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Centennial Celebration: 100 Years

From the horseless carriages of the early 1900s to the chromed-up hot rods of the ’50s to the alternately fueled vehicles of today and tomorrow, the automobile has experienced 100 years of transformation.

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Along the century-long winding road, vehicle bodies have been
composed of materials such as wood, steel, fiberglass and aluminum.
Safety features that were once nonexistent – like seat belts and
airbags – are now standard equipment. And though the road already
traveled is marked with many other technological milestones, history
is still yet to be made with the next century of vehicles.

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1896

Without loud commercials and corny jingles, the first American
auto dealer, William E. Metzger, sold his first car, a Waverly
electric, in Detroit. In the same city, Henry Ford built his first
car – it failed.

1901

The first state to require automobile registrations, New York
claims the dubious honor of being the birthplace of long lines
at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Unlike the license plates
of today, original registered plates consisted only of the owner’s
initials, which were usually made of metal and mounted on leather.

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1903

Still inexperienced at building automobiles, a few manufacturers
forgot to install brakes on vehicles. To stop their cars, some
drivers simply drove into walls. Whoa, Nellie!

1905

With the invention of The Club more than 80 years away, an unsuspecting
vehicle owner in St. Louis fell prey to the first reported auto
theft.

1912

Look! It’s a tank, it’s a train. No, it’s the car of steel – the
first of its kind. Previously, car bodies were made of wood or
leather.

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1914

Drivers came to a complete three-second stop obeying the first
stop sign erected in Detroit. In Cleveland, motorists waited –
impatiently, I’m sure – as the first traffic lights flashed.

1921

A stampede of automobiles – not hogs – ate from trays balanced
in car-door windows at the first drive-in restaurant in Dallas.
The design philosophy: close proximity to the curbside with carhops
servicing the arriving automobiles. "People with cars are
so lazy they don’t want to get out of them to eat," said
pig stand founder J.G. Kirby.

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1925

Motorists hit the open road on the first interstate highway –
the Lincoln Highway – which paved the way from New York to San
Francisco. In the same year, manufacturers made front and rear
bumpers standard equipment.

1928

Though rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t yet bebopped its way on to the radio
stations of America, motorists tuned into news and entertainment
programs on the first car radios.

1929

For those motorists more occupied with their radio dials than
with the cars in front of them, the first Center High-Mounted
Stop Light (CHMSL) appeared in vehicles. Much like the CHMSL designs
of today, it measured 6 inches x 2 inches x 1 inch and was placed
at eye level in a car’s rear window.

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1935

Ticking away minute by minute, the first parking meter expired
in Oklahoma City. Whether the first parking ticket was issued
as a result, the history books don’t say.

1936

Forty years after the first motor vehicle was sold, more than
50 percent of American families owned automobiles.

1953

Cruisin’ down the highways of America, Chevy’s Corvette boasted
the first fiberglass body.

1959

For the first time, the three-point seat belt – one of the most
important safety features in the history of the automobile – was
listed as standard equipment on all ’59 Volvos. Years later, the
crash-test dummies would make their commercial debut wearing nothing
more than reflective tape and the now-mandated safety restraint.

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1972

Fill ‘er up! Drivers began pumping their own fuel at the first
self-serve gas stations.

1973

Bursting into automotive history as an option on full-size Oldsmobile,
Buick and Cadillac models, the first driver-side airbags were
installed by GM.

1984

The first car manufactured using a space frame, the Pontiac Fiero
rocketed into – and out of – showrooms.

1995

On televisions across the country, the crash test dummies were
back to promote side-impact airbags, first offered on Volvo 850
models.

1995

Acura marked an automotive first unveiling its new NSX sportscar
– the world’s first aluminum production vehicle. Weighing in at
more than 3,000 pounds, this aluminum can would bring a pretty
penny at the recycling center.

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1996

Charging past gas stations and lube stops, GM’s EV1 – the first
modern-day, electric passenger vehicle – went on sale in California
and Arizona.

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