What (or who) are the most unsung automotive heroes?

Overshadowed by friends Thomas Edison (R), and Henry Ford (M), Harvey S. Firestone was an integral piece of the automotive evolution. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Some cars are willing to work harder than others, perhaps like a Toyota Prius, which excels over, say, a BMW 3 Series for your ride-sharing side hustle.

Certain parts or tools just get the job done on the regular, too. A screwdriver will never be as exciting a torque wrench, but it’s more versatile. Headlight bulbs won’t ever entice like a set of high-performance cylinder heads, but you wouldn’t dare drive at night without the former.

And what about the utility workers in your local municipality who keep street signs bright and visible? Shouldn’t they get some appreciation?

I consider these parts of car culture to be heroic, and I wonder how many other such examples we are overlooking. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a car, a human being, or an object that aids in our auto-centric world, there are thousands upon thousands of things we neglect on a daily basis. No more. Today we ask the Hagerty community this simple question: What/who are the most unsung everyday automotive heroes?

My contribution is threefold, embodying the notion that one person, one product, and one industry helps keep us rolling. I recommend Harvey Firestone, as he aided in putting early Ford products on the road. But he was also a member of the self-styled Vagabonds, with exploits that entertained, if not quite on par with those of Ford vs. Ferrari.

But the Vagabonds gave the world the equivalent of today’s social media stardom, roughly 90 years before TikTok was even a thing. Firestone’s contribution won’t open your wallet as easily as that company that made Jeff Bezos a household name, but when you need car repair and maintenance? There are very few names that are more memorable.


Founded in 1926 and sporting roughly 1,700 locations nationwide, Firestone Complete Auto Care is home to just about any sort of automotive upkeep. But with nearly a century of history under its belt, some of Firestone’s physical locations are historical landmarks (the one above is now scheduled for redevelopment) that have been a part of communities for generations.  All in all, that’s a pretty big collection of victories for someone whose legacy has lost popularity to the point of near obscurity in modern times.

But we need to know more examples, so I ask you again: What/who are the most unsung everyday automotive heroes?

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Read next Up next: R.I.P. Giotto Bizzarrini, engineer extraordinaire


    Roy Lunn. He was resonsible for the Aston Martin DB2, the original Ford Anglia, the midengine Mustang I concept, was in charge of the Ford GT40 program, then moved to AMC where here engineered the most durable American car ever, the Jeep Cherokee, and then invented the crossover with the AMC Eagle 4×4. He also designed the Renault Sports Racer for the SCCA’s first spec racing series.

    Henry Leland is the greatest unknown auto pioneer. He created precision manufacturing, which allowed interchangeable parts, which in turn allows wrenchers like us to swap in new parts for rears. His relocation to Detroit made it the Motor City. He inspired lots of other auto pioneers, like the Dodge Brothers, and Henry Ford’s feud with Leland shaped Detroit, Michigan, and lots of modern America

    Along the way, he created Cadillac, and then later Lincoln.

    Yet no one knows of him, partly because he never named a car after himself, and never had a Detroit landmark named after him.

    I am well aware of Harvey and what all he did but even in Akron here he is just another name from a tire company. If not for the marriage between the Ford Family and the Firestone Family just cemented the tire deal with the two companies.

    If I had to pick someone that is not well known today and for their contributions to the Automobile it would be another local Ohioan.

    Charles F Kettering. Charles was a inventor on the scale of Edison but his products where less well know to the consumer directly.

    His best was the electric starter. Also he created Freon for AC and refrigerators, Created better paints for the Dupont company when they were combined with GM. This led to a large number of colors being offered. All Ford model T cars were generally painted black as it was cheap and easy. Kettering made it so colors were cheap and easy to apply.

    The Two Stroke Diesel was advanced under his work. This advanced truck. trains and large construction equipment. He invented the Incubator for premature babies and a host of lighting and electrical equipment

    Leaded gas that created higher compressions so we could have more powerful and efficient engines.

    He even created the first cruise missile with the Doddle Bug. It was a flying radio controlled flying bomb.

    He worked in the early stages of solar energy and magnetic applications for diagnostic medicine.

    He even created generators for farms and storage battery systems for farms far from a power grid.

    The Slone Kettering Cancer Center also was a legacy. The GM engineering school is the Kettering institute.

    Just image the things he created and just how they contributed to the automotive field and the building of GM into a large corporation. There would be no Fridigdare, Delco and many other things.

    Much of America was built with GM technology and products and many of them were due to Charles.

    Even here in Ohio just an hour where he was from he is often a forgotten unsung hero.

    Another I would list is an Ohioan. He only play part of his life as a Auto magnate. Eddie Rickenbacker.

    He was a early automotive mechanic at the dawn of the automobile. Motorcycle racer, Early auto engineer. Auto racer, Flying War Ace, Owner of the Indy Speedway, Created Eastern Airlines. Spy for America on Russia, Survived an airline crash and B17 crash at see and was lost for nearly 3 weeks. Created Rickenbacker cars and was a VP for GM for a number of years. His life could not be shown in two hours and would take a mini series to really tell his whole story.

    My two life long heroes Henry Ford “wheater you think you can or can’t your right” and Raymond Lowey “never leave well enough alone”

    Since Henry Leland is already named, I’ll have to stick with Carroll Shelby. He made a generation of us love sportcars. He is still the only US manufacturer to win an FIA world championship or makes.

    Compared with Henry Ford, Walter P. Chrysler is unsung. This is a great oversight. Ford may’ve produced affordable wheels, but Chrysler produced affordable engineering. Since few here gathered apparently read anything indepth, judging by the spelling and awkward prose, suggest starting with the Wikipedia entry on Walter Chrysler.
    Despite only a high school education, like 10th-grade dropout Errett Lobban Cord who funded a classical music station simply because he thought Los Angeles should have one, Chrysler endowed symphonies and art galleries because he realized human invention and intellect not compartmentalized.

    While GM’s and Ford’s bloody opposition to the UAW were national disgraces, Chrysler tried psychological ploys like electric signs along the walls in the workers’ cafeteria–where he always ate lunch — displaying the results of national ballgames, but seeing the inevitable and always considering himself first a “workingman,” quietly accepted the union, as did Hudson, Nash, Packard and the others.

    Perhaps it’s not surprising that to many of us ex-NYers, the Chrysler Building is still Manhattan’s most beautiful spire. For years, the tools Chrysler used to set steam locomotive valves, which is how he started and made a name for himself, were on display in the Chrysler Building’s lobby.

    There were no stronger, better built cars in the ’30s than Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows, regardless their unpopular style.

    BTW, you could buy five arguably lovelier 1931-33 Chrysler Imperials for the price of a Model J Duesenberg, the latter taking several iterations and nine years to find 480 buyers, obsolete two years after its introduction. Regardless how many casino and pizza chain owners, TV comedians own them, anyone thinking a Model J five times better than a 1931-33 Chrysler Imperial needs to take a careful look at, if not driving both. Most Js in road trim only 10 mph faster, long timing chain stretching at high rpm upsetting valve timing, front end vibration typical of most long wheelbase cars when cart springing about at the end of its tether. DOHC and a cuckoo clock box of timing gears flashing lights to remind the driver it was time to change oil, check battery water, and that the Bijur chassis oiling system used in many premium cars in operation do not make a car worth five (5) times more.
    Other than some Hollywooders, playboys/playgirls, scions of industrial wealth, most buyers quickly grasped this.

    Ford V-8s were spunky and fast, Chevy sixes smooth, but a Plymouth had full pressure oiling, hydraulic brakes and those of the early ’30s were exceptionally pretty rides. But if sheer affordable speed wanted, a ’33 Terraplane Eight would run away from them and most anything else on the road then.

    Well said, Chryslers engineering was way ahead of the competition. Our 1924 Chrysler model 70 roadster had hydraulic brakes, the competition thought he was nuts, look at all of today’s automotive brakes. Hydraulic brakes were just one of his many innovations that are still in use today .

    Yea and Amen to all you have mentioned!

    hyperv6 – You pre-empted nearly all of my own nominees. Charles F Kettering is a top name on my list too.

    Here is a man who is far too long overdue and deserving of many a “History Channel”, “American Experience” and “American Masters” tribute episode.

    His now-ubiquitous, and still, barely-acknowledged, automobilic contributions assisted their very furtherance; and then onto aspects of safety, while also providing improvements in many other areas.

    This was the man who invented the “Self-Starter”, our method of starting our car with a key, rather than a crank up front, one of which flew off and killed a close friend of his.

    The term “Renaissance Man” SO appropriately applies and, particularly; when recalling all of his mechanical innovations, we must also consider his amazing Humanitarian Contributions.

    Although having no automotive connection at all; the very consequential legacies of Alfred P. Sloan and Charles F. Kettering shall forever live on, in their contribution to one of the world’s foremost Hospitals, and their eventual conquest of a terrible disease.

    Sir Alec Issigonis. Designer of the Mini and Morris Minor. He also designed the suspension in the late 30s that Morris Motors, MG, etc used until 1980. Brilliant designer!

    Sir Alec is also credited with the quote. “a camel is a horse designed by committee”. Love that one.

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