From Blunders to Innovations: The Ups and Downs of Automotive Engineering

By Alex Perdikis

Everything you use today has a history. The cars we drive today are a far cry from the first internal combustion engine with integrated chassis invented by Karl Benz. But automotive engineering has had its share of ups and downs. Some of the “downs” have been spectacular, a few deadly.

Here’s a look at some of the worst automotive engineering fails as well as some impressive innovations throughout the years that keep you safer and cars more efficient.

The Pinto Firestorm

It didn’t take long for word to get out: Pintos were exploding when rear ended, even at low speeds.

People were dying in accidents, not because of traumatic injuries, but because they weren’t able to get out of a door-jammed vehicle that was on fire. The reason? Engineers had decided to place the gas tank behind the rear axle. It was a perfect setup for an explosion and fire.

Ford made a lot of mistakes during all aspects of the Pinto’s development and production. At least 27 people lost their lives and many more were injured. Ford’s actions and the severe penalties the company paid in civil suits put all vehicle manufacturers on notice: cutting corners and disregard for the safety of the driving public would not be tolerated.

Turbo-Rocket Fuel for Your Car!

Sounds futuristic, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want a turbo-rocket fueled car? You could have had one in 1962.

The Olds Jetfire was the first production car to use water injection. Dubbed “Turbo-Rocket Fuel,” the fluid was a mix of water and alcohol. The problem was the requirement that owners keep the fuel topped off. A sensor that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t was supposed to trip a valve that limited boost when fuel was low. Since it didn’t always work, drivers found themselves stranded on the road with a dead engine.

So much for turbo-rocket fuel.

Want Some Yugo With That?

Just about everything about the Yugo was wrong. It was supposed to be the compact economy car for people of modest means. Of course, a red flag should have gone up in a buyer’s mind when “carpet” was listed as a standard feature.

As soon as Yugos began hitting the road, reports of parts falling off spontaneously and zero reliability began to surface. The worst was to come when a Yugo driver crossing Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge during a windstorm was blown off the bridge and into the water 150 F below.

Yugos are gone, but their infamous legend lives on.

Model-T Matters

Ford may have dropped the ball with the Pinto, but the company has a long history of innovation.

The Model-T was built full of engineering innovations and creative designs, many of which are still in use today. Henry Ford was the father of low-cost mass vehicle production, which in turn made the Model-T affordable for the working people of its time.

But beyond productivity, the Model-T was also an engineering marvel. It was the first engine that used a separate removable cylinder head with cylinders cast within the engine block, a mainstay of modern engines.

What’s a Spyker?

Not many people have heard of a Spyker. But, the 1903 Spyker, a Dutch sports car, was the first vehicle with four-wheel drive.

Four-wheel drive didn’t catch on with passenger vehicles until much later, however. Military vehicles and farm equipment utilized four-wheel drive during much of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1980 when Audi introduced its four-wheel drive luxurious sports coupe, the Quattro that the public became aware of what they’d been missing.

Drivers suddenly realized that four-wheel drive was not only safer in adverse conditions, but it was pretty cool as well.

Buckle Up

Perhaps the most life-saving innovation ever devised was the seat belt. In 1959 Nils Bohlin, a Volvo engineer with an aviation background, came up with the three-point safety belt we all use today. Previously, the belt only covered the driver’s lap. The three-point protected the torso as well.


“Instead of exploiting its groundbreaking seat belt design, Volvo opened the patent to allow all auto manufacturers to use it, thus saving millions of lives.”
— Alex Perdikis


Power Everything

You have to be of a certain age to remember when steering a big old car took a lot of arm strength. Power steering has been around since the earliest automobile, but it was too expensive to be a viable commercial venture.

Chrysler’s 1951 Imperial Hydraguide changed all that. Power brakes were soon to follow, giving nearly everyone the ability to steer and brake efficiently.

Crash Test Dummies Prove Airbags Work

Air bags as a safety feature were widely adopted by the late 1980s, saving thousands of lives each year. Continued improvements in airbag technology include General Motors’ front and center air bag, which, when tested using crash test dummies, demonstrated a positive driver and front passenger outcome in side-impact crashes. In other words, the dummies lived.

What the Future Holds

Much of the future is already here, with driverless cars and vehicle sensors that take over before you know you’re at risk. Vehicle innovations are constantly being developed and improved as manufacturers and engineers learn from their mistakes and build on their successes to make driving safer for you and your family.    


Alex Perdikis, Koons of Silver Spring general manager and owner, lives in Chevy Chase with his wife and daughters.