Innovators of the Modern American Auto Industry

RelayRides blogger and automotive expert, Brad Iger, writes about the modern automotive industry innovators who have revolutionized transportation

As the automotive industry has evolved over the past 120 years or so, there has been a select handful of individuals who’ve had the audacity to truly think outside the box and foster legitimately innovative products that’ve changed the course of motoring the world over. From timeless designs and technological breakthroughs to flat-out clever thinking, these are the innovators that’ve shaped the way we look at, drive and access motorcars.

Our list of pioneers does include Jon DeLorean, but no flying cars

John DeLorean

Perhaps best known for the car company which bore his name, DeLorean’s contributions to the automotive world reach much further back than the somewhat checkered legacy of the DMC-12.

As design chief for General Motors’ Pontiac division in the early 1960s, it was DeLorean who determined that the best way to capitalize on the youth market’s fascination with auto racing was to offer them an affordable performance car. By taking the rather mundane, intermediate-sized Pontiac Tempest, outfitting it with the 389 cubic inch V8 from the full sized Pontiac Catalina and dubbing it the GTO, DeLorean succeeded in creating an entirely new market segment: the muscle car.

As sales skyrocketed and the rest of the industry scrambled to catch up, DeLorean would go on to help design other General Motors icons like the Pontiac Firebird, the 2nd generation Camaro and redesigns of the Corvette and Nova in the early 70s. After several years of turmoil within Chevrolet, including an unprecedented recall of nearly 7 million vehicles built between 1965 – 1969 due to defective motor mounts, by 1971, DeLorean had turned the brand around to point at which sales figures for Chevy had reached record sales highs of over 3 million vehicles–nearly matching sales figures for the entire Ford Motor Company that year.

Several years later, DeLorean would set out on his own, creating the DeLorean Motor Company and the iconic gullwing-doored DMC-12. While lackluster initial sales and legal issues would ultimately lead to the untimely end of DMC, DeLorean’s legacy is indisputable, and his impact on the automotive industry is still felt today.

Elon Musk

As a co-founder of the online funds transferring website PayPal, Musk’s legacy as an innovator seemed to be designed for the online space rather than within the area of automobiles. However, after PayPal was acquired by eBay in 2002, Musk decided to focus his talents on technological innovations outside the realm of the Internet, founding SpaceX, a commercial space exploration company, in 2002, and later also co-founding Tesla Motors.

Tesla Motors’ models like Tesla Roadster and Model S vehicles have been helping to redefine the conventional motorcar, offering vehicles propelled exclusively by electricity while maintaining the practically and usability of traditionally fueled automobiles.

Fighting a constantly uphill battle of expensive development costs, skeptical consumers, and outspoken critics, Musk and Tesla Motors have persevered, and the newly-released Model S, with its 5-door layout aimed squarely at highly competitive luxury sedan market, has received high praise from the often fickle automotive press, proving that occasionally, true innovation requires the ability to simply say “damn the torpedoes” and see one’s vision through, risky as it may be.

Shelby Clark

As the founder of RelayRides, Shelby’s first encounter with the concept of vehicle sharing occurred when his car kicked the bucket during a cross-country trek to California.

A year later, while riding his bike through Boston to pick up a vehicle from a car sharing fleet, Shelby noticed the massive amount of unused vehicles lining the streets as he passed. As an advocate for the environment and community, Shelby saw the potential in these vehicles in typical communities (most of which spend over 90% of their time sitting idle) as not only a money-making prospect, but also as way to better utilize existing resources and reduce our collective carbon footprint as well. Since launching the first peer-to-peer car sharing company, Shelby has seen RelayRides not only revolutionize personal mobility and the way people view car ownership, but has also seen one of our most expensive, depreciating assets transform into a cash cow for thousands.

Lee Iacocca

Truly a titan of the industry, Iacocca played a pivotal role in the history and evolution of both the Ford Motor Company and the Chrysler Corporation.

He joined FoMoCo in 1946 as an engineer, but quickly moved into sales and marketing, where his true talents lay. After spearheading the “56 for 56” sales initiative in 1956 that quickly went national due to its overnight success, Iacocca was moved out to Dearborn and quickly ascended the executive ranks within Ford.

By 1960, Iacocca was named Ford’s vice-president, and from there, his focus shifted back toward engineering and the conceptual. In 1964, as Ford’s general manager, he orchestrated the design and marketing of the original Ford Mustang, which would go on to become the most successful model launch for the company since the Model A.

He eventually became president of Ford Motor Company, but was later fired in 1978 due to clashes he’d had with Henry Ford II, despite the company posting a $2 billion profit that year.

Iacocca went on to join the Chrysler Corporation, who was in the midst of financial woe at the time, and resurrected the company from the ground up. He would go on to introduce the hugely successful Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1983, creating a market segment now known as the minivan. Along with the introduction of a series of successful compact cars (known as K-cars), Iacocca steered Chrysler out of trouble and into profitability in record time, and Chrysler continued to enjoy the fruits of Iacocca’s labor well after his retirement as President, Chairman, and CEO of Chrysler Corporation in 1992.