venture an answer but I enjoy seeing the Cord drive train and the simplicity of the 1955 chev V-8 and that cast iron,two speed,air cooled powerglide transmission.

  • avatar

    Ha! Wouldn’t you know it, I figured everyone would pick at the dawn of the auto and here everyone is picking the same decade as I would. 80’s for sure. It’s the dawn of the computer in CAM/CAM. Ignore the particular models and whether it was a “good one” or not. Behind the scenes there was a massive shift in how cars were designed and then built. Some of the improvements weren’t seen for a decade but the first steps were born.

    Without that, the US domestics would never have been close to competitive with the Japanese.

  • avatar

    We haven’t reach it yet. When my car flies that will be a HUGE leap forward!

    There has been two signification leaps: the first was back in 20s-30s when the “car” as we know it today was pretty much standardized. Before that horse-less carriages of all sorts roamed the planet (or so I’ve read). Then the next would be the 90s-00s when computers took over: things like advanced cruise control, ABS, airbags, hybrid power trains, traction control, climate control, etc became common place.

    I guess we are the verge of another major shift… as full hybrids and self driving cars actually becoming reality.

    • 0 avatar

      As a pilot and flight instructor, I will say that flying cars will probably not happen. At least not as we know “cars” and “flying” now. Most people have a problem with driving now and only have to worry about the road ahead of them and other cars.

      Flying itself, the actual control of the plane, is not hard. But keeping ahead of the plane and planning ahead period is the challenge. Throw in wind, bad weather or rain and snow and it’s even more fun.

      I don’t see a Jetsons world anytime soon.

      • 0 avatar

        I fail to see how a decent autopilot is going to be more difficult than “google drive”, and due to existing flight regulations should be far easier. The real trick (in the US) is going to depend on who owns the regulators and why they would want to allow competition.

        “Flying Cars” sound pretty silly (kind of like an early 20th century mechanical horse), but I wouldn’t be surprised in seeing plenty of short takeoff and landing airplanes in various BRIC countries.

  • avatar

    I would have said the 1980s, where carburetors died off and emission controls simplified and improved a lot.

    However, my answer might be this: 1925-1935, where proliferation of gas pumps made transcontinental travel a reality. We face the same infrastructure challenges today when discussing cars powered by electricity, hydrogen, or natural gas.

  • avatar

    I vote for the 1960s. By 1968, a car was reliable and comfortable enough for cross-country trips. Before the mid-50s, that would have been an adventure.

    As to Murilee’s comment about ‘beautiful’ Europeans from 58-68, I would disagree. Maybe exotics, but many common Euro cars looked like, and were, junk. Excluding Mercedes, Peugeot, BMW, Jaguar, and up-level Opels, Fiats, Citroens, etc (ie the cars Americans think of when thinking of European cars), mass European autos were buzzy, slow, loud, and crude.

    The 80s comes next, as fuel injection and computers finally allowed cars to first reach, and then surpass, the driveability they had in the 1960s before emissions controls.

    • 0 avatar

      It is true that vehicles like the Citroen 2CV, Renault 4, VW Beetle, Fiat 500 or Morris Minor were highly common in that time and fit the description “buzzy, slow, loud and crude”. But “Mercedes, Peugeot, BMW, Jaguar, and up-level Opels, Fiats, Citroens” were in fact mass-produced cars in Europe (possible exception: Jaguar) during that time and not exotics. European Exotics from that era would be the likes of Ferrari, Facel-Vega or Aston Martin.

  • avatar

    Late 80’s to late 90’s for the following reasons:

    1.) airbags and other safety features on virtually no cars in the 80’s to all cars by the end of this span.
    2.) Transmissions going from 3 speed autos to 4 and 5 speeds; and 4 speed manuals to 5 and 6 speeds.
    3.) 100+ Horsepower gains back up to the levels not seen since the early 70’s. (Take the Corvette: 240 HP in 1988 to 345 HP in 1998); also nearly all four cylinders went from sub-100 HP to almost 200 HP.)
    4.) The Japanese sports car wars (mentioned in a previous TTAC article).
    5.) The time when if became ‘normal’ to see a variety of German cars in a middle-class neighborhood.
    6.) Turbos added to all light pickup diesels, increasing efficiency far above their gas counterparts.
    7.) The birth of the modern SUV (for better or worse).

    • 0 avatar

      This. And given that the average car age in the US is 10+ years anyway, many of these late 90s cars are still driving around.

      Another way to look at it, around 98 many cars got a redesign which took them through 2005 anyway.

  • avatar

    I’ve pondered this same question in the past, myself. I often narrow it down to a couple of eras: 1950-1960 and 1980-1990.

    1950-1960 due to powertrains and the wider variety of body styles (V8s and automatics fully arrived and companies had much larger product offerings)

    1980-1990 due to chassis and powertrains combined (body on frame to unibodies, leaf springs to strut suspensions, and engine/transmissions and electronic controls)

  • avatar

    Ubiquitous fuel injection leading to ubiquitous OHC American V8s. 1985 to 1995. Ford was first to the party with the Lo-Po 5.0 in the Panther. Chrysler cancelled their V8 cars before they could become injected and GM drug its feet, it typical fashion, not giving up on the e-Quadrajet 307 until 1991.

    (I know some of you will talk up the foreign makes but I grew up in the Midwest during the 1980s and was barely aware the Japanese makers existed ‘cept that one guy with a Marysville built Honda that loved to show everyone the “Made in the USA” sticker. :) )

  • avatar

    I would have to echo everyone else here and say probably ’85-’95-ish, beating out the ’20s-’30s. Really, the advent of the computer, both on the design of the vehicle and it’s actual operation revolutionized cars just as it did every other aspect of our lives.

    Electronic engine management systems simply allow cars today to run more efficiently, producing gains in hp and mpg. That, combined with the much better tolerances that can be used due to advanced design and engineering, has let driving take a massive leap forward. No need to adjust the carb for the winter, reset the timing that has gone out of alignment, or mess with the points. Instead, your car is listening to sensors give it data from all those areas hundreds of times per second and adjusting itself for optimal fuel/air ratio and then advancing the spark perfectly. If it does quit, a light will come on in the dash, and you can hook it up to a scanner and likely it will tell you want has failed. As much as I love to work on cars and mess around in the garage, when it comes to a car getting you to work every day, or across the country on vacation, those 10 years ushered in a new era in reliability and expectations when it comes to car ownership.

    With all that out of the way, I’m in the market for a run down Willys that has all the problems engineers and designers have eliminated.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    “The Model T was so cheap at $825 in 1908 ($21,080 today) (the price fell every year) that by the 1920s, a majority of American drivers had learned to drive on the Model T.”

    Without this decade, we wouldn’t have all the nice things we have now in cars. Someone else might have mass produced motor vehicles, but Henry did make it work and most importantly made it work for the average person.

    • 0 avatar

      If I was going with the early years, I’d have to start before the Model T and go back to 1905 or so with David Buick’s overhead valve engine. By 1913, Cadillac was offering Kettering’s electric starter and by 1914 the Dodge Brothers introduced their first car, arguably the first modern mass produced car after the Model T, which by 1914, was hardly state of the art.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        @Ronnie Schreiber,
        I don’t disagree with you on that.

        I was looking at the economics of it all, the money that accelerated all the other innovations.

        This made the manufacturers realise what innovations they come up with had to be viable.

        The mass produce automobile is one of mans greatest achievements in my eyes along with air and space travel.

    • 0 avatar

      Have you started one of these lately? I got a workout just trying to start my Grandfather’s 1915 Model T Brass!

  • avatar

    About 1922-1932. Standard four wheel brakes, hydraulic brakes, power brakes, safety glass, proper tires and automatic ignition timing, plus numerous engine design improvements such as balance shafts, rubber engine mounts and downdraft carbs. All kinds of stuff that made it possible to drive a car without constant fear of death.

  • avatar

    Murilee posed a great question but reading through the comments above, all of the decades have had their own advancements. The important point is that the state of the art has been improved on an almost constant basis and that automobiles and trucks today are probably better than they have ever been.

  • avatar

    Definitely 1929-1939 decade. At the beginning of this period, the automobile was just overcoming its technological weirdness (the Model T planetary transmission was replaced with a good-ol standard three speed in 1928). By 1939, there’s nothing about a new car that a person born in 1980 couldn’t drive – as long as he can drive a manual transmission, of course.

    My first car, a 1937 Buick Special, was bone stock standard in all the controls, and other than hitting the starter (key on, press down on the gas pedal, that engaged the starter) there was nothing different from a 30-40 year newer car.

    That’s when the automobile grew up.

  • avatar

    For style, you can’t beat 1950-1972. Why? Well…you know…

    For efficiency, beginning in the 1980’s, EFI & computer controls.

  • avatar


    Yes, the ’85-’95 period saw the addition of many technological parlor tricks and safety equipment, but the ’96-’06 era is the age of digital auto manufacturing and is synonymous with an explosion in the availability and cost-effectiveness of computer design and simulation tools. Rapid prototyping became more rapid, and ‘completely redesigned’ literally meant the company started with a clean sheet. Powertrains efficiency also made a huge leap forward with vehicles like the Prius.

    For the record, I don’t believe that rapid prototyping has done anything spectacular for the consumer, other than allow us to rapidly offset R&D costs with rising MSRP. However, the self-destructive consumptive habits cannot negate the genuinely incredible technological leap forward made by automobile manufacturers.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    1947-1957. Guys came back from the war. Colleges were attended,people got married, families got raised, subdivisions got built. New cars got bought every two years. Cars looked fast standing still. Real hard to find an ugly new car in 1957. Harley Earle has a spring in step and a twinkle in his eye. You couldn’t help but make money. Stories I’ve heard from old guys while drinking cocktails.

  • avatar

    This is actually a more complicated question than it might seem.

    Why? Simply because various facets and capabilities of cars had different “leap-forward” cycles that did not necessarily overlap or become congruent with one another. Here are some, not necessarily in any order:
    1) ICE vs Steam and early Electric;
    2) Computerization and fuel injection;
    3) Infotainment and touchscreen systems;
    4) Safety protocols and airbags;
    5) Automatic transmissions and air-conditioning;
    6) Pollution controls and the CO2/SO2/NOx regulations;
    7) The “nanny” era (ABS, ATC, ASC, lane-departure warning, blind spot, pedestrian detection, etc.)
    8) Self-driving cars with passive occupants (new).

    I’m sure there are others. But the question is not when they occurred, but which are among the most influential? In my view, that simply can’t be answered…yet, if ever. Perhaps all were(are) important.


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