11 Decades of Automotive Design Innovation

From the Model T to the Tesla, automobile design has come a long way in the past century. Today’s vehicles offer technological innovations that early designers never even dreamed of when they were developing the groundbreaking advancements of their time.

Automobile design has been an evolutionary process, as each decade has brought changes, some driven by advancements in technology, and others driven by consumer demand for fuel efficiency, safety, or aesthetic appeal.

A look back at the past 11 decades of car design will illustrate how the industry has grown—sometimes in leaps, and other times in small steps forward. For consumers interested in collectible cars, knowing more about the design trends of previous decades may enhance their enjoyment of their vehicles.

1910s – First released in 1908, the Ford Model T was the automotive success story of the teens, becoming the vehicle that introduced the world to the automobile. Ford’s pioneering of the assembly line, along with the simple design and affordable price of the Model T, allowed the company to sell 15 million of the vehicles between 1908 and 1927 and make auto manufacturing a major industry.

Many vehicles of the 1910s were uncomplicated in design, with many having no doors, windows, or windshields and more closely resembling horse-drawn buggies than later iterations of the automobile.

1920s – The Roaring Twenties demanded more opulent vehicles and the growing industrial colossus that was the auto manufacturing business was happy to oblige. The simple designs of the past decade gave way to longer and sleeker designs with more aesthetic features. The practical design of automobiles also improved, with important elements such as windows, windshields, and doors being added.

Older 1940's collectible car

1930s – The 1930s saw continued mechanical innovation in the automobile. The Great Depression impacted the industry, forcing it to become leaner and more cost-effective to survive. Automakers learned to manufacture vehicles more efficiently, and they also focused more on affordable, mass-market vehicles than the opulent vehicles of the previous decade. This change allowed them to survive the economic downturn and positioned them to thrive once conditions improved.

1940s – Continuing economic struggles and World War II continued to have an impact on production, but some important design innovations occurred during this period. Ponton styling had its heyday in this era, resulting in vehicles that were more bulbous and curvy than their predecessors.

1950s – Many auto enthusiasts view the 1950s as a golden age for automobiles, as this era gave rise to many important trends in automobiles. The “car culture” of the U.S. was born in this period, as post-war prosperity enabled many people to buy automobiles and work on interstate highways began. Sleek cars with powerful engines such as the Ford Thunderbird and Chevy Corvette debuted, and motorsports such as hot rodding and drag racing became popular during this period. Cars from this era are among some of the most popular classic cars for sale today.

1960's Classic Red Vehicle

1960s – The massive land yachts of the 1950s slimmed down a little in the 60s, as smaller European and Japanese imports started making headway in the U.S. market. Power was still popular, however, and the decade saw the rise of pony cars like the Ford Mustang and Camaro. Seat belts, which had been optional equipment in years past, became standard equipment during the 60s and helped reduce traffic fatalities.

1970s – Muscle cars and large cars remained popular in the early years of the 70s, but an oil embargo and economic woes quickly had consumers demanding smaller, more efficient vehicles. Fuel-sipping foreign imports established a beachhead in this time that companies like Toyota and Honda capitalized upon to become major auto industry players. The popular cruise control feature available in most vehicles rose in popularity during this time as it allowed drivers to more efficiently operate their vehicles.

In terms of aesthetics, the vehicles of the 70s abandoned the curvy look of previous decades, and hard lines became the standard design of most vehicles. Brightly colored vehicles also became quite popular during the 70s.

Classic American Automobile from the 1970's

1980s – The 1980s saw the production of many boxy vehicles. Designers and consumers were more concerned about efficiency than aesthetics, although there were some exceptions like the sublime DMC DeLorean. The Chrysler K-Car is a good example of automobiles from this era—reliable, efficient, and not particularly exciting.

One bright spot in 80s auto design was an increased focus on interior design. Vehicle interiors became more comfortable and ergonomically designed during this period, and the decade saw the introduction of many amenities we take for granted today.

The 80s also saw the continued rise of Japanese imports, as these vehicles captured increasingly large chunks of market share.

1990s – The 1990s saw the rise of the SUV. Sport Utility Vehicles—until then a niche market for sportsmen and laborers—grew increasingly popular as a family vehicle option. SUVs had many marketable features; consumers liked their high seating, and their larger size projected an image of power and safety. SUVs were considered “cooler” than previous generations of family haulers, such as mini-vans and station wagons, and they largely supplanted these vehicles’ share of the market.

The 90s also saw a renaissance in design, with more fluidly designed vehicles replacing the stodgy boxes of the 80s. The Porsche 911 and Mazda Miata were excellent examples of this trend.

Automotive Designs in the 2000's

2000s – The 2000s saw a resurgence in popularity for small, fuel-efficient sedans, as geopolitical instability in the Middle East resulted in a spike in oil prices. A harsh recession in the latter part of the decade further inspired customer demand for frugal vehicles.

The 2000s also saw the rise of hybrid vehicles and steps toward non-fossil fuel vehicles, as environmental concerns dovetailed with economic angst to move these technologies forward. The Toyota Prius was a major success story for the 2000s, becoming the first commercially viable hybrid vehicle. The Prius’ success emboldened other automakers to launch their own hybrid products.

2010s – SUVs and other large vehicles have made a comeback, in the recent decade, with easing oil prices, improving economic conditions, and innovations in fuel efficiency making these vehicles attractive to consumers once more. More efficient engine design and lightweight aluminum bodies have made many SUV models competitive with sedans in terms of fuel economy.

Modern communications and computing technology are also having a big impact on automobiles. Automakers are adding assistive technology such as adaptive cruise control, collision alerts, parking sensors, and automated braking to new vehicles. Development of autonomous vehicles also continues, with car makers prototyping self-driving and semi-autonomous vehicles.

Modern Electronic Vehicle

The Classic Car Market

There’s a big market for classic cars, as many people yearn for the nostalgia of years past, while others are passionate about the challenge of automotive restoration. Experts estimate there are about five million collector cars in the U.S., and there are probably countless other older cars lovingly maintained in garages around the country.

Classic car lovers looking for the perfect fixer-upper or showpiece need to work with a dealer that knows collectible automobiles inside and out. Auto enthusiasts looking to find their favorite automobiles of yesteryear can find exactly what they’re looking for at Show Cars of Boca Raton.

A car dealership exclusively working in classic, custom, and show cars, Show Cars of Boca Raton has a diverse inventory of classic cars for sale. Even if your dream car isn’t on the lot, Show Cars of Boca Raton can likely help, thanks to the relationships it has with thousands of collectors around the country. Find your dream car today and have an enjoyable car-buying experience at Show Cars of Boca Raton.


  1. https://www.bcgperspectives.com/content/articles/automotive_management_slow_growth_economy_how_automakers_accelerated_out_of_the_great_depression/
  2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2015/09/02/americas-fading-car-culture/?utm_term=.9c38b7c5f6a0
  3. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/how-the-crossover-conquered-americas-automobile-market/374061/
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