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Automotive History

Updated on February 1, 2015


The first automobile made its appearance in the late 18th century. It was however in 1806 that a true automobile was built, propelled by fuel gas-powered internal combustion engines. Subsequently, the year 1885 marked the introduction of gasoline-fuelled internal combustion engine.

An Early 19th Century Automobile

Some historians believe Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot to be the first person to build a fully functional self-propelled mechanical vehicle or automobile in about 1769 by modifying a horse-drawn vehicle. Others claim Ferdinand Verbiest to be first to design an automobile in 1672. His version was a steam-powered vehicle designed as a toy for the Emperor of China.It however couldn’t carry passengers or a driver, for that matter. It is although unanimously agreed that Richard Trevithick’s Puffing Devil road locomotive built in 1801 was the first demonstration of a steam-powered road vehicle. At the International Exhibition of Electricity in Paris in 1881, French inventor Gustave Trouvé demonstrated a working electricity powered three-wheeled automobile. This was the world’s first electric powered automobile.

The Puffing Devil

The first internal combustion engine was designed by the Swiss inventor François Isaac de Rivaz in 1806. The engine was fuelled by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. In 1890, the French automotive engineers Emile Levassor and Armand Peugeot started producing vehicles with Daimler engines. In 1892, the first automobile was sold by Daimler and with a few years, Daimler and Maybach had built 30 automobiles. After Daimler passed away, Maybach designed an engine named Daimler-Mercedes, which would be integrated in 1902 in an automobile model going by the name Mercedes.

The Motorwagen patented by Benz (1886)

In the meantime, German inventor Karl Benz was granted a patent for his automotive engine in 1879. The inventions of Benz utilized the internal combustion engine for powering the automobile. The Benz vehicles were promoted and between 1888 and 1893, 25 Benz vehicles were sold. The Benz automobiles were powered by four-stroke engines as well. Although there were a few notable German engineers such as Siegfried Marcus, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach who attempted to make a true automobile, it is Karl Benz who is generally accredited as the inventor of the modern automobile. In 1926, the companies of Karl Daimler and Karl Benz merged to form the Mercedes-Benz brand.

In Britain, the automobile made it’s presence felt in 1894, when the first petrol-powered car was made in the country. However, it was only in 1896 when automobiles were produced commercially by the Daimler Motor Company, founded by Harry J. Lawson. The automobiles bore the Daimler name since Lawson had purchased the naming rights of Daimler.


The Invention of the Automobile

By the year 1902, large scale production of automobiles had already taken off in the Oldsmobile factory in the USA. The production-line manufacturing of vehicles for the masses introduced by Ransom Olds greatly inspired the American inventor, Henry Ford. From 1914 onwards, Ford revolutionized the manufacturing process of automobiles. His innovative methods led to an increase in production by seven to one and used less manpower. Such was the speed of production that the painting phase created a bottleneck in the production line. As a counter measure, it was decided only one colour which dries fast enough would be used. The colour was Japan black. Interestingly, between 1914 and 1926 all Ford vehicles were black and Ford famously remarked “People can have it (Ford car) in any colour as long as it’s black”. The swift drying Duco lacquer was developed in 1926 and only then Ford cars started offering a choice of colours!

The Model T-Ford

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Ford began spreading its wings worldwide with Ford France and Ford Britain in 1911, Ford Denmark (1923) and Ford Germany (1925) being formed. Citroen was a European manufacturer who started following the Ford manufacturing model and met with considerable success. Soon, automotive manufacturers were compelled to either have assembly lines or face the risk of disappearing. In fact, 250 companies did go broke by 1930, since they failed to change with the automotive manufacturing trends.

In 1884, British engineer Henry Royce made his first car. He met Charles Rolls in Manchester and soon, they rolled out their first model - Rolls Royce 10 HP (1904). For over a century till this very day, the company is widely regarded as the maker of the finest automobiles in the world.

Cream of the Crop - The Rolls Royce 10 HP

The earlier part of 20th century also witnessed a host of developments in automotive technology. Some of the major developments were Charles Kettering’s electric ignition and the electric self-starter made for the Cadillac Motor Company in 1910-1911, the independent suspension and four-wheel brakes. From 1930 onwards, rapid changes were taking place in the automotive world and companies started collaborating with each other to keep up with the growing demand for automobiles. Many manufactures shared parts with one another as it lowered production costs for each price range. Cadillac began using cheaper mechanical parts made by Oldsmobile in the 1930s and in the 1950’s, Chevrolet shared parts like vehicle hood, doors, roof, and windows with Pontiac.

Cadillac Model 30 (1910)

The modern era has seen automobiles with better fuel efficiency and engine output. The modern vehicles are also concerned with ergonomics and computer aided car designs has offered motorists excellent safety features such as air bags and a variety of aerodynamic designs. Presently, ordinary passenger cars come fitted with powerful engines which are good enough to match the sports-car engines of the 1970’s. The performance graph of the automobile therefore is ever on an upward swing and will continue to do so in the future.

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