BBC Autos

Evolution of Design

Before they were carmakers

  • Honda

    Sochihiro Honda honed his mechanical expertise on racing cars, but when World War II left Japan in ruins, he launched his own company selling bolt-on motors to transform bicycles into mopeds. With most Japanese using bicycles after the war, but lacking funds to afford scooters, Honda saw an opportunity for low-cost motorised transport. He did it by stripping the Mikuni Shoko two-stroke gas engines from surplus generators used to power military radios. Honda launched his company in 1946, stripping the motors, rebuilding them and fitting them with a drive system and mount for the bicycles.

    By 1947 Honda was building the A-Type (pictured), the company’s first complete moped, followed in 1949 by the D-Type Dream, the first Honda motorcycle. The S-360 two-seat roadster of 1962 was Honda’s first four-wheeled product. (Photo: Honda Motor)

  • Hyundai Group

    Chung Ju-yung launched his Seoul rice shop in 1937 when he bought out his employer. With the end of Japanese occupation of Korea coming at the close of World War II, Hyundai Togun, the initial company of the Hyundai Group, was established as a construction company, building bridges (such as the one above, Jamuna Bridge) and infrastructure for the US Army.

    Hyundai Motors opened in 1967, and the group diversified into shipyards and shipbuilding in the ‘70s and then electronics in the ‘80s. Hyundai’s early automotive production consisted of budget designs licensed from Mitsubishi – that is to say, a far cry from the $70,000 Equus premium sedan. (Photo: AFP/Getty)

  • Jaguar Cars

    Sir William Lyons began building sidecars for motorcycles in 1922, founding the Swallow Sidecar Company in Blackpool, England. In 1927, SS expanded to offer a two-seat body for installation on an Austin Seven chassis. The company relocated to Coventry in 1928, when it also expanded production to make bodies for three different manufacturers’ chassis.

    By the ‘30s, SS was selling complete cars, such as the low-slung 1932 SS1 Coupe (above, a '34 model). In 1935, the era’s mad men convinced Lyons to add the name “Jaguar” to SS.

    Due to the unwelcome connotations of the company’s “SS” initials, he changed the name to just Jaguar following World War II. By 1948, the company launched the XK120 sports car, and the die was cast. (Photo: Jaguar Cars)

  • Lamborghini

    In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Ferruccio Lamborghini recognised Italy’s need for farm tractors and, in 1948, launched Lamborghini Trattori to provide them.

    By 1965, the company has a new factory, and in 1958, it started selling tractors using Lamborghini’s own engines, rather than buying them from outside suppliers such as Mercedes-Benz.

    Tractors proved lucrative enough for Lamborghini (pictured above, circa-1970, with the Lamborghini Jarama and a contemporary tractor) for him to indulge an appreciation for fine sports cars from his Italian neighbour, Enzo Ferrari. Legend suggests, however, that when Lamborghini recommended improvements to his car, Ferrari dismissed them, telling the agrarian entrepreneur to go back to building tractors.

    Instead, Lamborghini broke ground in 1963 on a factory in Sant’Agata Bolognese, where he would launch production of the V-12 350 GT, a traditionally styled Italian sports coupe. But at the 1966 Geneva motor show, Lamborghini unveiled the radical Miura prototype, in a single stroke forging its reputation as a constructor of daydream-inducing mid-engine V-12 supersports cars. (Photo: Automobili Lamborghini)

  • Mitsubishi

    Mitsubishi launched in 1873 as a shipping company, when Yataro Iwasaki incorporated the remains of Tosa Clan assets after the Japanese government abolished the remaining feudal domains.

    Trade lines expanded to Shanghai in 1875 and began carrying mail under government contract. The company also expanded into mining, opening coal-extraction operations such as the one pictured above, at Hashima Island (familiar to viewers of 2012's James Bond film, Skyfall). With raw materials in one hand and the need for ships in the other, Mitsubishi sensibly moved into shipbuilding by the turn of the 20th century, while the shipping business expanded into rail, warehousing, banking and insurance operations.

    In 1911, Mitsubishi built a hydroelectric power plant for the city of Tokyo, though the city did not yet have the demand for plant of such large capacity. In 1917, the company built the Model-A, its first production passenger car. Finally Mitsubishi Heavy Industries emerged in 1934 as a provider of heavy machinery, aircraft and industrial equipment, exemplified by the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane of World War II.

    The car company’s engineering highlight may have been the introduction of the balance shaft, an engine technology subsequently licensed for use by Porsche, Saab and Fiat. (Photo: Yuriko Nakao/Getty)

  • Peugeot

    Jean-Pierre and Jean-Frederic Peugeot founded Peugeot Freres in 1810, when they converted their father’s grain mill into a steel foundry and began making a range of items such as coffee grinders, saws and umbrella frames. In 1886, the company launched mass production of big-wheeled penny farthing bicycles before moving on to modern-style “safety” bicycles with identically -sized wheels.

    Armand Peugeot experimented with a three-wheeled steam car in 1889 and then built its first petrol-powered car in 1890, the Type 2 four-wheeler, using a Daimler engine. (Photo: PSA Peugeot-Citroën)

  • Tata Group

    Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata opened his private financial trading company in 1868, then moved on to a textiles venture, the Central India Spinning, Weaving and Manufacturing Company in 1874. From here, the company expanded into hoteliery when it opened the Taj Mahal Palace, regarded as India’s first luxury hotel.

    Tata Steel incorporated in 1907 and the company added electric power to its portfolio with the establishment of the Tata Hydro-Electric Power Supply Company in 1910.

    Tata consumer goods came in 1917, followed by Tata Airlines in 1932 and finally the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company, the forerunner of today’s Tata Motors, in 1945.

    In 1998 the company introduced the Tata Indica, India’s first domestically designed and manufactured car. Just over a decade later, and only a few years removed from introducing its Nano microcar, Tata acquired Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford Motor, which it has led to record growth and profits. (Photo: Frank Bienewald/Getty)

  • Skoda

    Skoda founders Václav Laurin and Václav Klement launched their bike shop in what is present-day Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic, located roughly 65km northeast of Prague. As happened with the tractor maker Lamborghini, Klement was unhappy with the quality of his new bicycle, and after his complaint was rudely rebuffed by the manufacturer, he joined with bike mechanic Laurin to open a repair shop in 1895. Soon they were building their own bikes under the Slavia brand name (pictured).

    By 1898, they were installing a gas engine, creating the Slavia Motocyclette, which was quickly adopted by adventuresome spirits, including racers. This motivated the partners to dive into the burgeoning automotive industry in 1905, when they built their first car, the Voiturette A.

    The company merged with Skodaworks Pilsen in 1925 and the merged company operated independently until its acquisition by the Volkswagen Group in 1991. (Photo: Volkswagen Group)

  • Studebaker

    Henry and Clement Studebaker founded the H & C Studebaker blacksmith shop in South Bend, Indiana, a city best known as the home of the University of Notre Dame, in 1852. Their younger brothers later joined the enterprise, propelling the humble smithery into a new existence as the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of buggies and wagons.

    Studebaker produced its first car in 1902, an electric model that attracted the attention of Thomas Edison, who bought the second example built. It expanded into gasoline car manufacturing in 1904, offering a full line of both horse-drawn and self-propelled vehicles until 1920.

    Until that point, Studebaker built its wagons in South Bend, while assembling cars in Detroit, but when the wagon production ended, cars came home to Indiana. Studebakers were built there until nearly the very end of the company, marked by the closing of the South Bend plant in 1963. The last new Studebaker rolled off an assembly line in Hamilton, Ontario, on St Patrick’s Day in 1966. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty)

  • Suzuki Motor

    Michio Suzuki founded the Suzuki Loom Works in Hamamatsu, Japan, in 1909, then reorganised it as Suzuki Look Manufacturing Company in 1920.

    Having sustained wartime damage to its other facilities, Suzuki consolidated operations in Shizouka in 1945, but by 1947, the company was able to return to Hamamatsu to launch a two-stroke gasoline-powered moped, the “Power Free”, in 1952.

    Sales took off and the company introduced the “Diamond Free” (pictured), a more powerful 60cc moped the following year and then changed the company’s name to Suzuki Motor Company in 1954. Suzuki moved on to build full motorcycles with the 125cc Colleda in 1955, and by October of that year it also introduced the Suzulite, a 360cc minicar.

    The original loom operations were, er, spun off in 1961, and the motor company’s first subcompact car, the Fronte, debuted in 1965. (Photo: Global Suzuki)