10. THE GAS IN YOUR TANKBought gasoline or a Chevrolet lately? You’ve almost certainly come across all sorts of decals talking about “flex fuel” or “E85” or maybe even a fanciful picture of a giant ear of corn with a gas pump nozzle on it. Welcome to the boring but economically significant world of biofuels, where the technology developed by generations of corn-likker moonshiners has been harnessed to make your gasoline slightly cheaper (and your mileage slightly worse). Economists, scientists, and botanists have been arguing the pros and cons of plant-based alcohol-related fuel additives and substitutes since the oil crises of the Seventies, but at least one group of professionals had already decided that biofuel was the future: the United States Auto Club and their open-wheel racing league, which at the time happened to feature as its main event a 500-lap race at an oval track on the outskirts of Indianapolis.
Indy cars (as they were popularly and eventually officially referred to) were already experimenting with methanol biofuel as an additive to or a complete replacement for gasoline before the 500 of 1964, where a fiery seven-car crash killed two drivers of gas-fueled cars, while the drivers of methanol cars (which still burned, but with far less intensity and without producing the plume of black smoke that obscured the track and caused even more wrecks) escaped unscathed. After that, USAC/Indy cars were basically required to use methanol for safety reasons, but many drivers found that the higher octane level and energy content of methanol fuel translated to more torque, more horsepower, and cheaper gas bills, and when major governments were looking for a fuel source that wasn’t controlled by crazy people with lots of guns (e.g. Iranians or Texans) the experience of race drivers lead them to consider biofuels.
9. THE TRACTION CONTROL THAT YOU CAN’T TURN OFFTraction control! If you’re a totally rad dude, you know that traction control is strictly for wusses and nerds. And if you have traction control turned on you can’t do totally sweet burnouts and drifts and donuts and such. If on the other hand you know anything at all about physics or engineering or cars built in the last twenty years, you know that nine times out of ten traction control allows the car to deliver the right amount of power to the driven wheels and generally prevents you from snaking (for front-wheel-drive cars) or fishtailing (for rear-wheel-drive cars) off the road into a tree. There are a handful of situations where traction control is more trouble than its worth, but all of those situations involve elaborate bank heists or high-stakes Tokyo street races. Face the facts: those are not the sort of things you’ll encounter when you’re driving to Target to buy a new torchiere lamp.
If you’re willing to face even more facts, you might want to consider the genesis of traction control: the limited-slip differential, or LSD to the with-it hepcats of 1935 when the technology was first developed. A collaboration between Nazi mad scientist Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) and low-profile but well-regarded German drivetrain specialists ZF resulted in a device that efficiently channeled the ferocious power of Nazi-sponsored Auto Union Grand Prix racecars into whichever wheel needed it the most, allowing the propaganda machines to dominate even the twistiest racetracks. This was the first time that anyone had bothered to think about the distribution or control of the power being spun out by the engine, and that idea was the seed of any number of engineering solutions to improve handling and acceleration in all sorts of civilian cars.
8. THE TRANSMISSION THAT YOU DON’T NEED AN ENGINEERING DEGREE TO SHIFTRemember the last time you had to change gears and you had to pop the clutch and watch the tachometer to make sure that the next gear will be spinning at a comparable speed before shifting up or down and declutching in such a way that the two gears will engage properly without causing each other grievous and expensive damage? You don’t? Then write up a polite thank-you letter to the estate of Ferdinand Porsche, Esteemed Nazi Mad Scientist, who designed and produced the VW Beetle, the Tiger heavy tank, and the zippy little Porsche 356 sports car and its incredibly significant and influential “synchromesh” transmission.
As mentioned earlier, Ferdinand was hugely influential in the pre-war German motorsports industry, but he also played a huge part in the development of the civilian “KDF-Wagen,” a proto-Beetle that was supposed to mobilize poor German workers but ended up being turned into the Axis equivalent of the Jeep. That experience was still enough to let him start a company in 1948 named after himself (you may have heard of it) whose first product was the Porsche 356, a cheap but fun rear-engine sports car that looked suspiciously like a stretched-out version of his KDFW/Beetle prototype but included a subtle but profound innovation: a manual transmission with a unique conical clutch that made it possible for a driver to shift gears without doing a math problem in his head at 80 MPH. With this user-friendly adaptation, Porsche’s 356 became a fixture of European and American racetracks for decades, either as a near-stock street-legal toy of amateur hobbyists or as a low-cost high-spec workhorse for professional racing teams.
7. THE VTEC THAT JUST KICKED IN, YOHonda’s proprietary Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (shortened to VTEC rather than VVTLEC) is so well-known that it’s practically the company’s trademark. It’s been copied by various manufacturers under a number of different and much less catchy names like Mitsubishi’s MiVEC or BMW’s VANOS, but the original still has enough name recognition that it’s frequently recognizable even among the many people who have no idea of what it actually does.
Without going into a lot of head-scratching details about cam lobes and compression levels and whatnot, you can just think of VTEC and similar systems as a way of making an engine designed to work best at low RPMs run just like an engine designed to work best at high RPMs by controlling the amount of oxygen introduced to each cylinder. While now it’s hard to imagine a Honda car without VTEC badges on the engine, the technology was initially developed for and transferred from one of the company’s CBR400 sport bikes. The technology was matured and developed with installation in similarly high-performance race-stripped Integras until finally being introduced to civilian models in 1989.
6. THE BRAKES YOU CAN JUST STEP ON INSTEAD OF PUMPINGAnti-lock brakes are so popular nowadays it’s fairly difficult to buy a car without them, but as little as ten years ago a standard part of driver’s ed courses was still how to stop a skidding car in slippery conditions without them—instead of just standing on the pedal in panic, you were supposed to pump it as fast as you could to prevent the wheels from locking up entirely. Unfortunately, if you then ended up in a car with ABS (like most were even back then) you had to remember to do the exact opposite in a skid, since modern ABS systems were able to “pump” the brakes much faster and more intelligently than your dumb human foot. I have no idea what people are being taught in driver’s ed nowadays, but given that a friend of mine told me that they weren’t even bothering to teach people how to parallel park anymore I wouldn’t be surprised if students were just told to aim for the softest-looking tree.
At any rate, while anti-lock braking was originally developed for aircraft landing gear, it was developed for cars by tinkerer and tractor manufacturer Harry Ferguson and his revolutionary 4WD Formula One car, the Ferguson P99. Subsequent tests on racing motorcycles and the high-performance sports car the Jensen FF confirmed the utility and reliability of the early ABS systems, and beginning in the early Seventies this race-proven braking technology began being offered as a high-level option for street cars.
5. THE ALL-WHEEL-DRIVE OPTION YOU WISH YOU BOUGHT WHEN IT SNOWS OUTThe idea of all four wheels of a car receiving power in various ratios (e.g. 70% to the back wheels and 30%) used to be strictly for military, agricultural, or other specialist uses, none of which were particularly fast or sporty. Enter the Ferguson P99 mentioned in the last item, which when paired with a Coventry Climax engine and legendary driver Stirling Moss became the first (and last) AWD car to win a Formula 1 race.
While your hippie aunt’s Legacy station wagon may not look much like Ferguson’s stripped-down monocoque racer, the Subaru AWD system (and virtually every other sport-oriented AWD system in any other car) is essentially descended from Ferguson’s original blueprints, especially when it comes to distributing power intelligently among the various wheels. AWD eventually came to be mandatory for rally racing, hill-climbing, and getting to work in a hurry when its raining really hard.
4. THE FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE SYSTEM THAT SAVES YOU A BUNDLE ON GASWhile today nearly every car on the road is front-engine, front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive is essentially just for sports or luxury cars, for the first 50 years of the automobile’s life the situation was exactly the opposite. Front-wheel drive race cars like the Alvis 12/50 and the Miller 122 used the reduced weight from the deletion of the long, heavy driveshaft to get more speed and fuel efficiency than other racers with engines of the same size, and luxury cars like the Cord 812 used the same principles to zip the Depression-era 1% from penthouse to speakeasy in high style. Today, the weight and space savings of a front-wheel drive system allow small passenger cars to save gas and maximize interior comfort.
3. THE WAY YOUR PRIUS/INSIGHT/VOLT IS SHAPEDIf you own a hybrid car, you probably haven’t spent too much time wondering about what it has in common with a high-performance Ferrari. (You’ve probably spent all your time thinking about trees or bunnies, hippie.) In fact, high-speed race cars and high-efficiency hybrid cars both have the same ultimate goal of being as aerodynamically efficient as possible without being too difficult to see out of, fit in, or park without being laughed at, so both types of car make good use of the aerodynamic theories of scientist and motorcycle racer Wunibald Kamm.
In the late 30s, where aerodynamics were coming into their own as a science and being applied intelligently to both cars and airplanes, Kamm and his fellow researchers discovered that a car shape with a high, graceful roof that was suddenly cut at a flat angle, it achieved maximum aerodynamic efficiency with the minimum amount of car. Although the breakthrough was first applied to a BMW Mille Miglia coupe, it became famous in the Sixties with the uniquely modified Ferrari 250 GT Drogo, popularly known as the “bread van” for its long tall back section but notably faster than the standard 250 GTO. Other racers like the Ford GT40 and civilian supercars like the De Tomaso Pantera later followed with similarly high, long tails, and by now the Kammback/Kamm-tail design is so integral to modern car aerodynamics that it’s difficult to even make out the basic shape under all the refinements.
2. THE WAY YOUR PRIUS/INSIGHT/VOLT IS POWEREDA number of the Kammback race cars in the earlier article were used to participate in endurance races like the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans, where car designers and drivers had to juggle the demands of speed and acceleration with maximum fuel efficiency. It should come as no surprise, then, that hybrid technology has made an appearance in enduro competitions. It may be at least a little bit of surprise when I tell you that this appearance was in 1998 in American boutique sports car manufacturer Panoz’ GTR-Q9 Esperante, less than a year after the Prius was first released into the Japanese market.
While it was eventually determined that the Q9’s battery pack was simply too heavy to allow the car to be competitive, racing leagues of all kinds are still experimenting with hybrid technology to boost power or efficiency or both. Formula One’s KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) policy allows teams to mount a battery or flywheel-based system on their car to save up energy normally wasted in breaking so that it can be applied for an extra boost of torque at the push of a button.
Next: 10 Cars That Changed the World
1. THE REAR VIEW MIRROR, FOR REALFor the Indianapolis 500 of 1911, Marmon Motor Car Company engineer and driver Ray Harroun had a game-changing innovation for his Marmon Wasp: an engine that was reliable and powerful enough to win races without literally shaking itself to pieces. Up until then, it was necessary for race cars to carry two people: one to drive the car and another to reach in with a wrench and tighten whatever bolts were in danger of popping out. These mechanics also served a valuable function as lookout, as drivers were going much too fast to be able to look behind them and see if someone was coming up behind them. In making the mechanic unnecessary, Harroun had essentially shaved a good 100-120 pounds of weight off the car, leading to a corresponding increase in performance.
After consulting the rulebooks, the opposing drivers and their redundant mechanics realized there wasn’t technically anything that said you were required to haul along a second driver. There was one valid objection they could come up with, though—if you don’t have a mechanic riding shotgun, how are you going to know if someone’s coming up from behind? It’s unsafe! Harroun thought about this for a moment, went back to the Wasp’s maintenance shed, tinkered for five minutes, and came out with a center rear mirror positioned right about where it is today.