The History of the Auto Lift
The History of the Auto Lift
In the automotive world, change is constant. As cars evolved throughout the past century, the world around automobiles changed as well.
Massive government effort created the interconnected highway system, and the laws that governed those roads advanced as well to ensure safety and organization. It’s no surprise, then, that the concept of automotive maintenance has undergone substantial changes as well, as evident in the changes to tools like the hydraulic automobile lift.
Peter Lunati’s 1925 rotary lift patent was a landmark moment for automotive repair, but inventions do not develop in a vacuum. The scientific innovation leading up to that moment and the subsequent developments to enhance the design reveal a fascinating history of industrial innovation.
The hydraulic lift uses Pascal’s Principle. In the 17th-century, scientist, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal first explained that putting pressure on a non-compressible fluid in a cylinder will exert equal force to all sides of the container. Through a series of mathematical calculations, engineers and technicians can calculate and manipulate this phenomenon to create powerful tools that use relatively little pressure. Though not technically a simple machine, a hydraulic lift is similar to devices such as levers or pulleys in that it allows an operator to generate tremendous force with minimal input by manipulating the principles of physics.
To most professional automotive mechanics, and even many home mechanics with a basic floor jack, the thought of car maintenance without hydraulic assistance is almost unimaginable. Astonishingly, more than 150 years elapsed between the invention of the first steam-powered automobiles and the first hydraulic lift patent in 1925 — a revolutionary concept in its own time that continues change with scientific and mechanical innovations.
What Were Repairs Like Before the Hydraulic Car Lift?
Before car lifts, mechanics tried their best to squeeze underneath cars to perform routine work. With little room and terrible visibility, mechanics required a new approach for car repairs.
To improve access to the underside of cars, garages excavated pits, placing short ramps on top. Once the vehicles were on the ramps, mechanics could climb into the holes to complete work. While this alternative demonstrated the advantages of increased mobility for mechanics, but these pits presented their share of issues.
To begin with, although pits provided more maneuverability than simply crawling under the car, the lack of lighting still made visibility an issue. Moreover, excavation and appropriate accommodations were expensive, which meant that many garages could not afford to use this technique.
What Events in History Led to the Hydraulic Car Lift?The field of hydraulics had been established and expanded centuries before the first lift, as several scientists refined both the mechanical understanding and application of Pascal’s initial work. Claude Couplet and Charles Bossut both described concepts of fluid friction in the early 1700s. Then, in the late 18th century, Pierre Louis George Du Buat conducted experiments and wrote extensively on both theories and applications of hydraulics. These scientists were instrumental in developing a sophisticated understanding of hydraulic potential and use.
Inventors quickly made use of this knowledge — Joseph Bramah patented the first concept of a hydraulic press in 1795, which provided a base foundation for many future inventions. Items such as dentist chairs applied and develop the technology in the mid-1800s, and cranes and elevators also saw revolutionary changes as principles of hydraulic application continued to improve.
In 1838, William Joseph Curtis filed for a British patent on a rudimentary hydraulic jack, and then, in 1851, Richard Dudgeon patented the portable hydraulic press in America. Dudgeon’s invention made hydraulic power more mobile, opening it to a range of new applications. The portable hydraulic press received significant praise, and exhibitors displayed the design throughout the country. Factories, railways and shipping yards implemented the new tool, further expanding the validity of hydraulic power.
Dudgeon's portable press eventually led the way to conventional trolley jacks and bottle jacks. While a lift supports the entire car, a jack provides limited access. Still, these affordable and mobile options are still prevalent in smaller automotive garages and home workshops. Bottle jacks, which get their name from the bottle-like shape, position the lifting pad of the jack vertically to make contact directly with the automobile. They sit directly on the floor and must be dragged into position. The trolley jack, on the other hand, uses a hydraulic cylinder laid on its side. The operator pumps a lever, which directs fluid into the hydraulic chamber. The fluid activates the jack’s piston, which then applies force to an arm that lifts the automobile.
Another important and often overlooked factor in the hydraulic lift’s creation is the rise in automobile popularity in the early 1900s. When Henry Ford designed the first moving automobile assembly line in 1913, cars became significantly more accessible to the average American. Completing automobiles in only a quarter of the time as previous methods, Ford built millions of cars over the next decade, driving the demand for the automobiles themselves as well as for gasoline, repair work and other related industries. Because of this rapid growth, the need for an improved method of maintenance was imminent.
Who Invented the First Hydraulic Auto Lift?
Once both the technology and the need existed, it was only a matter of waiting for the right circumstances and a bright mind to put the ideas together.The lift’s inventor, Peter Lunati, developed the lift from his own garage experience. Lunati grew up working on automobiles in Tennessee at the turn of the century. After returning from serving in World War I, Lunati opened a garage. Soon he decided driving onto short ramps and climbing into a pit was cumbersome and inefficient.
The concept for a hydraulic car lift came to Lunati during a trip to his local barbershop. He noticed the smooth operation and ease with which the barber could raise and maneuver the chair while he was still in it. From this inspiration, Lunati patented the first hydraulic car lift in 1925, producing a lift that would raise the car and turn it around so the car would always be driven forward through the garage.
The early hydraulic lifts had several differences from their contemporary counterparts. Rather than the typical four-post and two-post car lifts that we see today, Lunati constructed a platform atop one central press assembly. The car would roll onto drive rails, which the hydraulics would then raise overhead. Also, the early lifts used a separate motor to pump fluid into the chamber. This external power required specialized piping and maintenance, adding to the complexity of the design. Finally, the first hydraulic presses were installed in the ground, which still needed expensive excavation and took up significant garage space, though space use was more favorable than the previous pit-style design.
Despite the shortcomings of the early lifts, it was clear that automotive work was in the midst of transformation.
How Did the Hydraulic Lift Change Throughout History?Once people saw the convenience and utility of the hydraulic lift, innovation came quickly. Inventors soon found that placing the motor inside the piston itself removed the need for external piping and simplified the layout.
In 1945, in the wake of industrial upheaval resulting from World War II, lift makers became concerned over government allocations of the premium steel required to make the superstructures and machined pistons. Citing concerns over both the quality of lifts and the safety of lift operators, they formed the Automotive Lift Institute (ALI) to ensure design and material standards were maintained across the industry.
By 1947, ALI had developed specific regulations for specific material requirements for pressures and weights. These standards remained through the 1960s and into the early 1970s when a new obstacle faced the lift industry. Oil crises at the beginning of the decade shut down many gas stations and threatened other automotive-related industries. Auto lift manufacturers saw declining sales, as many garages sold off worn out or neglected in-ground lifts. These used lifts became a problem as parts fell into poor repair, and manufacturers had little control over the unsafe working conditions that resulted from improper installation or damaged parts.
In the 1970s, ALI moved to a performance standard system. There was no longer a need to describe how the lift must be manufactured. The new system focused only on the result of the lift itself. These standards coincided with the release of the initial Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations in 1974, which enhanced worker protections against hazards such as broken or worn out lifts.
The modified regulations opened new possibilities to lift makers, as designers reimagined lifts to rectify shortcomings in the standardized design. Companies abandoned in-ground lifts for two-post surface pad lifts, which use two posts and hydraulic cylinders to power a pair of lift arms. These frame-engaging lifts bolt directly to the ground, removing the need for expensive and permanent structural changes to the garage.
As garages implemented the two-post design in the early 1980s, a basic but innovative change moved the center of gravity behind the columns. The asymmetrical lift allowed the car to sit farther away from the posts, enabling car doors to open easily without causing damage to the finish. While two-post lifts enjoy continued success, there are other structural options available as well. Automotive lift makers began taking advantage of Charles Larson's scissor lift idea, which he initially patented in 1963 for smaller lifting purposes. In these designs, the pad applies pressure to a set of cross-braced arms. As the hydraulics apply pressure to the mobile arm, the pivot point on the cross-brace rotates, allowing the base to be moved closer together, which adds height to the cross-frame and the platform on top.
The four-post automotive lift presents another option. Rather than two arms that lift the car by the frame, a four-post car lift provides a platform that cars can drive on, and then the four hydraulic presses lift the platform rails. The major benefit of the four-post lift is that the car is sitting on its tires, which is how the weight of the automobile is designed to be held, rather than the frame, which can be an advantage depending on your needs.
What Do Auto Lifts Look Like Today?Thanks to the developments in auto lift history, mechanics and car enthusiasts have a range of options. Several factors contribute to deciding between two-post and four-post designs, such as application, space and cost. Scissor lifts come in a variety of frame-engaging or wheel-engaging models, so they should also be considered in tight spaces regardless of the application.
Two-post hydraulic lifts offer several benefits. They take up less space than a four-post design, so it's easier to access components under a vehicle. They are also less expensive than most four-post or scissor lifts.
Four-post hydraulic lifts have their own benefits. They are often better for long-term storage and can open up more space in a garage.
Depending on your needs, these qualities should all be considered in purchasing a new auto lift:
ApplicationThe most significant factor in deciding your lift will be how you plan to use it. Two-post models are great for maintenance work because they leave the underside of the car open for repairs, while the rails on the four-post lifts can make access more difficult. If your primary purpose is to lift the car and work most quickly, the two-post model is probably for you. However, especially for at-home mechanics, the four-post lift offers a multidimensional aspect in that it can hold a car for months at a time — two-post lifts are only designed to hold vehicles for a short amount of time. If car storage is going to be one of your lift’s functions, you should consider the four-post type. Scissor lifts come in a variety of lifting capabilities and therefore can meet two- or four-post applications depending on the lift.
SpaceIf space is your primary concern, a scissor lift may be your first option. If you install a scissor lift flush with the floor, you can still use that space while you're not using the lift. Both post options provide a different definition of “space.” As you might expect, a two-post car lift requires less physical space than a four-post model. However, the four-post car lift may actually allow you to use more of your garage space. Since you can use the four-post design for car storage, the area underneath can be used to store motorcycles and ATVs, tool chests, lawnmowers and other easy-to-move garage items while your car is on the lift above.
CostCost almost certainly affects purchasing new equipment for a garage. The two-post lift costs less than a similar-capability four-post lift.
Other Buying ConsiderationsIf you are considering buying a lift, you should inquire whether the seller stocks repair parts. Some distributors or manufacturers do not keep repair stock on hand, meaning that any unforeseen accident would put you out of commission for a longer time. Also, consider asking about maintenance on any lift you might purchase.
Are You Looking for a Lift?If the history of car lifts has demonstrated anything, it’s that innovation is always right around the corner. Keeping up with the newest developments can be a daunting task for any car mechanic.
No matter what kind of tools and tech you need, North American Auto Equipment can help. We stock high-quality, state of the art lifts and tools. By trusting our experienced team to answer your questions, you can ensure that you’ll find the lift that fits your specific needs.