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The Evolution of Car Design by Dale Cooper

In 2010, over 58 million cars rolled out of manufacturing plants worldwide. Since the first car was produced in the late 19th century, the automobile has morphed from an expensive, inefficient vehicle of the upper class to a staple of American culture. Along the way, cars have undergone changes in nearly every aspect, from body to design to safety features. Those changes have shaped the modern automobile, and will continue to influence its development for years to come.

The First Cars
Early automobiles were modeled after stage coaches, the dominant mode of transportation at the time, and were referred to as motor coaches, motor carriages or horseless buggies. Early car design was simple and functional. They were built for rough roads, low speeds and high capacity. In the more than 100 years since, we’ve seen changes to almost every element of a car’s design. No longer is the car an odd buggy with no horse - the engine is more powerful and efficient, the body more aerodynamic and cars now incorporate computer components that assist in navigation, fuel usage and even parallel parking.

Body Design

When we think of car design, we picture the body of an automobile, that outer layer of metal that gives a car its shape. Of all the aspects of automotive design that have changed over time and vary between manufacturers, differences in body style are the most drastic. As car engines became more powerful, cars got faster, and there was a need to reduce drag, making the vehicle more efficient.

Of course, not all changes in body design have been practical. As the most visible part of a car, the body has been heavily influenced by prevailing styles. That’s the only way to explain why Cadillac outfitted its cars with giant fins in 1959. While most changes in car design have been the result of mechanical advancements, car body designs are created at the intersection of fashion and function.

Engine Design

Automotive engineering has come a long way in the past century, even though the main component of the motor, the internal combustion engine, is still in use in the majority of cars. Advancements in engineering have improved the internal combustion engine, making it more powerful and efficient, but the original principle is still intact.

Just as the need to reduce drag influenced the shape of cars, the scarcity of oil has prompted the development of engines that run on alternative fuels. Hybrid electric, solar and even hydrogen powered cars have been experimented with, and several have made their way to market. We’ve come a long way in automotive engineering advancement and have only caught a glimpse of what might power cars in 10 or 20 years.

Safety Features

As cars have gotten faster, it’s become necessary to protect passengers in case of an accident. Safety features like seat belts, air bags and automotive insurance have been developed to keep people and their vehicles secure. As the number of cars on the road has increased over time, accidents have increased as well. Insurance coverage has made it possible for many Americans to buy cars and retain peace of mind that their investment is safe.


While the fundamentals of the traditional internal combustion engine have remained largely unchanged over the last century, cars have evolved in other areas. Technology has taken over; not only do we have power locks and windows, but some cars now come equipped with built-in GPS, computer enabled hybrid electric engines and a computer to help you parallel park.

According to industrial design icon Dieter Rams, good design is useful and innovative. Looking at the evolution of car design over the last century, we can see how those principles have gradually brought about a more useful, mechanically intricate modern automobile. Now if only someone would finally build a flying car.