I often say, flippantly, that the industry is just now starting to master the technologies of a century ago. That’s been more an impression than a statement of fact; I recall seeing many things in early publications and thinking, “Wow, I had no idea they did that so soon,” but if pressed, I wouldn’t be able to provide examples. Time to remedy that, with a quick survey of some ideas that were before their time.

1. Turbocharging

The idea of turbo-compressing seems to come from the 1890s and became widely known in less than a decade, starting around 1900. By about 1905, centrifugal compression was in use in marine engines and other heavy-duty applications. That same year, Swiss engineer Dr. Alfred Büchi patented an exhaust-driven turbocharger in what we’d consider a modern configuration.

England and France were the hotbeds of turbo research, however, with a large variety of engine configurations and external devices, all creating forced induction. The word “turbo” itself appears more than a century ago, on the English device shown (I haven’t been able to learn more about it). Sold as an add-on, we’d probably call it a supercharger today, as it was driven by a shaft from a friction wheel in contact with the flywheel. Actually, we’d probably call it a waste of money, as it couldn’t possibly have had any benefit, but the idea was sound.

High exhaust motor, 1912

That’s not to say Americans didn’t have the idea of turning a turbine with exhaust gas; devices such as the High exhaust motor replaced the flywheel, hypothetically returning force directly to the crankshaft.

Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg, among others, used supercharged forced induction before World War II, sometimes to great success, but exhaust-driven turbocharging had to wait for the Corvair to see mass production.

2. Hybrids

1900 Elektromobile System Lohner-Porsche

This is my favorite early technology, and, no mistake, it is very early. The 1900 Lohner-Porsche petrol-electric – which had a Mercedes or Panhard four-cylinder connected to a dynamo, powering two front-wheel hub motors – is certainly the most famous, but despite repeated efforts, hub motors have yet to see practical production. But there were innumerable others with other solutions, one of which, Rambler, had what seems to have turned out to be THE solution: Integrated motor assist.

Rambler developed a motor/generator to replace the flywheel, originally simply as a starter. Early starters were enormous and heavy, but by connecting the new unit directly to the crankshaft in the 1912-’13 (I think) Cross Country, they simplified things. Made by United States Heating and Lighting Company (U.S.L.), it was completely automated: It functioned as a motor when starting, drawing from a 24-volt storage battery, then switched to generator mode when the engine engaged, with a regulator to prevent overcharging. The big spinning armature served as the flywheel.

So far, this is just a clever starter, but there was one difference: Because there was no gear reduction, you could safely use it to get the car under way. In fact, taking the car up to about 5 MPH before starting seems to have been a preferred way of getting it going. That’s right: At low speeds, it was an electric, then switched to gas. Right down to the location of the generator, this is the way a Honda Insight works today.

Even that wasn’t original – in about 1898, both Pieper in Belgium and Patton Motor Co. in Chicago had electric assist: A small engine was kept running at constant speed, driving a dynamo and charging a battery. When conditions demanded more power than the engine was putting out – hillclimbing, for instance, the dynamo automatically switched to assist mode.

3. Power brakes

When you drive an early car for the first time, the weak brakes make themselves known immediately. You’re forgiven for thinking they were an afterthought, but the issue was actually the tires. Even a skimpy contracting band could lock up slick three-inch-wide rubber, but that didn’t mean there weren’t inventors thinking up better solutions than rods and leather belts.

Like hydraulic power brakes.

That there is the master cylinder from John Unser’s 1904 patent (#794,382) for hydraulic brakes. “Hydraulic,” in this case, meant “operated by the pressure of air or other similar fluid”; his pump and reservoir could be adapted for liquids. For traction engines, there was even an outlet at the end to hook up to your trailer, like you do with a Perterbilt today. This stuff doesn’t spring up out of whole cloth, and I could undoubtedly find someone discussing the use of some rail-braking mechanism for road trains, but you get the idea.

4. Disc brakes

Because clutch disc brakes were in common use, it’s been very tricky to pin down the first application of wheel disc brakes. However, the earliest version is acknowledged to be the F.W. Lanchester’s 1902 patent, and by 1903, it was being used very successfully in Lanchester automobiles. Given Fred Lanchester’s background and track record of startling invention, it entirely possible he came up with the idea.

Metz multiple disc brakes

Argyl front-wheel drums

By 1915, Metz was offering a hub-mounted version of multiplate disc clutch brakes, and Scottish make Argyl had four-wheel internal expanding drums. Lanchester’s experment didn’t last long, but French automakers started playing around with discs again in the Twenties.

5. Fuel injection

Blown, air-cooled, fuel-injected, two-stroke experimental automobile, 1908

Because there was continual interest in oil-burning engines, fuel injection and direct injection were known quantities. The trouble, as manufacturers relearned in the Fifties, is that mechanical fuel injection requires precise timing and metering, and expensive, close tolerance machining. It was first developed in European stationary engines in the early 1890s, and developed for automobiles and other vehicles around the turn of the century – the Wright brothers rather famously made it work in 1903. In America, it was really limited to a small number of independents at the time; however, as there wasn’t enough money in the industry to support a sufficiently developed field of inquiry. In France, M. Levassor had running fuel-injected automobiles by 1903, and may even have sold some for road use.

That was no longer true a few years later, and by around 1907, there were experimental fuel-injected cars running. To address the troubling issue of preignition, many, if not all, were two-strokes, and alcohol was often used; this was much less of a problem in the already well-established kerosene (Diesel) engines. By 1910, fuel injection was widely discussed even among laymen, and everyone expected that the problems would be ironed out soon. But it really wasn’t until the Thirties that it became widely available in the U.S., and then only as speed parts.

6. Rotary and turbine engines

Rotaries of every possible configuration abounded in the 1800s; the idea had been around for centuries, and Pecquer’s self-propelled 1828 steam wagon was a rotary, probably turbine style. They were, in fact everywhere. Most were rotaries in the sense that, familiar from rotary piston aircraft, the pistons revolved around the crankshaft while reciprocating; the other class were turbines.

Single-rotor steam engines were, if not common, at least a known line of inquiry. Adding combustion to a rotating chamber was something else. But in the 1890s a few played around with the idea of abandoning pistons altogether, for a Wankel-style rotor. All of these inventors are obscure to the point that I have no idea who they were, but the 110-plus-year-old combustion engines of Chaudin, Garnder and Sanderson, Batley, Vernet, Dodement and Beetz are recognizably non-reciprocating rotaries.

André Beetz’s rotary

Gardner-Sanderson petrol turbine rotary

Some experts saw the reciprocating piston gas engine as a stopgap, assuming that within a few years the problems with turbines – the same ones as with fuel injection – would be ironed out and soon become the automobile powerplant of choice.

7. Automatic transmissions

The earliest automatics were more properly CVTs, some form of variable ratio transmissions, often using belts or flywheels. An automatic tension belt design from Europe, using a belt and spur gears, appeared in 1900, and there were numerous friction-drive vehicles available right along, where power was transmitted through the action of one wheel to another at right angles. So from a “you don’t have to shift” perspective, automatics are as old as the car.

But in 1901, the patented Shattuck Variable Gear transmission debuted in Minneapolis. The driver did still need to shift, but the actual gear change was theoretically automatic – no clutching needed. At the same time, planetary transmissions, as popularized by the Model T, were well along in development. All that was needed was the torque converter, which was 20 years away.

1914 Entz electric transmission

So interest turned to electric transmissions. As in some of the hybrids, a motor-generator was placed behind the engine in the drivetrain, and a magnetic clutch was often used to further simplify operation. The simplest systems, like the R.M. Owen unit above, didn’t use large accumulators; they were designed to be driven solely by the engine, but without the need for shifting; all you had to do was flip the switch to disengage it at a stop. A very similar system was used in the production 1907 Columbia gas-electric.

Lavaud automatic transmission

Work on automatics continued unabated, and by 1923 you could hook your Voisin-Lavaud automatic to an English Constantinesco torque converter.

By 1910, there was no reason a person with sufficient ambition, skill and resources couldn’t have assembled a supercharged, fuel-injected hybrid with an automatic transmission and four-wheel hydraulic discs. But something like that would never fly.