It seems difficult to imagine today, in a world fundamentally changed by the internal combustion engine, that there was any true alternative to petrol power at the beginning of the automotive industry.
Eventually, the benefits of range and the impact of mass production on prices saw petrol cars dominate the market - but consider how very different the world would look today if electric cars had become the norm. It would be another 100 years before electric and hybrid vehicles made a significant return to our roads.
Business may have been booming for many of the early manufacturers, but motoring was almost exclusively a rich man’s game. This new technology was stretching its legs and exploring the world - with long distance and cross-continental races becoming a new form of popular entertainment for the masses and extravagant distraction for the few rich enough to compete. The first ever Indianapolis 500, which remains a highlight of the global racing calendar, took place in 1911.
- a whole 3 weeks ahead of the runner-up.
It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and the getaway drivers of the Prohibition era in the USA were unlikely early motoring innovators. They needed vehicles that were fast and small enough to evade the police, but strong and well-balanced to ensure their cargo of illicit wares was secure.
Simultaneously, between 1927 and 1935, this new-found need-for-speed saw Daytona Beach witness the breaking of 8 consecutive land speed records.
Cars had been the sole preserve of the rich for decades. However, in the wake of World War Two, despite steel shortages and a fragile global economy, there was a desire for popular motoring to finally include everyone.
Slowly, as economies across the world recovered, manufacturers would eventually welcome the benefits of the mass market. 1957 saw the arrival of the iconic Fiat 500, quickly followed by the Mini, an energetic symbol of post-war Britain, in 1959.
The boom of popular motoring meant many more cars on the road, and with that, a significant challenge to the safety of those driving.
Stopping times were improved significantly by the creation of anti-lock and disc brakes. However, invention was moving faster than legislation. National and international standards of safety took decades to develop, despite the technology existing to protect drivers and their passengers.
“Simplify, then add lightness”
The famous words of Lotus founder Colin Chapman have endured as essential design wisdom, even beyond the world of motor racing.
But as the cars got lighter and the engines got bigger, racing became more and more dangerous - safety regulations remained lax, and in this decade alone, 14 Formula One drivers lost their lives on the track.
World events have often had a huge impact on the motor industry. The decrease in global oil production as a consequence of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 provoked fundamental changes to the cars we saw on our roads.
This reduced demand in key manufacturing hubs, such as Detroit in the US, whilst a decade of fuel shortages began to move public opinion towards the idea of efficiency and conservation.
As engine technology improved, higher levels of performance were available to larger numbers of people. The ‘Hot Hatch’ offered high performance combined with everyday practicality to a keen global audience of wannabe racers.
The rise of the Hot Hatch has often been blamed for killing off the British sports car industry - most notably by the Top Gear team.
With the rise of the internet and the ever-quickening progress of personal technology, it was only a matter of time before cars took their place in the digital revolution. Many of the most popular innovations were around safety rather than performance.
In 2003, the Toyota Prius became the first car to offer a computerised Intelligent Parking Assist - technology that has now become an expected safety aid in many markets across the world.
With every leap forward in technology comes a unique new set of concerns. Electric cars may offer a greener and quieter alternative, but the worry of range anxiety - the fear of your car running out of power and leaving you stranded - has become a barrier to the wider spread of the technology.