36 Of The Most Influential Figures In Automotive History
A lot of great men dedicated their lives to leaving a mark on the automotive industry as engineers, inventors, and investors, with some even risking everything for the trade. Read on to learn about some of these automotive legends, both deceased and alive, who influenced the auto industry and shaped it into what it is today.
German engineer Nicolaus August Otto is credited with inventing the first practical internal combustion engine in 1876, which ran on gas instead of steam and was eventually built into a motorcycle.
Otto’s internal combustion engine made petrol-powered vehicles a realistic proposition, ushering in the era of automobiles and changing the course of history.
Henry Ford is credited with making automobiles accessible to the masses. Ford’s Model T revolutionized the auto industry when it was released in 1908. It started a new era in which automobiles were no longer a luxury.
Ford’s conveyer-belt assembly line, combined with a $5 workday (twice the average daily wage at the time) and reduced working hours, boosted efficiency and reduced production costs.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is not just the richest man in the world; he’s also the most influential person in the auto industry today.
He will always be remembered as the man who instigated and spearheaded the auto industry’s transition to electric cars. He took the industry several years ahead and forced every single automaker to either change rapidly or be out of the game forever!
German automotive engineer Karl Friedrich Benz is known for developing the world’s first practical automobile.
Benz’s three-wheeled vehicle powered by a 4-stroke gasoline engine is also believed to be the first car to be produced in series after he received a patent for it in 1886. Benz’s automobile company merged with Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft to form what we know today as the Mercedes-Benz Group.
Carlos Tavares helped the ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn in taking the brand from near bankruptcy to being one of the biggest automakers. He then went on to steer Peugeot S.A. Group back to profitability after several years of losses, including a miraculous revival of its Opel marque.
As the CEO of the world’s fourth-largest automotive group, Tavares is one of the most influential people in the auto industry today.
German engineer Rudolf Diesel invented an internal combustion engine that was exponentially more efficient than the steam and gas-powered engines of the time due to its higher air compression ratio.
Patented in 1898, it also didn’t require an ignition source, which allowed it to run on a variety of oils, including biofuels.
Kiichiro Toyoda was the son of Sakichi Toyoda, who started an immensely profitable automatic loom business in Japan in the late 1920s. Kiichiro persuaded his family to make a risky shift to automobile manufacturing, a decision that would change the world of automobiles forever.
Made entirely from scratch in Japan, Toyoda’s cars were far more affordable, versatile, and reliable than foreign ones. This is a reputation the company maintains to date.
Henry Ford II
Henry Ford II was recalled from the US navy at the end of WWII to lead Ford after the untimely demise of his father, Edsel Ford, the eldest son of Henry Ford. He tactfully brought the auto industry’s finest professionals of the time to work with him.
HF2 made Ford a public corporation in 1956, oversaw the development of some of the most iconic vehicles, and transformed an ailing family enterprise into a global auto giant.
Luc Donckerwolke is the Chief Creative Officer at Hyundai Motor Group. The Belgian automotive designer has previously headed design divisions at numerous prestigious marques.
While at HMG, Donckerwolke was responsible for streamlining an upward trajectory for Hyundai and Kia brands, introducing the luxury marque Genesis, and launching a number of innovative models.
Ransom E. Olds
Ransom Eli Olds is known for being the first to establish a system of suppliers, the first to mass-produce automobiles using a stationary assembly line, and the first to advertise and market his cars.
Olds founded his motor company in 1897 and rolled out his first car. Within the next two years, he became the country’s largest auto manufacturer.
Ratan Naval Tata
Ratan Naval Tata is responsible for turning India-centric Tata Motors, a group subsidiary, into a global auto giant by acquiring Jaguar Cars and Land Rover from Ford in 2008.
Ratan Tata also made headlines when he launched the first fully indigenous Indian passenger car in 1998 and then again in 2008 when he made the world’s most affordable car, the Tata Nano.
Ferruccio Lamborghini’s mechanical skills saw him starting a profitable tractor-manufacturing business in 1948 and an oil burner factory in 1959. Four years later, he founded Automobili Lamborghini.
Legend has it that Lamborghini decided to enter the automobile business after he complained about his Ferrari to Enzo Ferarri, who told Lamborghini that he didn’t want advice from a “tractor mechanic.”
Gottlieb Daimler advanced Nicolaus Otto’s four-stroke engine design with the help of his friend Wilhelm Maybach. Together, they developed the forerunner of the modern gasoline engine and used it to build the world’s first four-wheeled automobile.
This V-shaped 2-cylinder 4-stroke engine still serves as the foundation for today’s automobile engines.
Christian von Koenigsegg
Koenigsegg’s CEO, Christian von Koenigsegg, is an innovative visionary with numerous patents to his name, such as the Freevalve, which drastically reduces the weight and size of engines while boosting their efficiency.
Koenigsegg Automotive AB’s Agera RS hypercar set a 285-mph world record. When Bugatti broke this record, Christian answered the challenge with the Jesko Absolut, which rides the air at an ungodly speed of 330 mph.
Believed to be the best salesman that ever lived, William C. Durant either co-founded or had an important role in the development of numerous auto giants.
Durant famously created a system of vertical integration in which a company held multiple seemingly-independent marques with different automobile lines under a unified corporate holding company.
Robert Joseph Scaringe is the founder of Rivian Automotive, which plans to disrupt the auto industry with its insanely capable all-electric offroaders.
Having started with nothing, Scaringe managed to get the support of numerous giants, including Cox and Amazon, with Jeff Bezos making an order of 100,000 Electric Delivery Vans.
Widely regarded as the most influential automotive designer of the 20th century, Giorgetto Giugiaro has styled cars for nearly every major auto brand in the world.
Due to his remarkable influence on modern automotive design, the Italian stylist was crowned as the “Designer of the Century” by a jury of more than 120 journalists in 1999.
German engineer Wilhelm Maybach is behind numerous inventions in the early automotive period, including the first four-cylinder automotive engine, which was adapted from Otto’s design.
Maybach was the first person to put the engine in front of the driver and under the hood, where it has remained ever since.
The former President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company, Alan Mulally, gained recognition for his ‘One Ford’ plan, which saw Ford making models that could be sold across the globe with a few changes.
The strategy was incredibly successful, and Ford regained its lost status. It was the only major American automaker to avoid the government bailout after the 2008 recession.
Charles Stewart Rolls was a British automobile and aviation pioneer known for co-founding Rolls-Royce with automotive engineer Henry Royce. This partnership would eventually grow into the most prestigious auto badge to date.
Though Rolls died in a plane accident at the young age of 32, his contribution to the auto industry is far too big for anyone to ignore.
When Charles Stewart Rolls returned from the historic 1904 meeting with Henry Royce, he told his business partner that he had “found the greatest motor engineer in the world.”
Royce’s penchant for perfection went on to become the trademark of every car that wears the interlinked double-R badge of Rolls-Royce today.
Walter Owen Bentley gained recognition in his early life as a prolific engine designer. His aluminum pistons fitted to British fighter planes during WWI earned him an MBE and an award from the Commission of Awards to Inventors.
Bentley used the award money to establish a namesake automobile firm in 1919 with one single goal: “To build a good car, a fast car, the best in class.”
Charles Edgar & James Frank Duryea
The Duryea Brothers were the first commercial car manufacturers in America. They founded the Duryea Motor Wagon company after successfully road-testing their one-cylinder four-horsepower automobile in 1893.
The demand for Duryea automobiles grew significantly after one of their vehicles won America’s first car race in Chicago in 1895.
Akio Toyoda famously led Toyota through the after-effects of the 2008 recession, the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping it more profitable than ever.
Toyoda is responsible for taking the company’s shift to fuel-efficient and electric cars to dramatic levels.
Charles Franklin Kettering was head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947.
Kettering invented anti-knock gasoline, variable-speed transmissions, quick-drying automobile paints, and, most notably, the key-operated electric self-starting ignition system that ended the practice of manual ignition and made automobiles safer and easier to operate.
The founder of the Porsche AG, Ferdinand Porsche, is known for building many iconic vehicles. He build the Volkswagen Beetle after he was given a contract by Hitler to design a people’s car in 1934.
Porsche is also credited with making the world’s first gasoline-electric hybrid car, the Lohner-Porsche mixed hybrid, at the start of the 20th century.
Soichiro Honda’s first enterprise, a piston ring shop, was destroyed by the war and a devastating earthquake. In 1946, he came up with a brilliant idea to power bicycles from the surplus remnant generators of WWII.
In 1948, Honda partnered with Takeo Fujisawa to establish the Honda Motor Company. They built motorbikes and, eventually, cars in 1963.
Chung Ju-yung started an automotive repair business in the early 1940s after taking a 3,000 won loan from a friend. This business flourished but was shut down by the Japanese colonial government.
After Korea’s liberation, Chung made another attempt at business and started ‘Hyundai’ as a construction firm. Hyundai added auto manufacturing to its portfolio in 1967, and it is the world’s third-largest carmaker today.
Swiss automotive engineer Alfred Büchi is credited with inventing turbocharging in 1905.
Büchi used a genius strategy of pre-compressing the air flowing into the engine by using the ‘waste’ kinetic energy of the high-pressure exhaust gases resulting from the combustion process.
Mary Teresa Barra joined General Motors in 1980 at the age of 18 to pay for college, and steadily worked her way up and became the CEO in 2014.
After assembling the best management team GM has ever had, Barra made some really bold decisions, including the exit from Russia and the move to driverless and electric-powered vehicles.
Alfred Pritchard Sloan was crucial in GM’s growth from the 1920s through the 1950s. Under Sloan’s management, GM became the largest automaker and the largest industrial enterprise in the world.
Sloan ended inter-brand competition between GM’s different subsidiaries with a tactful pricing structure, and he introduced the annual styling changes for vehicles and the auto loan credit system we know and use today.
Enzo Ferrari started his career as a racecar driver in 1919 before working at Alfa Romeo, where he founded the Scuderia Ferrari racing team.
The Scuderia Ferrari was closed by Alfa Romeo but was later revived by Enzo to become the oldest surviving and most successful Formula One team to date. By 1946, he had made the first of his V12 dream cars and the rest, as we know, is history!
Carroll Shelby is best known for developing the AC Cobra and modifying the Ford Mustang in the late 1960s.
Every car this man built, designed, or even touched is worth millions today.
American automotive engineer John DeLorean was widely regarded for his work at General Motors, where he remained GM’s youngest division chief before he left to launch the DeLorean Motor Company.
DeLorean is known for developing several iconic vehicles. His most notable car, however, was the DMC DeLorean sports car that was featured in Back to the Future.
Sergio Marchionne orchestrated the merger of Fiat and Chrysler, which became one of the world’s largest and most profitable automakers.
Marchionne was an outspoken leader who wouldn’t hesitate to criticize his own products, and he remained one of the most influential CEOs in the auto industry until his death in 2018.
The CEO of Volkswagen Group, Herbert Diess, has been instrumental in steering the group out of the notorious Dieselgate scandal of 2015, which saw Volkswagen losing $30 billion in penalties, fines, and settlements after it rigged its diesel vehicles to cheat on government emissions tests.
Diess wields massive influence over the auto industry today.