You may love your car, but how much do you actually know about the car industry and how it has changed over time?

In this article, we chart the course of the automotive industry from its beginnings all the way to the present day. Whilst notions of a car-like vehicle can be traced back several hundred years previous, the beginnings of the car industry as we know it today began in the 18th century…



Around 1760, the industrial revolution began in Britain - though these economic, cultural, and technological developments continued to unfold well into the mid-1800s. 

New energy sources like coal, electricity, and petroleum were being used - as well as the steam engine and internal-combustion engine. The factory system was introduced, and developments in transportation and communication began to emerge - including the steam locomotive, automobile, and radio. It wasn’t long before the industrial revolution reached other parts of the world. 



In France and Germany, the gasoline engine was developed throughout the 1860s and 1870s. German engineer Nikolaus Otto built his first gasoline-powered engine in 1861. In 1876, Otto developed the four-stroke internal-combustion engine as an alternative to the steam engine - though Otto’s patent was later revoked when an earlier patent by Beau de Rochas was discovered.

Also in the 1800s, innovators in the US, Hungary and the Netherlands considered the notion of a battery-powered vehicle, and built some of the world’s first small-scale electric vehicles. Likewise, inventors in France and England built some of the world’s first practical electric cars. 

In 1886, Karl Benz invented the ‘first’ automobile, which had three wheels and was powered by an internal combustion engine. Less than a decade later, John Henry Knight built Britain’s first petrol-powered motor vehicle. 

Ferdinand Porsche developed an electric car known as the P1 in 1898, as well as the world’s first hybrid electric car. 

In the late 1800s, the US, Britain, North America, Japan and parts of Europe experienced a ‘second’ industrial revolution. 


Early 1900s

At the turn of the century, horses were still the most popular mode of transport - though this would soon change. 

Electric vehicles were being produced by various manufacturers in the US, with New York City boasting a fleet of electric taxis. Electric taxis were introduced in London a few years prior, and had a driving range of 50 miles.

In 1904, Henry Royce built a two-cylinder car, and met C.S. Rolls, who sold the car in his London showroom - Rolls-Royce ltd was founded in 1906.

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced Model T - this mass-produced gasoline-powered car was easily accessible and affordable, and paved the way for the popularity of petrol-powered vehicles over electric. At the time, electric vehicles cost several hundred dollars more than gas-powered engines. Model T may have been an impressive move, but changing gears and starting the engine was a challenge. Issues surrounding battery power meant that progress on electric vehicles was largely non-existent until the 1970s.

In 1913, Ford began large-scale production in the UK, opening a production plant in Manchester and becoming the UK’s leading vehicle manufacturer.

In 1920, the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) was founded to further skills and knowledge of the automotive industry in Britain. 

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had a major impact on the car industry. The sale of new cars in the US fell, and many car manufacturers had to close their doors. Chrysler and General Motors continued to do well during the Great Depression by cutting costs, prioritising efficiency and tailoring products to customers with less money to spend. 

In Britain, the number of motor vehicle companies fell significantly - Ford experienced a decline in sales during this time. 

By 1939, mass-production was common practice - something that the US had already been doing for years. 

Six UK manufacturers lead the market - Ford, Vauxhall, Morris, Austin, Rootes (Hillman and Humber) and Standard - but globalisation soon took over. 


During World War II

As World War II approached, focus shifted to the production of military vehicles - Ford ceased all production on non-military vehicles for civilians early in 1942. Car tyres were scarce during the war, and great care was taken to look after them.

By 1935, electric vehicles had become much less common in the US. However, Nissan developed their first electric vehicle - the Nissan Tama - in 1947 as a response to oil shortages in Japan during the war.

In the US, improved road systems and the discovery of Texas crude oil make petrol the cheaper alternative, though car ownership and operation was still costly. By 1941, the majority of US households owned a family car.


After World War II

In 1950, as Europe and Japan struggled to mass-produce vehicles due to the impact of the war, Britain began producing cars for a range of countries and gained prominence as a major manufacturing power. Britain built a significant number of the world’s exported vehicles during this time.

During the 1950s, car designs in Britain were made smaller in an attempt to emulate the style of American cars of the time - using chrome and two-tone pastel paints to reflect this. Throughout the 1950s, British sports cars performed well in the US, whilst motorsports became popular in Britain, with three prominent race tracks having been built by 1952.

In 1952, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) was founded in an effort to rule the British market - names like Austin, Riley, MG, Wolseley and Morris were involved.

As the economies of other countries improved after the war, Britain found competition in the US, Japan and Europe. Germany overtook Britain in terms of production by 1956. 

In the late 1960s, renewed interest in electric vehicles developed in the US as petrol prices began to soar. 

In 1966, BMC joined Jaguar to form British Motor Holdings (BMH). Likewise, in 1968, BMH merged with Leyland-Triumph-Rover to become the British Leyland Motor Corporation - the UK’s biggest manufacturer, and one of the biggest in Europe. 

British Leyland struggled against the competition and amassed debts before collapsing and being nationalised by UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1975.

During Margaret Thatcher’s time as the UK Prime Minister, European imports and foreign car manufacturers entered the market in the 1980s. Nissan, Honda and Toyota all opened factories in England in the late 1980s.

Britain’s car industry continued to struggle throughout the 1990s. 



At the turn of the century, the Toyota Prius went on sale worldwide - the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. 

The mass-owned UK car industry disappeared in the early 2000s. Foreign manufacturers began to retract investment in the UK. Ford ended its passenger car assembly in 2002, and the Vauxhall plant closed in Luton in 2003. Jaguar’s Coventry factory closed in 2003, and Peugeot’s Ryton plant followed suit in 2006.


2010s to Present Day

Throughout the 2010s, electric and hybrid vehicle choices continued to expand. 

In 2010, Nissan launched the LEAF - an all-electric car that produces zero emissions. In 2017, the Hyundai IONIQ Electric became the first automobile to be offered with hybrid, plug-in, or fully-electric powertrains. 

In 2018, the first public electric vehicle charging point was installed in London.

At present, the UK car industry is facing rising inflation and supply chain pressures. Combined with the knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is an uncertain time for the UK automotive industry.

Looking ahead, the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles will surely shape the future of the automotive industry. Not to mention the impact that the current cost of living crisis will undoubtedly have on trends in the car industry, as households have less disposable income to spend on vehicles. 

As of 2022, more companies are looking to create an environmentally-friendly future by expanding into electric taxis and vans. With electric vehicles entering the mainstream, we are sure to notice plenty of developments in the industry in years to come.


Other Notable Inventions

1911 - Electric Ignition Starters

1921 - Cigarette Lighters

1930 - Car Radio

1934 - Coil Spring Suspension

1949 - Car Keys

1951 - Power Steering

1953 - Air Conditioning

1958 - Cruise Control

1959 - Seatbelts

1971 - ABS Technology

1973 - Catalytic Converter

1974 - Digital Dashboard Displays

1984 - CD Players

1988 - Airbags

1992 - Electromagnetic Parking Sensors

1994 - On-board Diagnostics

2000 - GPS Sat-Nav

2001 - Bluetooth

2002 - Reversing Camera

2003 - Automatic Parking

2020 - Self-driving Cars


Now that you know a little bit about the history of the automotive industry, you will be able to understand how far technology has come since the 18th century and beyond. If you want your vehicle to be a part of the future, then make sure you book in for a car service when you need one so that you can stave off any unnecessary breakdowns.


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