If you Google “who invented the car?” the first answer will be Karl Benz, but the real answer isn’t as straightforward as the naming of one man, because the idea of the automobile came long before Benz created the first gasoline-powered automobile.
In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci designed a self-propelled cart and other later inventors in the 17th and 18th centuries tinkered with carts and carriages powered by wind, air, a vacuum principle using condensation, and even clockwork. But it wasn’t until the age of the steam engine that cars somewhat as we know them today began to take shape, and while Benz may have been the inventor of the gasoline automobile, it was Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot who is credited as the first person to build a self-propelled road vehicle in 1769. Powered by steam, the three-wheeled vehicle is said to have run at 2.5 miles per hour.
While other inventors in Europe and the United States continued the development of steam-powered road carriages, the next big invention was the electric carriage by Scotsman Robert Anderson from 1832 – 1839. Sourcing power was the biggest issue for the electric car – a problem that still remains today – but the invention of the first practical rechargeable battery in 1860 by Gaston Panté in France, along with later improvements, made the electric vehicle a real possibility. Despite this evolution of power storage capability, though, it was the lack of infrastructure for charging the batteries that created the biggest challenge to the growth of the electric vehicle.
Everything was soon to change, however, with the development of the first gasoline automobile in 1885 by Karl Friedrich Benz in Germany, a three-wheeled vehicle powered by a four-cycle internal combustion engine. Often cited as the first true automobile, which is a fair claim within the context of the automobiles we drive today, Benz wasn’t the only pioneer of the gasoline-engine. The following year, Gottlieb Willhelm Daimler debuted the first four-wheeled automobile powered by a four-stroke engine known as the Cannstatt-Daimler. Both Benz and Daimler went on to manufacture and develop further models over the years, and eventually the companies merged in 1926 into the company today known as Mercedes-Benz.
As the industry took off, many car manufacturing companies were launched across the continent. From the likes of Peugot and Renault in France to Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferarri in Italy, to the English Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar and Morris Motors, many giants emerged over the decades alongside a number of smaller, lesser known companies.
At the same time, big things were happening in the United States as well. In 1892-1893, Charles Edgar Duryea and his brother Frank were credited with developing the first successful gasoline-powered vehicle in the country. Frank Duryea won the first automobile race held in Chicago by the Chicago Times-Herald in 1895, and the following year the brothers built thirteen cars, making them the first company in the United States to manufacture and sell multiple copies of a single vehicle.
Many were to follow in the Duryea’s footsteps, and the steam-powered automobile industry was superseded by gas-powered cars. The Oldsmobile by Ransom Eli Olds became the bestselling car in 1902 and over two hundred automobile manufacturers would go into business over the following six years, the most notable being the Ford Motor Company in 1903 and General Motors in 1908, the latter being the same year Henry Ford produced the Model T, the first affordable, mass-produced vehicle to hit the market. More than 15 million Model T’s were manufactured by Ford over the next two decades, making it the longest production run of any vehicle until the Volkswagen Beetle.
General Motors Company, founded by William C. Durant, was a consolidation of existing automobile manufacturers: Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Buick and Oakland Motor Company. Despite initial leadership and financial issues, GM went on to become one of the most successful automobile manufacturers in the world, acquiring Chevrolet (which Durant himself founded with race car driver Louis Chevrolet in 1911) and British Vauxhall Motors and German Opel in the 1920’s.
The last of the big three to survive from the hundreds of automobile manufacturers operating in the United States during the early part of the 20th century is Chrysler. Founded by Walter Chrysler in 1925, it was formed after the launch of the first Chrysler car, when the Maxwell Motor Corporation was reorganized into the Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler focused on low to medium priced brands which saw its popularity grow, eventually expanding into the European car market and rising to become one of the largest manufacturers in the United States.
Technology and car design has evolved greatly since the introduction of the first gasoline-powered automobile. From the original vintage cars to the classic cars of 1925 – 1948, the European post-World War II designs to the rise of the American V-8’s, cars have continuously evolved and improved – at least technologically if not always stylistically – to the vehicles on our roads today. The range of vehicles now available around the world compared to the automobile’s humble beginnings is quite astounding, from modest compact cars to SUV’s, sports cars, sedans, station wagons, and trucks.
One of the biggest recent developments in the market is of course how automobiles are powered with a return of the electric car thanks to the likes of Tesla, although perhaps the biggest change and challenge facing the automobile still lies ahead, with the expected introduction of fully-autonomous vehicles.
But whatever the future holds for the automobile, it’s safe to say we’ve come a long way since da Vinci first dreamed of a self-propelled cart.