High-quality, safe car windows are standard these days. However, this has not always been the case. Did you know, for example, that the first cars did not have automotive glass at all and that the first car windows caused more accidents than they actually contributed to traffic safety? Since this is an underexposed and at the same time extremely interesting topic, we have gathered a brief history of automotive glass for you below.
The first cars did not have automotive glass
The first car windows made their appearance in 1904, which was some 20 years after the production of the first car. In fact, the cars of Carl Benz (1885) and Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach (1886) were not equipped with car windows. This was not very annoying, by the way, because the low maximum speed of these cars basically made a windscreen completely unnecessary.
However, since it could still cause annoying situations, especially in headwinds and rain, and because the maximum speed of the newer cars kept increasing, car manufacturers started looking for ways to make driving more comfortable. Although the intention was fine, the solution would only make the first cars significantly more dangerous and cause more accidents than the cars that did not yet have automotive glass.
The first, life-threatening car windows were not a success
The first car windows were simple sheets of glass, just like the glass used for windows and doors. This glass soon proved life-threatening, as it broke into sharp pieces in accidents and often caused more injury to the driver and occupants than the accident itself. This even caused fatal accidents, which was due to the automotive glass. Of course, the fact that two panels were used that were placed separately from each other (so that the window could be 'opened' by folding away one of the glass panes) did not help either. This construction caused even automotive glass to shatter into pieces when not suffering an impact during a collision or other accident.
It must be said, however, that this was the only way to maintain visibility on the road. When the windscreen got dirty, it had to be folded down to see the street again. In fact, automotive glass already existed, but the windscreen wiper had not yet been invented meaning that cleaning the car window while driving was not possible!
It soon became clear that this was not the solution, but as always, years would pass before a solution came along. Ironically, the foundations of the solution had already been laid in 1903. That year, Edouard Benedict, artist, designer and chemist, accidentally dropped a cup that did not break into thousands of pieces.
So as not to make the story too technical, you can see how this was done in a short video below:
What is particularly important here is that invention and necessity came together directly here. Benedict had found a way to hold glass together, and the automotive glass in use at the time was life-threatening. To get from accident to actual laminated automotive glass, however, took quite a few more years and necessity, partly because it would also make car windscreens significantly heavier as well as more expensive.
Laminated automotive glass makes its appearance, including at Ford
Henry Ford was the first carmaker to make great strides in the field of safe automotive glass. Allegedly because one of his best friends had been seriously injured by flying glass after a collision, but it is not certain if this was actually the case or if this was an exciting story that was helped into the world. In any case, Ford decided to devote its full attention to making safer automotive glass, and from the second half of 1919, only laminated automotive glass was used in Ford models. It was not until 1934 that other car brands would also invariably use laminated automotive glass, which would be used mainly for windscreens (and to a lesser extent rear windows).
During World War II, this caused problems for car makers. There was a shortage not only of rubber and metals, but also of laminated glass. In fact, this glass had proven to be excellent in the years before the war and was also used by the military to increase safety, including in the making of military vehicles and as safe glass in strategic places, such as bunkers.
Tempered automotive glass, or safety glass, would be around for another 15 years. Unlike laminated automotive glass, which consists of two layers of automotive glass, tempered automotive glass is a single layer of glass. However, this glass is tempered and shatters into thousands of tiny pieces when damaged, making the risk of injury from this glass extremely low.
National laws and directives make automotive glass safer
It would take until 1966 for governments to draw up guidelines and laws for automotive glass in cars. That this took so many years, by the way, is not very surprising. If you look at the situation in the Netherlands, for example, where the government seemed surprised by the rise of the car, you will see that new laws and regulations had to be worked on constantly, with ministers also wanting to make things as difficult as possible for each other. You can read more about that on this site from page 341 onwards.
Divergent shapes, sizes and functions: modern automotive glass is more than a pane of glass
The modern car window has quite little in common with the first car windows used in the first cars. Both laminated and tempered car windows have to comply with numerous guidelines to ensure safety, and nowadays automotive glass comes in all shapes and sizes, including complete panoramic roofs and models that have windscreens that curl (far) around the corners of the car to give the driver even more visibility while driving.
But that is not the end point of car windscreens. Numerous developments are in the starting blocks and drawing boards are full of ideas to do more with windscreens in cars. You can read all about this on the 'Future of automotive glass' page, where the exciting car window adventure continues.