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BBC Autos

Icons and Innovators

Seven names hiding in your car

  • MacPherson

    Earl S MacPherson innovated a simplified independent suspension design with his 1955 development of a strut suspension that now bears his name. The MacPherson strut design enjoys the benefits of being inexpensive, light and simple compared to other independent designs because it incorporates the spring, shock absorber and upper suspension mounts into a single strut assembly.

    The downside is that the design isn’t readily adjustable, as enthusiasts might prefer for track use of modified cars, and the strut is quite tall, precluding sleek, low hoodlines.

    Nevertheless it is widely used in prestigious corners of the market, as well as among economy models. (Photo: Dave Rudkin/Getty)

  • De Dion

    In 1894 French nobleman Count Jules-Alber de Dion designed an axle for cars that improved on the traditional solid axle, best-known at that time for its use in carriages and Conestoga wagons.

    The de Dion axle design is largely out of use, but its simplicity makes it suitable for the Smart ForTwo, which retains this design even in its newly introduced version, pictured above.

    In a de Dion suspension, the axle curves upward, attaching to the car at its peak in the center to provide a pivot point. In a rear-drive de Dion suspension, the differential mounts directly to the car’s frame, rather than as part of the axle, reducing the mass of the axle for more agile response to bumps in the road. (Photo: Daimler)

  • Gurney

    US racer, team owner, designer and all-round renaissance man Dan Gurney introduced a simple, effective tweak that increases the downforce of performance cars.

    Now known as the “Gurney flap”, it is simply a small lip bolted onto the trailing edge of a rear wing, boosting downforce dramatically, with only a small penalty in the form of increased drag. The flaps are present in aviation as well, aiding the creation of lift.

    Though he tried, Gurney could not patent the flap. A Jazz Age inventor named Edward Zaparka was awarded a patent for the same device 10 days before Gurney’s birth in 1931.

    However, Zaparka’s invention was somehow overlooked by the world until Gurney re-invented it 40 years later as a means of making his team’s Indy car go faster, which is why the flap carries his name today. (Photo: Dan Carney)

  • Holley

    Brothers George and Earl Holley were typical late 19th-Century tinkerers, so infatuated with the internal combustion engine that they learned how to cast metal to build their own.

    This expertise prompted Henry Ford to encourage the Holley brothers to start making carburettors for his cars, an early relationship that left Holley one of four original suppliers to Ford that were still with the company for its 100th anniversary.

    Holley became revered among hot-rodders in the 1960s for the introduction of its Double-Pumper four-barrel high performance carburettor, a legacy that lived on through the company’s involvement with Nascar’s elite Sprint Cup racing series – until the 2012 season, when fuel injection finally muscled it out. The technology lives on, however, in Nascar’s Nationwide series. (Photo: Holley Performance Products)

  • Bilstein

    August Bilstein launched his eponymous German company in 1873 to make steel window hardware such as latches and hinges. But after opening his own mill for rolling iron strips, Bilstein diversified into other uses for steel, such as car bumpers and jacks.

    Today the company is best known for the shock absorbers it makes for cars, a business it launched in 1957 with the introduction of the world’s first gas shocks on Mercedes-Benz cars.

    Gas shocks are lighter and more effective than conventional hydraulic models, contributing to better ride and handling. (Photo: Bilstein)

  • Gates

    Charles Gates’ name is found under the hood of many cars, as the corporation he founded provides belts and hoses to the industry.

    Gates founded his company in 1911, but it was his brother John’s invention of a rubber belt with a V-shaped cross-section in 1917 that revolutionised automotive power transmission.

    Most fan belts were V-belt designs until the rise of the modern flat serpentine belt. Gates also makes toothed timing belts and similar drive belts which are used by Harley-Davidson in place of chains on its motorcycles. (Photo: Gates)

  • Bendix

    Vincent Bendix developed a vital component that helped make electric starters practical for cars. Now known as the Bendix, his invention is an electric solenoid that lets an electric motor engage a stopped gasoline engine and spin it, but then release as the engine starts and gains speed.

    Without it, the starter’s electric motor would spin too quickly and ultimately fail.

    Bendix’s creation debuted in the 1914 Chevrolet Baby Grand, finding enthusiastic adoption from a public tired of hand-cranking their cars. Sales reached 1.5m units in just five years. (Photo: Dan Carney)