Early Cars - Forerunners of the Modern Automobile

    The early cars and its development sprung first from the fertile mind of Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French inventor, who lived from 1725-1804. He built the first working self-propelled land-based mechanical vehicle, the world's first automobile.

    He trained as a military engineer and acquired the ranked of a captain.  In 1765 he began experimenting with working models of steam-engine-powered vehicles for the French Army, intended for transporting cannons.

    He was one of the first to successfully employ a device for converting the reciprocating motion of a steam piston into a rotary motion by means of a ratchet arrangement hereby ushering an early cars prototype.

    In 1770, a full-size version of the fardier à vapeur (automobile) was built, specified to be able to carry four tons and cover almost 5 miles in one hour but which was unable to attain in practice. It was awkward  and heavy. The vehicle was reported to have been very unstable due to poor weight distribution. This would have been a serious disadvantage since the fardier was intended to be able to traverse rough terrain and climb steep hills. In 1771 the second vehicle is said to have gone out of control and knocked down part of the Arsenal walls, reported to be the first known automobile accident.

    After running a small number of trials, variously described as being between Paris and Vincennes and at Meudon, the project was abandoned. His idea of early cars during that period didn't materialize till much later. This ended the French Army's first experiment with mechanical vehicles.

    A Cugnot car, circa 1771

    But experiments in Europe and in the United States were gaining ground. Building on the work of earlier scientists and engineers, Jean Joseph Etiene Lenoir's experimentation with electricity led him to develop the first internal combustion engine which burned a mixture of coal gas and air ignited by a "jumping sparks" ignition system by Ruhmkorff coil, and which he patented in 1860.

    Prior designs for such engines were patented as early as 1807 (De Rivaz engine), but none were commercially successful. Lenoir's engine was commercialized in sufficient quantities to be considered a success. The Lenoir engine was designed as a stationary power plant for factories but a small model was used experimentally in 1863 to power a road vehicle.

    In 1863 the Hippomobile, a great early cars prototype with a hydrogen gas fueled, one cylinder, internal combustion,engine made a test drive from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont: top speed about 9 km in 3 hours. Although ithe Hippomobile ran reasonably well, the engine was fuel inefficient, extremely noisy, tended to overheat and, if sufficient cooling water was not applied, seize up.

    A Lenoir automobile

    About 1865 and Austrian inventor, Siegfried Marcus, built and road tested a simple four-wheeled vehicle with an internal combustion engine that used liquid fuel. Ten years later he produced a second liquid-fueled vehicle which ran successfully and is now preserved in a museum in Vienna as forerunners of the modern automobile - early cars in their infancy.

    Siegfried Marcus Car

    In 1875, the Austrian engineer Siegfried Marcus (1831-1898) made this petrol-driven motor car. Top speed is 4 mph, the car worked well but unfortunately he did not realize its commercial potential until Karl Benz produced the first commercial motor car.

    Nikolaus A. Otto, a German inventor, built the most direct ancestor of today's automobile engine in 1876. Otto's engine for the early cars used the four-stroke principle of operation - intake, compression, power, and exhaust. Car engines today operate on this principle. Otto's engine originally operated on coal gas but was soon adapted for use with other fuels. Otto's engine provided a compact yet powerful engine, much different from the cumbersome, noisy and clunky engines a few decades back. These early cars were important to the developments that would come later.

    Nikolaus A. Otto

    Gottlieb Daimler and another German, Karl Benz, are usually credited with being the earliest builders of successful automobiles that used internal combustion engines. Each produced a motor car in 1886 and they are now classic automobiles that command very high prices for classic car collectors. Daimler produced light, reliable, medium-speed gas engine. The design formed the basis for the modern car engine.Benz concentrated on the idea of a vehicle fitted with a gasoline motor which combined with body, chassis (frame and wheels), and other parts into an efficient unit. The pair produced excellent early cars.

    Gottlieb Daimler

    Karl Benz

    1886 Daimler Automobile

    Karl Benz Velo model 1894

    In the early 1890's, a French engineer, Emile Levassor, produced a chassis to fit Daimler's engine. The resulting vehicle, called the Panhard-Levassor, is regarded by many automobile historians as the first real forerunner of the modern automobile. It was the first motor vehicle in which the frame was made separately from the body and suspended from the axles by springs. It also was the first to have the engine in front and the now-standard clutch-and-gear transmission. These early cars are really good collectibles, so very few exist today.

    Panhard Levassor 4HP-1897

    Between 1890 and 1930, the concept of the automobile emerged and resulted in competing types of automobiles powered by electricity (batteries), gasoline, and steam. The electric car was superior to the steamer or the gasoline car because it ran quietly and smoothly, without the vibration and smelly fumes of its rivals. It did not require a complicated set of gears or clutches to transmit the power to the wheels or to run in reverse. But they are good to only 20 to 40 miles. After that, the batteries run down. And the low speed (12 miles per hour) did not appeal to prospective buyers.

    Steam-driven cars were even more popular than electrics in the late 1890's and early 1900's. There were more than 100 different makes of American steamers during those times. Steamers offered more power than electrics, quiet operation, and smooth performance. But their drawbacks were serious. It took a long time to build up steam and and procedures were complicated. Also, owners were afraid that the boiler might explode.

    The best remembered of the steamers are the Stanley Steamers, made by twins Francis and Freelan Stanley. They even set a land speed record in 1906 of 127.6 miles (205.9 kilometers) per hour at Ormond Beach, Florida. The last steamers were built in the mid-1930's. You can still find these early cars in car museums.

    The internal-combustion engine is much more complicated than either the steam engine or the electric motor. But its advantages outweigh its disadvantages. Although it has more moving parts, it could produce more power in relation to its weight than the other engines.

    Some More Early Cars

    1867 Benz Car

    1885 Benz Car

    1895 Chicago Benton Harbor Autocycle

    1896 Duryea Runabout

    1897 Oldsmobile

    1898 Stover High Wheeler

    1899 Baldwin

    1899 Daimler Car

    1899 Winton Phaeton

    1895 American LaFrance Steamer

    1885 Amoskeag Steam Fire Engine

    1902 Steam Fire Engine with Blaze

    1900 Locomobile Steam Runabout

    1907 Baker Electric Car

    1908 Holsman Highwheeler Electric Car

More about the early automobiles

    History of the Automobile:
    Forerunners of the Modern Automobile
    Early 1900's cars
    1920's Cars
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    1930's Cars
    More About 30's Cars
    1940's Cars
    1950's Cars
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    1960's Cars:
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    1980's Cars
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    1990's Cars
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    '90s Imported Cars
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    Popular Movie Cars

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