History Matters: Kicking It into Gear With Automobiles

By David A. Fryxell Premium

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Everybody knows that Henry Ford invented the automobile. Except, of course, he didn’t. Ford is generally credited with introducing the modern, mass-produced automobile that arguably differentiates our world from our ancestors’ more than any other invention. (Think how different your ancestors’ 19th-century migrations — and the cities they settled in — would’ve been if everyone had owned a car.) But Ford didn’t build the first automobile.

Exactly who did turns out to be a tricky question. The answer depends in part on how you define automobile.

Inventing the Wheel 

Vehicles propelled by something other than horses, oxen or people were designed as early as 1335, when the Italian Guido da Vigevano envisioned one powered by a sort of portable windmill. Not surprisingly, Leonardo da Vinci had his own design, a clockwork-driven tricycle, as did English savant Roger Bacon.


But most experts agree that the first road vehicle to move under its own power was invented by a French artillery captain, Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, in 1769. Dubbed the fardier, Cugnot’s creation used the newfangled pressurized steam engine — developed by James Watt that very year — to propel a cart. According to one account, on the fardier’s first excursion, it struck and knocked down a wall. Designed to ferry cannons, the vehicle also tended to tip over unless counterbalanced with a cannon in the rear. The second and final fardier (1770) weighed 4 tons and reached 2 mph.

The challenge for would-be automobile inventors was the power source. After steam proved unwieldy, gunpowder was investigated. So were batteries (today’s electric cars aren’t a new trend). Finally, inventors hit upon gas, which initially was made by heating coal under pressure. Frenchman Étienne Lenoir patented a two-cycle, ½-horsepower, gas-powered engine in 1860, and drove a vehicle employing his design from Paris to Joinville two years later. But the engine was too cumbersome to make Lenoir the French Henry Ford, and he died penniless in 1900.

The Keys to Success 

The trick to what would be called the internal-combustion engine was figuring out how to compress and burn the fuel in the same cylinder. (Lenoir’s design required a separate compression mechanism.) The same year Lenoir took his inaugural drive, his countryman Alphonse Beau de Rochas solved the problem with the invention of the four-cycle engine. Beau de Rochas neglected to patent his idea, which became known as the “Otto cycle,” after Nikolaus Otto, a German engine maker, who did patent a four-cycle design in 1877. (Turnabout being fair play, however, Beau de Rochas’ earlier work was later used in court to overturn Otto’s patent.) Two of Otto’s assistants, childhood friends Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, improved upon his design and applied it to a motorized vehicle in 1886.


That same year, another German, Karl Benz, patented what’s often deemed the first true automobile. Benz had spent 16 years perfecting his vehicle (he was kept afloat financially by his wife Bertha’s dowry). Even after gaining his patent, Benz put off production until Bertha — after a test drive — convinced him the car was ready. He won the gold medal at the 1888 Munich Engineering Exposition, then took his prizewinning vehicle onto the streets. A Munich newspaper reported, “Seldom, if ever, have passers-by in the streets of our city seen a more startling sight.” By 1900, Benz & Co. led the world in the manufacture of automobiles.

But Daimler and Maybach also would be heard from. Their engine debuted at the 1889 Paris Exposition, causing one newspaper writer to presciently observe, “Off in this hidden corner … was germinating the seed of a modern technological revolution.” Maybach later partnered with racing pioneer Emil Jellinek, who in 1900 commissioned him to design a fleet of sleek, powerful cars named after Jellinek’s daughter, Mercedes.

Across the Atlantic, the United States’ starring role in the automotive industry began with a string of tinkerers building their own car creations. As in Europe, these were initially powered by steam: In 1871, Wisconsin physics professor J.W. Carhart built a working steam car that inspired the state to sponsor a 200-mile race with a $10,000 prize in 1878. Only two of seven entries made it to the starting line, and the faster of those broke down before the finish, leaving the prize to an Oshkosh model that averaged 6 mph.

America’s first gasoline-powered car was a horse-drawn buggy converted by brothers Charles and Frank Duryea of Springfield, Mass., in 1893. Three years later, the Duryeas would make 13 vehicles — the nation’s first “production” automobiles.

The United States’ first truly mass-produced car, however, was the Curved Dash Oldsmobile, manufactured by Ransom E. Olds. In the tradition of tinkerers, Olds had grown up playing with engines, leading a neighbor to warn his parents, “That kid of yours will blow his head off someday.” In 1901, he sold 600 of his first Oldsmobile, priced at $650. By 1904, when Oldsmobile sales reached 5,000, Olds had been forced out of the company and lost the rights to his own name. He started over with the REO Car Co. (after his initials), best known today for REO Speedwagon trucks (and the rock band named for them).

Henry Ford didn’t offer his first production car for sale until 1903, after two previous automotive ventures had flopped. In 1908, however, the former farmboy introduced the Model T. In 1914, Ford revolutionized the industry with the moving assembly line. By the time the last Model T rolled off the line in 1927, more than 15 million had been sold and a generation of Americans had discovered the pleasures of hitting the road.

Parking Spots: Museums and Websites

Don’t let your driving lesson stall out here — get up to speed on more automobile history at these museums:n

Antique Automobile Club of America

Museum: 61 Museum Drive, Hershey, PA 17033, (717) 566-7100, Library and Research Center: 501 W. Governor Road, Box 417, Hershey, PA 17033, (717) 534-2082

Automotive Hall of Fame

21400 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124, (313) 240-4000

Henry Ford Museum

20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124, (800) 835-5237

National Automobile Museum

10 S. Lake St., Reno, NV 89501, (775) 333-9300

The legacy of all three German automotive pioneers is united today under the corporate banner of the Daimler Group, which makes Mercedes-Benz cars.

From the July 2008 Family Tree Magazine

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