The Impact of Early 20th-Century Racing on Modern Cars

Jack Shaw, Contributing Writer

Driving your car down the highway can make you feel like you’re in a NASCAR or IndyCar race. While Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart never battled on the track in Honda Civics or Dodge Caravans, it’s hard to beat the feeling of power you get behind the wheel.

Motorsports machines differ from street-legal cars, typically boasting more horsepower, a sequential-shift transmission and a lightweight body. The Chevrolet Camaro you see Kyle Larson driving on the track is far different from the one in your garage.

Despite their differences, motorsports and production vehicles go hand in hand. Many of the features you see in modern cars come from innovations in racing technology. The drive to win races on the track has directly led to safer and more efficient vehicles on Main Street.

Consider the engine, the heart of the vehicle that makes it go. Primitive race cars did not have fast motors. They drove barely faster than the average human runs.

In 1894, spectators gathered to watch the first organized automobile race in Paris. Jules-Albert, the Count de Dion, won the race in six hours and 48 minutes with an average speed of 12 miles per hour (mph). 

Naturally, the drivers wanted to go faster than 12 mph, leading to innovative engine technology in the early 20th century.

Walter Lorenzo Marr founded the Marr Auto Car Co. and produced a vehicle bearing its name. In 1903, the Marr Auto Car featured one of the first overhead camshaft engines in production vehicles, making the combustion chamber more efficient and giving automobiles more power.

The supercharger was another critical piece of technology in the early 20th century. The man we have to thank for this technology is Harry Miller.

Miller was a pioneer in the racing world, particularly with IndyCar. The Wisconsin native ran a carburetor business and built open-wheel vehicles. Miller’s cars won the Indianapolis 500 nine times in the 1920s and 1930s. Supercharged engines led him to victory.

Miller designed supercharged editions of his engines to crank things up a notch, and it paid dividends. His legacy in IndyCar lasted for decades. These open-wheel cars used the Offenhauser engine based on Miller’s designs for 50 years until losing prominence in the 1980s.

Supercharged engines influenced auto manufacturers of the day, such as Mercedes-Benz. Other automakers followed suit, with Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Bentley using superchargers in their grand prix cars. Superchargers became famous for turning ordinary race cars into high-performance vehicles.

Eventually, manufacturers turned to turbocharging due to its fuel efficiency and horsepower potential. Superchargers had their place in the automotive world by influencing legendary cars like the Blower Bentley. Gearheads nowadays still use superchargers when modding their vehicles.

What makes cars go faster without exerting as much effort? Aerodynamics has played a significant role in motorsports since the beginning, and these innovations have led to better fuel efficiency.

Production cars and their racecar likenesses can be found in a variety of similarities. Photo by jerry jordan/kickin' the tires
Many of the safety and technology features of the muscle cars up for sale at the Barrett-Jackson auto auction in New Orleans share characteristics with their racecar counterparts. Photo by Jerry Jordan/Kickin’ the Tires

Nowadays, you can drive off the lot with a Toyota Prius, Suzuki Swift or Hyundai IONIQ and ensure top-notch fuel economy thanks to aerodynamics and creative thinking.

Early race cars were boxy and aerodynamically inefficient. Designers didn’t know the shape significantly impacted how vehicles deal with wind resistance. Race teams toyed with their machines and created more streamlined shapes.

These adjusted car bodies reduced drag, increased speeds and improved fuel efficiency — a huge win for automakers. This trend quickly showed in passenger vehicle production.

One of the most important innovations was the enclosed cockpit. In the early 20th century, many race cars and street vehicles had an open cockpit. Therefore, they encountered significant amounts of drag, also known as the wind resistance your vehicle faces when accelerating.

Paul Jaray, an Austrian-born aerodynamicist, became influential in the automotive world through his aerodynamic work. Jaray was one of the designers of the Tropfenwagen, also known as the Tear Drop Car, in the early 1920s. This prototype had an enclosed cockpit and a streamlined body, leading to better aerodynamic performance. However, it never entered production.

Race teams began using enclosed cockpits to make their cars faster despite rising temperatures inside the vehicle. The cockpit’s temperature can climb to 140 degrees, making it an uncomfortable ride for drivers. However, they braced themselves because the aerodynamics made their cars faster and saved fuel.

By the 1970s, race teams began emphasizing aerodynamics even more because of downforce. Increased downforce pushes your vehicle to the ground. Thus, you’ll have less drag and better corner speed as you navigate the turns.

The next innovation comes through tires. Goodyear Eagles don’t last long when driving nearly 200 mph, forcing drivers to get new tires when stopping for Sunoco fuel. Some enjoyed the worn tires because they loosened up the car and reduced drag.

Tires were primitive in the late 19th century. Race cars used solid rubber tires before transitioning to pneumatic versions in the early 20th century.

By the 1910s, pneumatic tires became widespread in the racing community because they provided much better traction and shock absorption when driving at high speeds. It wouldn’t be long before pneumatic tires made their way to passenger vehicles, a significant innovation considering the lack of paved roads.

Tire manufacturers competed with each other to be the exclusive partners of NASCAR, Formula One and other racing leagues. Their competition drove innovation for the racing industry and auto manufacturing plants.

Auto racing is one of the most dangerous sports, whether you race at Bowman Gray Stadium or the Daytona International Speedway. Safety is a chief concern for motorsports leagues because of the associated risks.

The last thing NASCAR and IndyCar need are repeats of Dale Earnhardt’s and Dan Wheldon’s accidents. These fatal crashes caused motorsports to reevaluate their safety procedures — something research and development teams have worked on for over a century.

Race cars of the early 20th century weren’t necessarily bastions of safety. Racing back then was arguably more dangerous at slower speeds than modern cars are at 200 mph. Imagine driving your car at high speeds without a mirror because that was the reality for early 20th-century drivers.

The first mounted rearview mirror appeared in 1911 at the inaugural Indianapolis 500. Ray Harroun placed it on his Marmon, proclaiming he found inspiration from a horse and carriage he saw a few years earlier. A decade later, Elmer Berger patented the rearview mirror you see in modern vehicles.

The battles between Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, and Alex Palou and Josef Newgarden only tell part of the story.

Racing for a century has been a battle among manufacturers to gain an edge on one another — both on the racetrack and Main Street. Motorsports have been their vehicle for research and development, with their race teams testing innovations and improving cars.

What will motorsports teams learn in the early 21st century to influence cars 100 years from now?

Author Bio

With a passion for all things automotive, Jack Shaw is a respected writer in the racing and offroading scenes. As a sought-after contributor for Engine Labs, Ford Muscle, Nascar Chronicle and more, his expertise and attention to detail bring articles to life, keeping readers informed and entertained.

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