Every industry has its titans, founders and leaders who have influenced their businesses far more than most others. The auto industry is no exception, and it's worth mentioning a few men who profoundly affected not only the industry but also society in general. Everyone, in my opinion, should be familiar with these names because all our lives have been affected by them in some way.
Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz really started it all in the 1890s, with the first reasonably reliable internal combustion engine. Their first "car" was arguably quite primitive but they worked on the engineering and safety of automobiles for many years, always striving for the best. The Mercedes-Benz brand is still celebrated as a mark of excellence.
The Duesenberg brothers are important because they produced the most iconic car of the early part of the 20th Century. It was the epitome of performance and style, so much so that the term, "It's a Deusy" became part of the American lexicon. Overhead camshafts, multiple carburetors and other innovations were put into practice on their cars.
Harley Earl, GM's first VP of Design, pioneered the use of hand sculpted clay models, concept cars and camouflage (during WWII), not to forget tail fins. He was also the guy who decided that GM needed to produce a sports car, the Corvette. His marketing innovations are still used today.
Bill France Sr. turned the hobby of moonshiners racing their cars into one of the most popular spectator sports in history, NASCAR. In 1947 he formed a sanctioning organization, rules, regular schedules and a championship, known as the National Championship Stock Car Series. The first NASCAR competition was held in 1952 and the rest, so they say, is history.
Lee Iacocca joined Ford in 1946 and quickly became a sales and marketing genius. After working to introduce the Lincoln Continental Mark III he convinced Henry Ford II that a sporty car was needed by the American public. That car, the Mustang, became the most successful new vehicle introduction in history. After being fired by Ford a few years later Iacocca went to Chrysler, where he introduced the minivan and K Cars and the Viper, three more legendary models. He left the auto industry after an unsuccessful attempt at a hostile takeover of Chrysler and headed the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, another successful feather in his career cap. His name is still somewhat maligned in the auto industry but his accomplishments can't be underestimated.
Bob Lutz just retired from GM where he was responsible for freshening the model lineup, bringing back the Camaro and GTO, introducing the Saturn Sky, Cadillac CTS, Buick Lacrosse and Chevrolet Volt along with many others. While at Chrysler Lutz led all automotive activities including creation of the iconic Viper. He was Executive Vice President of Ford, BMW and Chairman of Exide. A true car-guy, Lutz is known for his creativity, leadership and communication ability, especially his colorful comments.
Enzo Ferrari was a successful race driver for Alfa Romeo and after WWII started his own automobile company whose products have consistently been synonymous with performance and style. Even his signature color, Ferrari Red, is recognized the world over. Ferrari always maintained that he built road cars to finance his racing program, one which has garnered more championships than any other manufacturer.
Colin Chapman is to Britain what Ferrari is to Italy. Chapman was a brilliant engineer who, among other things, built high performance sports cars under the Lotus brand. His cars and engines have won seven formula one championships, the Indy 500 and six driver's championships. He pioneered the use of monocoque bodies and struts as a rear suspension device and both technologies are now used by nearly every manufacturer.
No list of automotive trend setters is complete without the name of Henry Ford. He is best known for inventing the moving assembly line but his list of clever innovations is much too long for this article. His grass roots understanding of sociology and his business sense resulted in building cars that nearly anyone could afford and by the second decade of the 20th Century one of every three cars sold in the world was a Ford. His products, and the resultant competition by other manufacturers, were responsible for the creation of our vast highway system, suburban development, travel, shopping malls and the very society and culture that we live in today. Good or bad, it all evolved from Ford's ideas.
Ralph Nader completes this list because he pioneered our national attention to the safety of the automobile. His 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," created the consumer movement in the US and spurred manufacturers into building safer and safer vehicles. It helped precipitate, on the positive side, the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other vehicle safety organizations. Far fewer people are killed on our highways than in decades past, thanks to Nader and the many who followed him.
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