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.

Alex Perdikis’ Tips for Driving Emergencies

By Alex Perdikis

You don’t like to think about experiencing a driving emergency but every driver deals with some kind of unexpected event over the course of a driving career. It could be something as minor as a flat tire or something more frightening like being stranded on a snowy highway for hours.


“It’s important to prepare yourself mentally and physically beforehand to handle emergencies both large and small.” — Alex Perdikis


Before You Rev It Up: Get Ready

Mother Nature, other drivers and odd events can put you in a place you never imagined. But, before you head out on the road, there are steps you can take to increase your safety even if the unexpected happens.

First, evaluate your car. Are you keeping up with routine maintenance? Examine the following checklist and take care of anything you’ve neglected.

  1. Check your tires. Are they inflated to the correct tire pressure recommended for your make and model? Have you had the tires rotated? Are your tires worn? Do they need replacing?
  2. Check the belts and hoses. Maintain and replace engine belts as needed.
  3. Check your wiper blades. Replace if worn.
  4. Check all vital fluid levels. Maintain proper levels and fill when required.
  5. Check all lights, including headlights, turn signal lights and taillights.
  6. Check your battery and connections. Replace the battery if you notice slow engine cranks, you see leakage or, as a general rule, replace every three years.
  7. Check your spare tire. Is it functional? Do you have all the necessary equipment you need to change a flat if you have to?

The next step in your preparedness plan is to pack an emergency kit to keep in your vehicle. You can purchase pre-made kits, but putting one together yourself has its advantages. You’ll know exactly what’s in your kit if you put it together yourself and you’ll be able to customize it to fit your individual needs. Here’s a basic list of items to pack:

    • First Aid Kit: Again, you can purchase pre-made kits or put the kit together yourself. Include band-aids, hand sanitizer, antiseptic, antibiotic ointment, cotton balls, gauze, insect spray, tweezers and an Ace bandage. If you have specific medical requirements, include a supply of medications you’ll need if you’re stranded for a long period of time.
    • Fire Extinguisher: Choose an easily packed extinguisher with a small footprint.
    • Car Essentials: Include jumper cables, ice scraper, cat litter for traction and road flares.
    • Flashlights and Extra Batteries: You can’t have enough light if you’re stranded in the dark.
    • Drinking Water and Non-Perishable Snacks: Choose high-calorie snacks that’ll keep you warm and full.
    • Toilet Paper and Baby Wipes: Both help you stay clean and are multipurpose.
    • Blankets and Extra Clothing: Stay warm and dry with warming blankets and extra clothing.
    • Cheap Cellphone and Charger: Purchase an inexpensive prepaid cell phone and keep it active to use in an emergency.

Pack your emergency kit in a clear plastic box, preferably a box that lets you pack everything in a single layer so you don’t have to rummage around to find something. Make sure the lid is secure. Keep track of what’s in your kit and replace outdated or used items as soon as possible.

On the Road

The car’s in great shape and you have your emergency kit packed up. Before you head out, make sure your phone is fully charged. Check the weather reports. Is there snow or heavy rain in the forecast? Get gas before heading for the highway if your tank isn’t full. Mentally prepare yourself for the road conditions you’ll encounter.

Unfortunately, you can’t plan away every scenario. Imagine you’re on a jam-packed highway and up ahead there’s an accident or a road closure. If you find yourself trapped between cars on a highway, you may be in for a long haul. Or you may, for whatever reason, find yourself in at the side of the highway awaiting rescue. What should you do?

  1. Let someone know where you are. Call work if you’re late, family members to let them know where you are and report your situation to law enforcement.
  2. Turn the car off. If you know you’ll be stuck for hours, don’t waste gas idling. Only turn the car on for heat as needed until traffic is moving again.
  3. In snow? Check your tailpipe. If your tailpipe is obstructed, carbon monoxide can leak into your car and kill you. Clear any snow or ice from your tailpipe. It’s a simple check that can save your life. Check periodically to watch for ice formation or blockages.
  4. If you’ve been forewarned about icy or snowy road conditions, choose your path wisely. In some cases, using local roads instead of the highway is a better choice. If you drive on the highway in snow or ice, leave yourself plenty of room to navigate if traffic stops. You may be able to turn around or get off the highway at some point, but if you tailgated and are packed in tight with other vehicles, you’ll be stuck for awhile.

As always, follow the directions of law enforcement. With preparation and a little patience, a vehicle emergency can be managed, you’ll come out just fine and you’ll have a great story to tell.


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

Parents Get Ready: Your Teenager Wants to Drive


By Alex Perdikis

You’ve known the fear, the fear that sits deep in your heart. It’s the fear you felt the time 10-year-old Ethan fell out of the tree, broke his arm and you made the mad rush to the emergency room. Or the fear that came when 3-year-old Emma disappeared while you were shopping and you frantically searched everywhere until you found her.

Fear is part of being a parent. But few words are as terrifying as “I want to drive” from your teenager. After all, car accidents are the leading cause of death for the 15-20-year-old age group.

But there are many steps parents can take to help their teen stay safe while driving. Take the time to prepare both yourself and your child for the road ahead.

Before the License

Much of the work with your teen driver comes long before a license is issued. Research your state’s laws governing learning permits and make sure your child follows all the guidelines and rules before being permitted on the road.

Follow these tips to help your child prepare to drive responsibly for life:

    • Get the state’s DMV driver’s guide book and study together. Point out important points, laws, restrictions and emergency procedures. As your child moves on to actual driving practice, refer back to the guide book as needed.
    • Start With Small Trips to Build Confidence: Short trips on less-traveled roads or even empty parking lots are perfect for new drivers. As your child gains confidence and experience, lengthen the trips and increase the difficulty.
    • Provide Lots of Practice Time: Obviously, what teen drivers don’t have is experience. Giving your child lots of practice time with “passenger seat” supervision allows your child to practice and gives you the opportunity to make gentle corrections. As your child becomes more comfortable, allow practices under less than optimal conditions, such as rainy day driving sessions.


  • Hold Your Temper: Teaching someone else to drive, particularly your own child, is stressful. Of course, it’s important to offer constructive criticism and helpful tips. But don’t yell or scold. It’s critical to stay calm while you’re in the car with your teen driver, both for obvious safety reasons and to help build their confidence.


Setting the Rules

Some of the rules will be made for you by your state’s graduated licensing. Most states restrict passengers and drive times for teen drivers. Learn your state’s laws and make sure your child complies.


“In addition to state law’s, it’s your job to create an additional list of rules your teenage driver must follow. Your rules should not only include safety rules, but also outline consequences for failure to observe.” — Alex Perdikis


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a parent-teen driving agreement that lists and explains all rules, including mandatory seat belt use, no texting or engaging in other distracted driving behaviors, no alcohol or illegal drugs, assigns responsibilities associated with gas, maintenance and insurance costs, lists restrictions and describes penalties for agreement violations. The agreement is a contract between you and your child and signed by all of you. Download the parent-teen driving agreement from the CDC website.

There is one thing you can do for your teen driver above all else. That one thing? Be not just a good, but a shining example of what a driver should be. Your words are meaningless if you don’t practice what you yourself preach.

Your Teen Driver’s Car

Of course, the question of what vehicle your teen will drive is of utmost concern to both you and your child. Perhaps you have an older car sitting around you’re thinking of letting your child use to drive back and forth to school. Maybe Aunt Grace is selling her car before she moves to Florida. It’s a 1998 Volvo. Volvos are safe, right? But, should you let your inexperienced young driver get behind the wheel of a 30-year old car in disrepair? Probably not the best idea. What should you look for in a car for your teen?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) offers parents the following suggestions:

  1. Avoid high horsepower options. Powerful engines might be too tempting for your young driver.
  2. Look at the bigger, heavier vehicles. The IIHS Highway Loss Data Institute keeps a running analysis of insurance data. Year after year, data indicates that bigger heavier cars are not only safer, but teen drivers are less likely to crash full-size vehicles in the first place.
  3. Make sure the car you allow your child to use has electronic stability control (ESC). An inexperienced teen driver is likely to overcorrect on curves and slippery surfaces. ESC brings a level of added safety comparable to teen driving comparable to that of wearing seat belts.
  4. Purchase a car with the highest safety ratings you can afford. Entry level cars now include multiple safety features and some have teen driver features that support safe driving habits.

Does that mean you have to buy a new car? No, in fact, approximately 80 percent of parents purchase a preowned vehicle for their teen. The IIHS maintains a list of both used and new cars that are best suited to meet the challenges teen drivers face.


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