10 Milestones in Early Automotive History

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At a time when driverless cars will soon be common, and features such as GPS and Bluetooth are virtually standard, most people could not imagine the primitive nature of the first automobiles. The first car had a top speed of only about 2 mph and had to be stopped every few minutes to stoke the steam engine. Early cars had to be cranked by hand, a grueling process that could result in serious injury or death. Here’s a look back at some of the key developments in the history of the automobile.


10. Cugnot Steam Trolley: World’s First Automobile (1769)

The first automobile was built to carry cannons.

Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s three-wheel, steam-driven vehicle is widely regarded as the first automobile, or self-propelled vehicle. In 1771, it made history again when it was involved in the world’s first automobile accident. Designed to carry cannons, the French Army abandoned the project because the vehicle had several flaws, including poor weight distribution and a boiler that had to be stoked every few minutes.


9. Charette de Rivaz: First Internal-Combustion Vehicle (1807)

Parisian inventor Isaac de Rivaz patented the first internal-combustion engine.

The French were early leaders in automotive technology. Parisian inventor Isaac de Rivaz developed and patented the first internal combustion engine in a vehicle, powered by hydrogen (charette is French for “wagon”). If a hydrogen-based engine sounds like a primitive concept, think again — several automakers have developed hydrogen-powered cars in recent years.


8. Marcus Car: First Gasoline-Powered Vehicle (1870)

The Marcus car may have been built as early as 1864.

There is some disagreement about the year Austrian Siegfried Marcus introduced the first gasoline-powered automobile; the Nazis destroyed evidence and scoured the Jewish inventor’s name from history books. It is generally accepted that he developed the first Marcus car by 1870, although it could have been built as early as 1864. Curiously, Marcus holds more than 130 patents, yet he never applied for a patent on an auto.


7. La Mancelle: First Auto Produced in Series (1878)

Frenchman Amédée-Ernest Bollée built 50 of his steam cars. © David Merrett

Yes, another French inventor, Amédée-Ernest Bollée, produced 50 of these steam cars, the first cars produced in a series. Among other innovations, the vehicle featured rear-wheel drive and four-wheel independent suspension.


6. Benz-Patent Motorwagen: First ‘True’ Automobile (1886)

Karl Benz’s motorwagen was built to be a car, not a horse carriage fit with a motor.

Karl Benz’ single-cylinder, four-stroke engine is universally regarded by historians as the first true automobile. What made the car so unique? Simply put, it was purpose built to be a car, and not a horse carriage retrofitted with an unwieldy power plant. According to Mercedes-Benz.com, “Unlike his competitors, Benz pursued an integrated approach in developing the Patent Motor Car: the engine, the chassis and the drive components were exactly matched to each other and formed a single unit.”


5. German Flocken Elektrowagen: First Electric Car (1888)

Electric cars dominated the early automotive scene. © Franz Haag

Many people today driving electric Teslas and Priuses believe they’re on the cutting edge of car technology. In reality, electric cars have been around since the advent of the automobile. German Andreas Flocken developed the first electric car, and by the year 1900, roughly 40 percent of autos were electric (40 percent were steam and only about 20 percent were gas). But it wasn’t long before the many benefits of a gasoline-powered engine became apparent.


4. Duryea Motor Wagon: First U.S. Gas-Powered Car (1893)

Brothers Charles and Frank Duryea founded the first car company in the U.S.

American inventors trailed the Europeans in early automobile development. But Charles and Frank Duryea achieved a major milestone when they demonstrated the first American gas-powered car in Springfield, Mass., in 1893. Within two years, they had formed the first American auto company, Duryea Motor Vehicle Co., and built the first cars sold in the U.S.


3. American Napier: First Car to Top 100 MPH (1905)

The American Napier became the first car to top 100 mph — but it held the world speed record only a few minutes.

The earliest automobiles could barely travel at walking speed, but by the dawn of the 20th century rapid advances were being made. In January 1905, Brit Arthur MacDonald drove an American Napier to a speed of 104.65 mph in a mile-long run at Ormond Beach, Fla. The speed record didn’t last long — a Mercedes broke the mark a few minutes later.


2. Model T Introduces Automobile to Masses (1908)

The Ford Model T became the first car built for the masses.

A 1910 Ford Model T Touring Edition. The Model T introduced the concept of the assembly line to auto manufacturers and other industries. © Jack Snell

Henry Ford’s Model T famously revolutionized the auto industry with the introduction of the assembly line, which vastly increased output. And Ford’s insistence on producing cars affordable to the masses helped make the auto a part of the essential American experience. By the way, that $850 sticker price for the first Model T in 1908 would translate to roughly $23,000 in 2016 dollars.


1. Cadillac: First Car With an Electric Starter (1912)

The 1912 Cadillac introduced the electric starter. © Greg Gjerdingen

Early automobiles had a rather serious drawback: Starting the car could cause serious injury or even death. Starting those engines required turning a giant crank at the front of the car, and kickback from the crank could be vicious. The 1912 Cadillac Touring Edition became the first car to incorporate inventor Charles Kettering’s electric starter. As cars became easier to start, women for the first time could handle solo driving duties.

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