It Happened at the World’s Fair: Best stage for automotive innovation

The World’s Fair or World’s Expo is not in the mainstream mecca like it used to be. Starting in 1791 in Prague, Bohemia, World Expositions were created to host the newest technology from all over the world. Each Expo varies in topic and appeal but all are for the purpose of unity through innovation. By sharing ideas both big and small, World Expos inspire innovation on all fronts. One piece of technology that has been present in every World’s Fair since 1889: the car.

It all started in the Paris 1889 Expo with the introduction of the first gas powered automobile. It was featured right alongside another new marvel: The Eiffel Tower.

Skipping to the Chicago Expo in 1933, the automobile was displayed front and center even though it was the height of the Depression. The year’s theme was all about the "Science of Industry and Art."  In keeping with that melody, almost all American automotive makers had their own display showing some of the first "dream cars." This included the Pierce Silver Arrow, Lincoln Zephyr, three-wheeled cars with rear engines, the Golden Packard and 16- cylinder Cadillacs.

 American manufacturers had impressive displays but GM may have stolen the show with a complete assembly line on display. It was the first time the American public’s attention was drawn to the making of the automobile, not just the driving them.

Fast forward a couple more years, New York hosted the 1939-40 World Fair. Here Pontiac unveiled the "Ghost Car" display. This was a regular production vehicle outfitted with a Plexiglas skin, letting onlookers see how the insides of the car work together. GM however stole the show again with their Futurama display. It showed a multilane highway for the future among other predictions for the automotive industry.

Heading to the west for the 1963 Seattle World’s Fair, everything was space-themed. The most apparent futuristic display was of course, the Space Needle. Things like the Bubbleator elevator and huge structural novelties were the norm. In order to fit the space theme, Ford unveiled one of the most rocket-like dream cars ever created: the Seattle-ite concept car.

All of these automotive displays led up to the Big Kahuna of Expos. The 1964-65 New York Expo was the most car-oriented fair up until then or since. Ford unveiled the Mustang, Galaxies and Falcons. Several of these models were converted by Walt Disney himself into an amusement ride for spectators. Chrysler showed the first street-oriented turbine cars, Avis Rental car had a world-class antique car collection on display. To top it off, there was a stunt driving show. In full eccentric ‘60’s flair, U.S. Royal made an 80 foot tall tire-esque Ferris wheel and Chrysler put forth a 100 footlong engine model with moving parts.

Thousands of inventions have been debuted at World Expos over the years. Inventions like the first Ferris wheel (Chicago, 1893), motion picture (Paris, 1900), ice cream cone (St. Louis, 1904), and television (New York, 1939) are among a few that have shared the stage with automobiles. No doubt there are far more cars, displays and stories that are connected with past World’s Fairs than can be catalogued. These are just a few moments when the car was marveled at by people from all over the world.