Some contend that automobiles haven't changed substantially in the last century or so. These people certainly haven't been to a modern auto show like Detroit or New York. Regardless, their argument goes something like this: Cars still have four wheels and burn carbon-based fuels, so therefore, they haven't fundamentally changed. Seems plausible -- until you look at more than two facts.

The reality is that cars have evolved dramatically from their earliest iterations. About the only thing that has remained the same over a century are the aforementioned points. To prove just how far cars have come we set out to find early examples of vehicles linked to the companies known today as Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and Chrysler. The stories and innovations behind these cars provide a glimpse of what made Detroit the automotive center of the world.

1896 Ford Quadricycle

For many Americans, the legacy of Henry Ford isn't well known. Some believe he was an automotive genius who invented the concept of the modern car. He didn't. His everlasting contribution was actually implementing a high-value, high-volume manufacturing process.

Ford was born on a farm in rural Michigan on June 30, 1863. Henry's father claimed his son grew up "with wheels in his head," referencing Henry's inventive nature. At age 16, Henry moved to Detroit, a city that at the dawn of the 20th Century was renowned for its vibrant economy and beautiful neighborhoods.

Fueled by money earned by lumber and copper barons, Detroit's thriving industries included iron works (stove production, in particular), railroad car design and manufacturing, bicycle manufacturing, and shipyards. Machine and tool-and-die shops littered the city to service these industries, and the open-shop mentality enabled a cross-pollination of engineering knowhow between trades.

Being in Detroit put Ford close to where gasoline engines were made. By the late 1800s, gasoline engines were commonly utilized in different industries and on farms. Karl Benz patented the first gas-fueled car in 1885. Ford built his own prototype car in his home's coal shed about a decade later. Because of the car's width, Ford had to break out the shed's doorway to extricate the car for its maiden drive. (Like the car, the coal shed survives and is on display at The Henry Ford museum complex in Dearborn, Michigan.)

Ford's invention -- a simple metal frame fitted with a seat, four bicycle wheels, and an engine -- was dubbed the Quadricycle. At the time, he claimed a staggering four horsepower from the primitive four-stoke, two-cylinder engine. However, in tests run on the exact replica that was built by George De Angelis (a Ford Motor Company engineer) nearly 50 years ago, the output was likely closer to three-quarters of a horsepower, about what a common kitchen blender cranks out today.

The Quadricycle looks to be a Rube Goldberg contraption of the first order, but its operation is ingeniously simple. The engine's two cylinders are exposed to the air, so no further cooling system are required. The bulb-like fixtures atop the horizontal cylinders hold oil that drips down into the engine for lubrication, so a separate pressurized oiling system isn't required either. Additionally, many of the brass fittings and one-way valves used in the gravity-feed fuel system might look familiar to plumbers, because these parts have been used in the trade for a century.

To start the Quadricycle, an ignition switch connects a dry-cell battery to a primitive ignition system. Two fuel petcocks must be opened, and then the large flywheel must be hand-cranked because there is no starter motor.

For the record, there's also no accelerator pedal, no steering wheel, no reverse gear, no speedometer, and no cup holder. Originally, it also lacked a brake, but Mr. De Angelis added one for his own safety during the replica's construction.

This well-maintained Quadricycle replica is the property of The Henry Ford, which has the truly priceless original residing in a glass case inside the museum. Once brought to life, the replica runs smoothly with a quaint "poketa-poketa-poketa" exhaust note. The weight of the large flywheel keeps the firing of the pistons at an even, modest speed.

A chain drive connects the rear axle to the flywheel via a transmission of sorts: A leather strap. A large lever sticking up through the floor adjusts tension on the strap, thereby varying the power to the rear axle. Because the throttle is fixed to run at only one speed, the engine chugs along at about 800 rpm, enough to hit about 15 mph. Too much tension causes the engine to stall. Too little tension results in no forward progress at all. While Henry Ford engineered two gears for the Quadricycle, the engine does not make enough power to run in top gear, so all the driving is done in low.

When cajoled by experienced hands like those of Derek Moore, Conservation Specialist at The Henry Ford, driving the Quadricycle looks easy. It's not. The spindly tiller steering device requires a light touch. Too much steering causes the front wheels to skid and makes the likelihood of flipping over nearly certain. Too little steering input at 15 mph and immovable objects quickly become crash barriers.

Acceleration is leisurely and the ride is rough. The front suspension has some spring to it, but the rear axle lacks any suspension at all. Given the crudeness of its performance, it's hard to imagine that Henry Ford actually drove the Quadricycle from his home in Dearborn to Detroit (20 miles) on many occasions. Reportedly, Ford was often accompanied by his wife and son on these trips. The single bench seat is so small that young Edsel had to sit on his mother's lap. Those must have been arduous outings.

Satisfied he was on the right track in terms of his concept, Henry Ford sold the Quadricycle for $200 to earn money for his next project, a more sophisticated prototype. After becoming successful, Ford bought back the Quadricycle, kept it, and eventually donated it to what would become The Henry Ford.

1902 Curved Dash Olds

Benz and Ford were not the only inventors who saw the potential of gasoline-powered, wheeled transportation. Many men the world over were simultaneously and independently engineering their own horseless carriages, including Ransom Eli Olds. Operating out of Lansing, Mich., and later Detroit, R.E. Olds became famous by being the first entrepreneur to mass-produce automobiles.

Between 1901-1907, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company produced approximately 19,000 Curved Dash models. The Curved Dash Olds was easily the most popular car of its day, a position no doubt aided by its affordable price of approximately $650.

Michigan collector Richard Donahey brought his 1902 Curved Dash Olds to The Henry Ford for us to examine and drive. The 1.5-liter, water-cooled, one-cylinder engine used by Olds produced about five times the power of the Quadricycle (about 4.5 horsepower), and its two-speed transmission actually worked, giving the horseless carriage a top speed of nearly 30 mph. Attesting to the reliability and drivability of Olds' design, Donahey has driven his Olds in many long-distance touring events.

Unlike Henry Ford's Quadricycle, Olds' car had a "body" of sorts. It begins with a graceful footboard section and includes an enclosed engine compartment located behind the driver. While the Curved Dash still used tiller-directed steering, it featured two different factory-installed brakes, one for each axle. While welcomed, neither brake would be considered very effective by modern standards.

Cranking the Curved Dash to life takes some muscle because of its heavy flywheel. Unlike the Ford, the Olds' output can be increased or decreased with the "speeder," what we call the accelerator today. On the Olds, it's a tiny metal spoon-shaped lever mounted on the floor; the idea of a pedal was still decades away.

Shifts are made on the fly by pushing a substantial lever (mounted to the right of the upholstered seat) forward or back. Moving the lever all the way back engages reverse, a practical novelty. The runabout features a full suspension, and the ride is rough but not punishing. Steering by way of the slender tiller still requires a light touch.

Options like a surrey top and a rear-facing seat for two (called a "Dos-a-Dos") helped expand the utility and popularity of the Curved Dash. Automotive technology was progressing quickly, and the Curved Dash went out of production in 1907 because it could no longer compete with newer, more powerful, and larger competitors. General Motors would purchase the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1908, helping to set the stage for GM to become the world's largest automotive manufacturer, a position it would hold for longer than 80 years.

1924 Chrysler B-70

Throughout the early 1900s, innovation in the automotive world foreshadowed the pace of change in electronics today. Each new model year made the last year's cars obsolete. In the span of time between the Olds and the first Chrysler, literally dozens of major new features were introduced, including the electric starter and hydraulic brakes. Cars also sprouted many body styles, most with doors and roll-up windows. Additionally, key controls became standardized as steering wheels displaced tillers, and accelerator and brake controls moved to the floor.

The Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Mich., provided an all-original 1924 Chrysler B-70 sedan as its company's "first car."

Before he started his own company, Walter P. Chrysler was already recognized as a solid engineer and a successful businessman. Chrysler wanted his car to offer luxury-car technology and performance at a modest, affordable price. He succeeded, and introduced the B-70 with many features that were unheard of in high-volume cars, including aluminum engine pistons, a full-pressure engine oil system, and hydraulic shock absorbers.

While exponentially more sophisticated than the Ford Quadricycle and the Curved Dash Olds, the B-70 also outperformed its competition throughout the 1920s. But one would be mistaken to think that the B-70 performs anything like a contemporary car. For example, Chrysler's Brant Rosenbusch explained that starting requires turning on the ignition, setting a manual carburetor choke, and pressing a starter button on the floor. (Combining the ignition switch and the starter wouldn't happen for years.) Depending on the mood of Chrysler's high-compression (4.7:1) six-cylinder engine, simultaneously pressing the floor-mounted accelerator may also be required.

A thin, tall shift lever controls the B-70's three-speed manual transmission. A conventional clutch pedal occupies its modern location on the left side, but shifting requires double clutching to prevent grinding gears. (Don't know what that is? It's pumping the clutch one extra time in between each gearshift.)

The giant wood steering wheel is positioned almost horizontally, which is perfect for putting your back into cranking the wheel, as there's no power steering.

Once you've mastered the transmission, the 68-horsepower B-70 can accelerate from a roll to 25 mph in a blistering seven seconds. Modern family cars accelerate to 60 mph or faster in less time, but this was exceptional performance in the 1920s, even for expensive luxury cars. Given enough time, the Chrysler could even hit 70 mph, almost as fast as the exclusive eight-cylinder Packard motorcars of the day. But because the Chrysler's four-wheel hydraulic brakes aren't very powerful, top speed runs require lots of room for stopping.