Auto Innovators: Vehicles That Unexpectedly Broke New Ground

Source: Audi via Facebook

The automotive market is a strange place. On one hand, there are armies of purists, those who appreciate tradition in both design and engineering, and tend to stick with what they know when making purchases. Then there are the early adopters, those who recognize new and innovative vehicles for what they are, or could be: the next big thing.

Automakers typically find that sweet spot when they can meld the two with one enterprising new vehicle. By successfully blending what purists love and appreciate with the latest in technology and design innovation, the auto industry as a whole takes another step forward. That is how we have progressed to where we are today, and we can still see it happening right before our eyes. A modern example would be the 2015 Ford F-150 — a classic, beloved pickup truck, now being built using aluminum to increase fuel economy. The only question is whether it will be a hit with consumers.

Looking back through the automotive timeline, there are other models that definitely stick out for having pushed the envelope or being ahead of their time. Popular Mechanics dug through the dirt to select 10 of the best examples, each leaving a lasting mark on the industry as a whole.

So what are they? Read on to see 10 examples of unlikely vehicles that permanently changed the industry. This list was curated by Popular Mechanics.

Source: Chrysler

1. 1984 Jeep Cherokee: unibody construction

In the mid-1980s, unibody construction was far from the norm. That is, until Jeep released the 1984 Cherokee, which was the first large production vehicle to utilize a new welding process that allowed for unibody construction to flourish. Just how far ahead of the game was Jeep with this new innovation? According to Popular Mechanics, it would be more than a decade until another company caught up, with Nissan using the same technique to build the Pathfinder in 1996.

Source: Nissan

2. 2001 Nissan Pathfinder: autonomous off-roading

Speaking of the Pathfinder, Nissan also left a lasting impact on the industry in 2001, with new technology helping drivers handle ascents and descents. The electronic system featured special anti-lock brake tuning, as well as an innovative traction control system that helped in off-road situations. This innovation helped put off-road drivers back in control when taking on steep hills or mountain trails.

Source: Toyota

3. 1989 Toyota Celica: rounded body panels

Prior to the Toyota Celica hitting the market in the late 1980s, most cars, trucks, and SUVs stuck to a boxy look, with lots of hard edges and right angles. The Celica’s designers threw the auto world a curve ball, as their newest creation was completely lacking in any of those old aesthetics. Why did they do it? As Popular Mechanics puts it: “[T]he company was anxious that budding Korean carmakers would easily copy its square cars. Toyota developed complex, compound curve stamping because it accurately predicted that would-be imitators would have a hard time copying the shape.”

Source: Chevrolet

4. 2005 Chevrolet Corvette: ‘automotive neurology’

While Chevrolet is currently making waves with the newest generation of the Corvette hitting the market (and rightfully so), not too long ago, the 2005 model was also making some undercurrents. This Corvette model utilized what basically amounted to a central nervous system — a series of cables and monitoring systems that allowed for computers to keep an eye on the entire vehicle at all times. These days, this is standard. But just a decade ago, “automotive neurology” was the next big thing.

Source: Isuzu

5. 1993 Isuzu Pickup: no carburetor

Though Isuzu no longer sells vehicles in the American market, that doesn’t mean the company didn’t have a lasting impact. Before the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier started to rule the compact pickup landscape, the 1993 Isuzu Pickup truck made a leap for the entire segment by ditching the carburetor for electronic fuel-injection systems. This was the last segment to do so, and Isuzu was the first to make it happen.

6. 1994 Oldsmobile Aurora: origami sheet metal

Oldsmobile is also long gone from the market, but in the mid-1990s, the company’s Aurora model took things to a new level using folded and welded sheet metal. Called origami sheet metal, this new step in design and construction helped usher in a new age in manufacturing. As Popular Mechanics reports, origami sheet metal was an important innovation for two reasons: “First, the body became much stiffer, and second, parts of the car previously used just to keep rain and wind off the passengers became useful structural components–part of controlled crush zones for energy absorption in a crash.”

Source: Audi via Facebook

7. 1983 Audi Quattro: full-time all-wheel drive

Audi seems to always be at the forefront of new and exciting vehicle innovations, and in 1983, it was the same story. The 1983 Audi Quattro defined what would become modern all-wheel drive systems. Prior to the Quattro’s advances, such systems did exist, although they were crude in form and function. For all the modern sports and performance cars out there ripping around with modern all-wheel drive, you can thank the 1983 Quattro.


8. 1984 Lincoln Continental Mark VII: ABS and flush-molded headlights

Lincoln used to be quite the force in the luxury auto market. Though it’s attempting a comeback, you need to look to the 1980s to get a good look at how much confidence the brand once had. The Lincoln Continental Mark VII is a great example: This was the car that was the first production model to include standard anti-lock brakes, and also a new type of headlight. These features, of course, went on to become staples of the modern car market.

Source: Mazda

9. 1988 Mazda RX-7 Convertible: open top for snow season

Not many people ponder convertibles and skiing in the same thought, but that is evidently what led to the creation of the Mazda RX-7 Convertible in 1988. Mazda engineers designed the RX-7 with specially-placed heater vents, making it possible to ride with the top down, even during the winter months. It was apparently a good decision, because Popular Mechanics says that the move was later copied by Mercedes and has since been adopted by nearly every other manufacturer out there.

Source: Nissan

10. 1989 Nissan Maxima: imports, all grown up

Our final innovator is the 1989 Nissan Maxima, the car that helped lead the charge for Japanese cars in Western economies, thanks to its size. Prior to the ’89 Maxima, most Japanese models were built to smaller specifications for tax reasons, but it also hurt sales to North American and European consumers who thirsted for larger vehicles. The Maxima changed that and blazed a path for Japanese success worldwide.