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The history of cars

The 20th century car: from luxury and commodity to icon

Sofie Taes (se abre en una nueva ventana) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)
Frederik Truyen (KU Leuven)

It’s hard to imagine any 20th-century landscape without a car. The motorisation of society certainly is one of the most striking outcomes of a century of innovation. Cars were roaming the roads as early as the 1880s, but major leaps in engineering, technology, production methods, design and marketing would go on to completely change the role and the realm of the automobile.

At the source of 20th-century innovations in the car industry lies the growing need to automate production lines to allow constructors to keep up with the market’s demand for affordable cars.

By successfully implementing high-efficiency assembly lines, the industry helped turn the car from a gadget for the happy few into a practical tool to be used by many.

Following in the footsteps of Henry Ford, a pioneer of innovation early on in the century, European brands such as Fiat, Citroën and Austin went on to rethink their production methods in the 1920s. While they did manage to conquer a slice of the market, cars from the US remained popular and many American factories opened up branches in Europe. To counterweight the growing success of the Americans, some countries put in place new tax laws and tariffs on imported goods.

The economic crisis of the 1930s and the Second World War severely damaged the luxury car business, urging the industry to produce more efficiently and to develop standards in materials, constructions and processes that would allow for low-price trade.

Postwar Europe saw the emergence of a new style in cars, instigated by Italian builders such as Pininfarina. While ornamentation was minimal, the clean, elegant, streamlined designs hailed in an era of aesthetic reinvention, in which consumers chose their new car not only on the basis of functionality but of visual impact as well.

One of the most iconic cars of the century was the Citroën DS. The model first devised in the 1950s was baptised ‘DS’ as a reference to the French word ‘déesse’ (goddess). Ahead of its time both in terms of style and technology, the DS dismissed the standard sedan design and hinted at what would decades later become a trending aerodynamic approach.

Besides the aerodynamic lines, the technical innovation of the DS consisted mainly in the advanced use of hydraulic systems. While such systems were already used for assisted steering and brakes, in the DS they were applied to the suspension and offered an unrivalled soft ride, sometimes compared to a magic carpet.

Like the Citroën DS, some cars have become staples of postmodern design and continue to enthuse communities of fans that leave no occasion unused to revisit what they consider to be poetry in motion.

As they are now a part of technology history, cars such as the DeLorean and the DS have turned into icons of the 20th century and moved on from the streets into our collective memory.

This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.