Very First Cars and the Masterminds Behind Them
There is no simple answer to the question of who invented the first car. The first person to record a vehicle design was Guido da Vigevano in 1335. A small windmill drove the gears of his invention, providing power to the wheels. Several other early Italian inventors also recorded designs for wind-driven vehicles: Vaturio designed a similar entity which was also never built; and Leonardo da Vinci designed a clockwork-driven tricycle with tiller steering and a differential mechanism between the rear wheels.
There are many different types of automobile that we might choose to label as the first car – steam, electric, gasoline – as well as countless styles. Exactly who invented the first car is a matter of opinion. We can say for certain that the first vehicle to move under its own power was designed by Nicholas Joseph Cugnot and constructed by M. Brezin in 1769. From the late 19th century, almost every community in America, town in mainland Europe and county in England had a mad scientist working on a steam car, and many old newspapers tell stories about the successes and failures of these would-be inventors. If we had to give credit to only one bright spark, it would probably be Frenchman Etienne Lenoir.
The development of an internal combustion engine had to wait until a fuel was available to combust internally. Gunpowder was tried but didn’t work out, so Etienne Lenoir turned to gas generated by heating coal. Lenoir patented the first practical gas engine in Paris in 1860, driving a car based on the design from Paris to Joinville in 1862. His one-half horsepower engine was big and heavy and turned 100rpm. He claimed to have run the car on benezene, and his drawings indicate an electric spark ignition. If this was the case, then his vehicle was the very first to run on petroleum-based fuel. Despite this glorious claim to fame, Lenoir died destitute in 1900.
The First Mass Producers of Cars and the Assembly Line
It is easier to attribute credit to the first mass producers of cars than it is to their inventor. By the early 1900s, gasoline cars had begun to outsell all other types of motor vehicles and the market looked set to continue growing. The need for industrial production quickly became pressing, and there were a number of pioneers all too eager to fill the breach.
The earliest pioneers of the mass production of vehicles were inarguably French: Panhard & Levassor and Peugeot. These revolutionaries were the very first car manufacturers in the world; the first men to build entire motor vehicles for sale, not just engine inventors who experimented with car design to test them.
Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor
Panhard and Levassor started out as partners in a woodworking machinery business, before deciding to become car manufacturers. Their first vehicle was assembled in 1890 and featured a Daimler engine. Edouard Sarazin held the licence rights to the Daimler patent for France and commissioned the team.
As well as manufacturing vehicles, the team made some innovative improvements to the body design of the car. Their vehicles featured a pedal-operated clutch, a chain transmission leading to a change-speed gearbox, and a front radiator. Levassor became the first designer to position the engine at the front of the car, and also the first to use a rear-wheel drive layout. The basic blueprint, known as the Systeme Panhard, was adopted as the standard for all motor vehicles due to the improved balance and steering that it promoted. However, the partner’s designs were not standardised, and each car was different from its sibling vehicles, marking every one as a truly unique piece of history.
Sadly, Emile Levassor was tragically killed in a fatal auto accident during the ‘Paris to Marseille’ race in 1897.
Panhard and Levassor shared the licensing rights to Daimler motors with another Frenchman, Armand Peugeot. Peugeot’s design went on to win the first car race ever held in France, massively boosting his popularity and leading to an exponential increase in sales of his cars.
Charles and Frank Duryea
Brothers Charles and Frank Duryea were the first manufacturers of gasoline-powered commercial cars in America. Originally bicycle-makers, they built their first motor vehicle in 1893 after developing an interest in gasoline engine and automobiles.
The vehicle was the first gasoline powered car in America. It was constructed from a used horse-drawn buggy purchased for $70, with a 4 horsepower, single cylinder engine installed. It had a friction transmission, spray carburettor and a low tension ignition. As primitive and unappealing as the vehicle sounds, it marked the beginning of their success. It was put into storage in 1894, and remained there until 1920, when it was rescued and presented to the United States National Museum.
A second Duryea competed in the first closed circuit automobile race held at Narragansett Park, Rhode Island in September 1896. Thirteen Duryeas of the same design were produced that year, making it the world’s first production car. In no time at all, they sold all thirteen models of the Duryea, an expensive limousine manufactured by their Duryea Motor Wagon Company. The model remained in production until the 1920s.
Ransom Eli Olds
The first car mass-produced in the United States was the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile, produced by American car manufacturer Ransom Eli Olds. The vehicle had a single cylinder engine, tiller steering and chain drive.
Old was the true mastermind behind the concept of the assembly line which is so often attributed to Henry Ford. He began to develop and produce steam and gasoline engines in 1885, with his father, Pliny Fisk Olds, in Lansing, Michigan. He designed his first steam-powered car in 1887. Only in 1899, with a boundless knowledge of gasoline engines, did he move to Detroit and found the Old Motor Works, an entity devoted to producing low-priced cars.
Olds was the first mass producer of gasoline-powered automobiles in the United States, even though Duryea was the first auto manufacturer. He was America’s leading auto-manufacturer from 1901 to 1904, and was responsible for the creation and production of 425 Curved Dash Olds in 1901 alone.
Henry Ford will forever be associated with the assembly line, but he wasn’t responsible for creating it, only refining it. It was Ford who installed the first conveyor belt-based assembly line in his car factory in Michigan. The assembly line he perfected reduced the production cost of cars by reducing the time it took to assemble them; his famous Model T could be put together in just ninety-three minutes.
Success only came to Ford after he formed the Ford Motor Company in 1903, despite two earlier attempts which had failed miserably. He first got an engine running in 1893, and by 1896 he had built his first car. He sold the vehicle for $200 and put the money into building another. He built a few prototypes under the name of the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899 but no production cars were ever made. The company was dissolved in January 1901.
His biggest success, the Model T, was introduced in 1908, and after installing assembly lines in his factory in 1913 he became the world’s largest, most prominent car manufacturer. By 1927, Ford had produced a stunning 15 million Model Ts.
The Rolls Royce Silver Ghost was introduced in 1906 – a six cylinder car that remained in production until 1925. It represented the very best engineering and technology of the era. This innovative vehicle would set the standard for all future cars, marking the end of the beginning of the automobile. Remaining models still run smoothly and silently today, proving their true weight as technological marvels.
After over a century spent alongside the car, we can only now begin to assess the full effects of easily accessible transport and the impact it has had on our world. Almost every aspect of our lives has been indiscriminately altered by the advent of this technology, growing and developing around it. Only now is its role beginning to be impacted by new digital technologies, and the role of the internet in our lives. Time alone will tell how its role changes and adapts to match our lifestyle, and whether its fundamental place in our society will ever be usurped. For now, cars lie at the heart of almost everything we do, and everything we have done for the past one hundred years. Could de Vigevano, Lenoir, the Duryea brothers or Ford ever have foreseen that?
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