When you see a cool Lamborghini rolling down the street (after you have recovered that dropping jaw) you might think of the exceptional craftsmen who put their work into making that engineering marvel possible. But, the human effort behind Lamborghini, or pretty much any car, goes way further than you can even imagine.
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. Today, we will be looking into the lives and achievements of 40 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, that ran on gas instead of steam and was eventually built into a motorcycle.
Famously known as the “Otto Cycle Engine,” it used four strokes or cycles for each ignition. Otto’s internal combustion engine made petrol-powered vehicles a realistic proposition, ushering in the era of automobiles and changing the course of history for the centuries to come.
Gottlieb Daimler advanced Nicolaus Otto’s four-stroke engine design with the help of his friend Wilhelm Maybach to develop the forerunner of the modern gasoline engine and successfully used it to build the world’s first four-wheeled automobile.
The V-shaped 2-cylinder 4-stroke engine developed by Daimler and Maybach still serves as the foundation for today’s automobile engines. In 1890, the two German engineers founded the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (Daimler Motors Corporation) for the commercial production of engines and later on automobiles.
Widely regarded as the “father of the automobile industry” and “the father of the car,” 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, the world’s largest car manufacturer at the time, merged with Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft to form what’s today known as the Mercedes-Benz Group.
Charles Edgar & James Frank Duryea
Though John Lambert is credited with making America’s first gas-engine vehicle, the Duryea Brothers were the first commercial car manufacturers in America. They founded the Duryea Motor Wagon company after successful road-testing of their one-cylinder four-horsepower automobile in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1893.
The demand for Duryea automobiles grew significantly after one of their vehicles, driven by James Frank Duryea, won America’s first car race in Chicago in 1895. Not that it’s something to be proud of, but America’s first known auto accident is believed to have involved a Duryea automobile.
A close friend and associate of Daimler, German engineer Wilhelm Maybach is behind numerous inventions in the early automotive period, including spray-nozzle carburetors, full engine water jacket, radiator cooling system, and most notably the first four-cylinder automotive engine 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 remains ever since. He famously built a radical 35-hp automobile for auto racing pioneer Emil Jellinek in late 1902 which, on Jellinek’s request, was named after his daughter: Mercedes. He later founded his own auto firm to build large luxury vehicles the world today knows as Maybachs.
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 that caused gases to expand considerably more during combustion.
Patented in 1898, it also didn’t require an ignition source, which allowed it to run on a variety of oils including biofuels. While designing the prototype, a sudden explosion in the 10-feet tall engine almost killed Diesel and permanently damaged his eyes. Though the Diesel engine was intended to help small businesses lower operating costs, it went on to spawn an auto revolution.
Ransom E. Olds
Ransom Eli Olds is known for initiating several practices that are common in the auto industry today. He was 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, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, in 1901. Within the next two years, he had become the largest auto manufacturer in the United States!
Unarguably the most influential person in automotive 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, five years after the inception of the Ford Motor Company. 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, was believed by many to bankrupt the company but it boosted efficiency and reduced production costs instead. So much so that the price of the Model T dropped from $825 to just $260 in 1925. By 1927, Ford had sold 15 million Model Ts.
Believed to be the best salesman that ever lived, William C. Durant was one of the leading pioneers of the auto industry. He either co-founded, or had an important role in the development of, numerous auto giants including Buick, Chevrolet, Frigidaire, Pontiac, Cadillac, and most notably the General Motors Corporation (which evolved from his highly successful carriage company in 1908).
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. He was known as “the Man” back in the day and was labeled an “unstable visionary” by J.P. Morgan.
Born into abject poverty, Charles Williams Nash worked several meager jobs before being hired by William Durant as an upholstery stuffer for $1/day at his carriage factory in 1890. Working his way up, Nash eventually made it to general manager. He played a crucial role in helping Buick and General Motors find their feet, especially during his tenure as GM’s President after Durant’s ouster.
When Durant regained GM’s control in 1916, Nash resigned over some differences, rejecting an astonishing $1 million annual salary offer by Durant. He went on to form the highly successful Nash Motors to make affordable cars in “special market segments left untended by the giants,” which would eventually pave the way for the American Motors Corporation.
Famously known as the “Grand Old Man of Detroit,” Henry Martyn Leland is best known for founding two prestigious luxury marques that still exist today, Cadillac and Lincoln. Leland brought precision engineering to the auto industry and invented a number of modern manufacturing principles, most notably the use of interchangeable parts.
Leland sold Cadillac to GM in 1909 but remained associated with it until 1917 when the US Government asked Cadillac to produce Liberty aircraft engines for WWI and GM’s then-supremo, vocal pacifist Will Durant refused the request. Leland formed Lincoln with a $10 million wartime contract to supply the V12 Liberty aircraft engines, which went on to inspire Lincoln’s initial automobiles after the war ended.
Charles Stewart Rolls was a British automobile and aviation pioneer, known for co-founding Rolls-Royce with automotive engineer Henry Royce. Hailing from an aristocratic background, Rolls was a fearless motor racer and a shrewd businessman who fully knew the power of public relations.
Rolls famously met Royce on 4th May 1904 at Manchester’s Midland Hotel to start a partnership that 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 at Manchester’s Midland Hotel with Henry Royce, he told his business partner Claude Johnson that he has “found the greatest motor engineer in the world.”
Besides being an automotive genius, Royce was a workaholic and a perfectionist who would never settle for a compromise of any kind. It was, in fact, Royce’s penchant for perfection that went on to become the trademark of every car that wears the interlinked double-R badge of Rolls-Royce today.
Born to a locomotive engineer, Walter Percy Chrysler started his career in the railroad industry and went on to become an immensely skilled mechanic. He joined the auto industry in 1911 when the then-GM president Charles Nash offered him an executive job at Buick, where he masterfully cut production costs and made it to the president.
Chrysler worked with a couple of other firms later on, and famously demanded, and received, an astonishing and unheard salary of $1 million/year while at Willys-Overland Motors. He acquired a controlling interest in the ailing Maxwell Motor Company in 1924 and re-organized it into Chrysler Corporation in 1925 to build exceptionally sophisticated automobiles, paving the way for it to become one of the “Big Three” of Detroit.
Walter Owen Bentley gained recognition in his early life as a prolific engine designer. His aluminum pistons fitted to British fighter planes during WWI made such a difference that he received an MBE and was awarded £8,000 (€8,900) 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.” Bentleys were, and continue to be, just that!
Swiss race-car driver Louis Chevrolet is known for co-founding the Chevrolet Motor Car Company with then-ousted General Motors co-founder Wiliam Durant. A modified Swiss cross was selected as the logo of the company to honor Chevrolet’s homeland.
Chevrolet left the company in 1915 after some design differences with Durant, and the company was merged into General Motors two years later. Chevrolet co-founded the Frontenac Motor Corporation the next year, which gained recognition for its Fronty-Ford racers in the years to come.
A prolific inventor who held 186 patents to his name, Charles Franklin Kettering was head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947. During his tenure at GM, he immensely contributed to all areas of automobile improvement, particularly those that directly benefitted the customers.
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 including the Mercedes-Benz SSK and the legendary Volkswagen Beetle, after he was given a contract by Hitler to design a people’s car (or Volkswagen) in 1934.
Besides founding one of the most popular car companies in the world, 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.
Kiichiro Toyoda was the son of Sakichi Toyoda, who started an immensely profitable automatic loom business in Japan in the late 1920s. Passionate about cars, Kiichiro persuaded his family to make a risky shift to automobile manufacturing in 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 the foreign ones – a reputation the company maintains to date. The world’s largest motor vehicle manufacturer today, Toyota has sold over 230 million vehicles, with 44 million units being the Corolla alone, since its inception in 1937.
Born to a bicycle mechanic, Soichiro Honda’s first enterprise, a shop that made piston rings, was destroyed by a wartime bombing and a devastating earthquake. In 1946, he came up with a brilliant idea to power bicycles from the surplus remnant generators of WWII. The plan turned out to be such a hit that he could hardly keep up with demand.
In 1948, Honda partnered with Takeo Fujisawa to establish Honda Motor Company, with him handling the engineering side of the things and Fujisawa taking care of the finances, to build motorbikes, and eventually cars in 1963.
As most petrolheads would know, 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.
His patent of a “combustion machine comprising of a compressor (turbine compressor), a piston engine, and a turbine in sequential arrangement” is pretty much the same as is used today, after more than a century!
Widely regarded as the most influential CEO in General Motors history, Alfred Pritchard Sloan was crucial in GM’s growth from the 1920s through the 1950s, first in various executive positions and later as the company’s head. Under Sloan’s management, GM became not just the largest automaker in the world, but also the world’s largest industrial enterprise ever.
Sloan ended inter-brand competition between GM’s different subsidiaries by a tactful pricing structure that organized the Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Chevrolet brands from most to least expensive, allowing consumers with varying purchasing power and preferences to continue buying GM vehicles. He also introduced numerous innovations in the auto industry, most notably 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 in several roles. He eventually made it to the head of Alfa’s racing division, where he founded the Scuderia Ferrari racing team with the Prancing Horse as its symbol.
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. Enzo left Alfa Romeo in 1939 to establish Ferrari’s predecessor company, with the sole aim of funding the Scuderia racing team. By 1946, he had made the first of his V12 dream cars and the rest, as we know, is history!
Henry Ford II
Henry Ford II, aka “Hank the Deuce or HF2,” 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. Aware of his lack of experience, he tactfully brought the auto industry’s finest professionals of the time, including General Motors’ Ernest Breech, 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. Ford’s sales went from $894.5 million in 1945 to $43.5 billion in 1979 during his tenure. He also tried to buy Ferrari in an ambitious move that led to the famous Ford vs Ferrari rivalry at Le Mans.
The only person to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a driver (Aston Martin, 1959), as a manufacturer (Cobra Daytona Coupe, 1964), and as a team manager (Ford GT, 1966 and 1967), Carroll Shelby was one of the most influential people in the automotive industry.
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 a collectible worth millions today. In 1966, Shelby helped Ford secure an iconic victory over Ferrari at Le Mans when a trio of GT40 MK IIs crossed the finish line together in a truly historic moment!
Born to an Italian grape farmer, 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, which would regularly burn through clutches, to founder Enzo Ferrari. Enzo told Lamborghini that he didn’t want advice from a “tractor mechanic,” and the rest is history!
Born to a Korean farmer in abject poverty, Chung Ju-yung went on to become South Korea’s richest man. After failing at numerous things, Chung started an automotive repair business in the early 1940s after taking a 3,000 won loan from a friend. This business finally 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. It experienced dramatic growth in South Korea’s developing economy, soon evolving into a conglomerate making everything from needles to ships. Hyundai added auto manufacturing to its portfolio in 1967 and it is the world’s third-largest carmaker today.
American automotive engineer John DeLorean remained highly influential in the auto industry for decades. Widely regarded for his work at General Motors, he remained GM’s youngest division chief before he left to launch the DeLorean Motor Company.
DeLorean is known for developing several iconic vehicles including the Pontiac GTO, the Pontiac Firebird, the Pontiac Grand Prix, and the Chevrolet Cosworth Vega. His most notable car, however, was the DMC DeLorean sports car that was immortalized by the 1985 blockbuster ‘Back to the Future.’
Sergio Marchionne led an improbable and extremely quick transformation of Fiat, pulled Chrysler from the brink of collapse, and orchestrated the merger of the two into one of the world’s largest and most profitable automakers.
When Marchionne was elected the CEO of Fiat in 2004, it was in deep turmoil. Hailed as “one of the boldest business leaders” in recent history, his blunt, aggressive but immensely successful management style saw him “firing one manager a day” while at Fiat. An outspoken leader who wouldn’t hesitate to criticize his own products, Marchionne remained one of the most watched and influential CEOs in the auto industry till his death in 2018.
The former President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company, Alan Mulally turned Ford from a money-losing automaker struggling during the late-2000s to one of the world’s leading automakers with scores of profitable quarters in a row.
A former senior executive at Boeing, 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.
Widely regarded as the most influential automotive designer of the 20th century, Giorgetto Giugiaro has styled cars, both super and off-beat, for nearly every major auto brand in the world.
Giugiaro’s impressive portfolio boasts hundreds of vehicles, including the Bugatti EB112, Subaru SVX, DeLorean DMC 12, Alfa Romeo Alfasud, Lotus Esprit, and Volkswagen Golf and Scirocco. 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.
Mary Teresa Barra joined General Motors in 1980 at the age of 18 to pay for college. From inspecting hoods and fender panels to holding numerous engineering and administrative positions, she steadily worked her way up and became the CEO in 2014. Though Barra had a tumultuous first year as CEO with GM issuing 84 recalls for over 30 million vehicles, she eventually steered the company out of the unprecedented crisis.
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. The first female CEO of an important automaker, she’s hailed by many as the second most influential CEO in GM history, only after the company’s legendary midcentury supremo Alfred Sloan.
Carlos Tavares helped the once-legendary and now-disgraced ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn in taking the brand from near bankruptcy to being one of the biggest automakers and was particularly instrumental in establishing its presence in the Americas. 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.
While heading PSA, Tavares famously negotiated the group’s merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, resulting in the formation of Stellantis in 2021. As the CEO of the world’s fourth-largest automotive group, which owns Alfa Romeo, Citroën, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Ram, Peugeot, Maserati, and Vauxhall among other marques, Tavares is one of the most influential people in the auto industry today.
The grandson of Toyota’s founder Kiichiro Toyoda, Akio Toyoda is the current president of Toyota Motor Corporation. Akio famously led Toyota through the after-effects of the 2008 recession, the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and more recently the COVID-19 menace, keeping it more profitable than ever.
While Toyota had already launched hybrid electric vehicles years before Akio came to power, he’s responsible for taking the company’s shift to fuel-efficient and electric cars to dramatic levels. Toyota today sells more than 40 hybrid car models across the globe, and Akio further plans to pour billions of dollars into battery-based electric vehicles to compete with Tesla and other global rivals.
Recently crowned World Car Person of the Year 2022, Luc Donckerwolke is the Chief Creative Officer at Hyundai Motor Group. With a stellar career spanning more than three decades, the Belgian automotive designer has previously headed design divisions at numerous prestigious marques, including Lamborghini, Bentley, Audi, Skoda, and Seat.
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, such as the Kia EV6, Genesis GV60, and Hyundai Ioniq 5.
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 has gained widespread recognition for leading VW’s aggressive efforts to electrify its portfolio. As head of one of the two biggest auto manufacturers in the world, with a range of prestigious brands such as Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini, Audi, and Skoda under its umbrella, Diess wields massive influence over the auto industry today.
Robert Joseph Scaringe is the founder of Rivian Automotive, which plans to disrupt the auto industry with its insanely capable all-electric offroaders, an SUV and a pickup, as well as futuristic delivery vans.
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. Rivian went public in November 2021 and was valued at a whopping $105bn within just two days. That’s 50 times more than what rival Tesla could manage in the first two days of its IPO in 2010.
Ratan Naval Tata
The chairman of India’s conglomerate Tata Group from 1990 to 2012, Ratan Naval Tata is the man responsible for turning India-centric Tata Motors, a subsidiary of the group, 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, at an ex-factory tag of just $1,300.
Christian von Koenigsegg
Swedish high-performance automaker Koenigsegg’s CEO Christian von Koenigsegg is an innovative visionary, with numerous patents to his name, the most notable being the Freevalve which drastically reduces the weight and size of engines while boosting their efficiency.
Koenigsegg Automotive AB has repeatedly made headlines, including when its Agera RS hypercar set a 285-mph world record. When Bugatti broke this record, Christian answered the challenge with a mind-boggling creation, the Jesko Absolut, that rides the air at an ungodly speed of 330 mph.
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. With a market cap touching $1.23 trillion in November 2021, Tesla remains the world’s most valuable automaker – far, FAR ahead of any rival.
Musk neither invented the electric cars nor did he establish Tesla but he will always be remembered as the man who instigated and spearheaded the auto industry’s transition to electric cars. By proving that electric cars can be reliable, luxurious, and cool, he practically reinvented the wheel, taking the industry several years ahead and forcing every single automaker to either change rapidly or be out of the game, forever!