There’s an old joke that auto racing was invented at the same time as the second car. Racing has always been popular with enthusiasts and engineers alike. And not just because it’s exciting, but because it’s been the proving ground for new technologies. The racetrack has spawned many ideas in automotive history that performance and sometimes even passenger cars have adopted. There are many examples, but here are six of the best:
Supercharging is a form of forced induction. Basically, a mechanical air compressor pumps more air (and, with it, more fuel) into the engine, ultimately increasing power. Many saw the theoretical benefits of supercharging in the early days of the combustion engine. Karl Benz actually filed a patent for a type of supercharger as early as 1885.
It was an American racer, Lee Chadwick who got around to actually putting a supercharger on a car engine first, though. Chadwick built a supercharged racer he called Black Bess that he entered in hill climb events and road races around Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and Georgia. Reportedly, Chadwick’s car could reach 100 miles per hour, an impressive speed for those early days.
In 1923, 15 years after Chadwick’s racer debuted, Mercedes-Benz finally put a supercharged car on the road with the 6/25/40hp.
Superchargers are still around, but turbochargers, which are driven by exhaust gasses rather than a mechanical linkage, have since become even more popular. Today, all kinds of cars, from Fords to Porches, use turbochargers for power or efficiency.
Dual Overhead Camshafts (DOHC)
Engines with dual overhead camshafts (sometimes called DOHC or twin cam engines) use separate shafts to operate the intake and exhaust valves of each engine cylinder. This helps airflow through the engine, making it more efficient.
The French car-maker Peugeot set out to develop a twin cam engine. In 1912, a group of Peugeot engineers created the Model L76, which had a twin cam 7.6 liter engine. For today’s standards, that is a big engine, but the L76 raced against Fiats with 14-liter engines and won, clearly displaying the advantages of DOHC. In 1913, an updated version of the car won the Indianapolis 500.
About 12 years later, the British company Sunbeam introduced a car with a 3-liter twin cam engine that they called the Sunbeam Three-Litre Twin Cam (like technology, model names were still in a primitive stage). Sunbeam built about three hundred of the cars, and two of them raced at Le Mans in 1925.
Diesel engines have always used fuel injection, which sprays gas into the intake, but early cars used carbureted engines, where airflow and suction control the flow of fuel into the engine. Airplanes used gasoline engines with fuel injection during both World Wars.
Stuart Hillborn was a hot-rodder who drove for speed records in the 1930s and ‘40s. Hillborn used a fuel pump from an airplane, his own handmade injector nozzles and a Ford V8. In 1948, he put it all in a streamlined custom car body and tested it at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Hillborn’s car was able to reach 150 mph.
It wasn’t too long after that small German manufacturer, Goliath, applied fuel injection to a passenger car. The Goliath GP700 didn’t use the fuel injection for speed, though. In post-war Germany fuel economy was more desirable. Power and efficiency are two sides of the same coin, though. It’s all about getting as much as you can out of the fuel you’ve got. The GP700 weighed in at under 2000 pounds and could reach 78 mph with its little 700 cubic centimeter engine.
Fuel injection became more common in the United States following the fuel shortages and new environmental regulations of the 1970s. Eventually fuel injection eclipsed carburetion. If you bought a car in the US after 1994, it definitely has fuel injection. The 1994 Isuzu Pickup was the last new carubureted passenger vehicle consumers could buy in the US.
As engines were becoming more powerful and cars were getting faster, brake technology would have to advance to keep up. Disc brakes, which use a caliper to squeeze pads into either side of the rotor, proved to be an improvement over drum brakes, which use shoes to press outward into the inside of the drum.
There were some early experiments with disc brakes, including a cable-operated system in 1902, but none of them really worked out until 1953. Jaguar’s C-Type racecar won the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans, but in 1952 none of the three examples entered finished the race, and Mercedes took the title. Jaguar made a number of changes for 1953, including the switch from drum brakes to discs on all four wheels. In 1953, the C-types took first, second, and fourth place at Le Mans.
The small American manufacturer Crosley offered disc brakes on its Hotshot roadster for less than six months. The new brakes had a tendency to brake down and Crosley quickly switched back to drum brakes.
France’s Citroen had the first succesful use of disc brakes in a road car with the 1955 DS. The DS was small and had a unique (if somewhat odd) streamlined design. It remained popular in France, through 1975. Though it was also sold in the US, it never quite caught on here. Disc brakes did, though.
Most cars today have discs on all four wheels. Some cars and trucks, like the Toyota Tacoma and Honda Fit, still use discs in the front and drums in the rear. The discs provide more stopping power up front—where you need it. Manufacturers give different explanations for using drums in the rear, but it seems likely cost is the real reason.
Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS)
Anti-lock brake systems make sure your wheels keep spinning when you hit the brakes instead of locking up and skidding.
The use of anti-lock brakes in cars was the result of a team up between a tractor company and an F1 team. The tractor company, Ferguson, wanted to demonstrate the possibilities of four-wheel drive in racing. Trucks already used 4WD, but Ferguson thought the extra traction could help in racing as well. And since traction was the goal, the resulting race car also used a mechanical anti-lock brake system, where a servomechanism aided the driver’s brake inputs. Legendary driver Stirling Moss (who drove the second place C-Type at the ’53 Le Mans) tested the resulting Ferguson P99 racecar in Formula 1. It won only one race in 1961, but did so in wet conditions, proving the value of both 4WD and ABS.
That led directly to the adoption of both technologies into passenger cars. The British sports car maker Jensen teamed up with Ferguson to build the Jensen FF (for Ferguson Formula), which also included ABS and 4WD.
The FF ABS system was mechanical but most systems used today are electronic. Toyota, Triumph, Chrysler, General Motors, and Nissan all introduced electronic ABS in 1971. Most cars on the road today use ABS. In the European Union, law requires cars built after 2004 to have ABS. A similar law has taken effect in the US for cars built after 2013.
Carbon fiber brakes, like fuel injection, started off in airplanes, when the Concord used them for its landing gear in 1969. The carbon fiber brake rotors were lighter, which saved weight and reduced stopping times. They were also more resistant to heat, which prevents brake fade, a reduction in stopping power when brakes heat up.
The Brabham Formula 1 team started experimenting with carbon brake rotors in 1976, but couldn’t quite get the system to work. In 1979 the team realized that carbon discs would work better along side carbon brake pads. Brabham actually made the rotors from scraps cut out from the center of airplane brake rotors.
Carbon brakes caught on in Formula 1 in the 1980s, but took much longer to come to the road. Porsche’s low volume, high performance 911 GT2 became the first road car to come with carbon brakes, in 2001. The Ferrari Enzo followed shortly after in 2002. Still those are super rare sports cars and not anything you’d see on your commute to work. Today, you might see them on slightly more common (but still high-end) sports cars like the Porsche Boxter S or the Corvette ZR1. Carbon brakes really are best suited to speed machines, so we’ll see if they ever make their way to commuter cars.
Today, car companies are testing tech like new hybrid systems, regenerative braking, and new aerodynamic features in series like Formula 1, Formula E, and the World Endurance Championship. If history is any indicator, some of those advances may some day find their way to your car.