A Brief History of the Automobile - Pre World War One

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A Brief History of the Automobile

Richard Trevithick

You only have to turn the hands of the clock back a few centuries to find a time when the notion of a carriage without a horse was unthinkable. While most believe today that the Cugnot's 1770 “Fardier” was the very first car, we should instead thank one Richard Trevithick, a British inventor who wondered if the clip-clop of horses' hooves could be replaced by the chugging of a steam engine. He set to work to build an engine that would tow his carriage, and successfully drove it from Camborne in Cornwall to Plymouth, a distance of more than 50 miles. The year? - 1803.

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney

Twenty-five years later, Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, a chemist, boldly left his horses in the stable and relied on a steam engine to pull his carriage the 107 miles from London to Bath. It was elegant and comfortable, but perhaps was more like a miniature train than a car because the engine was still separate from the carriage. Progress was not spectacular! It took another 40 years before a gifted engineer, John Henry Knight, combined the steam engine with the carriage. The horseless carriage had really arrived.

On the Continent, the father of the famous composer, Ravel, was developing a vehicle driven not by steam, but by petrol. Although he completed it in 1870, disaster struck. The Franco­Prussian War was raging and the shed which housed this precious machine was demolished. No more was heard of it.

Richard Trevithick's Steam Carriage
Richard Trevithick's Steam Engine would travel an astonishing 50 miles in 1803...

Siegfried Marcus' Automobile
Siegfried Marcus is though by many to be the inventor of the first car...

Cugnot's 1770 Fardier
Montagure Napier constructed the first ever 6-cylinder motor car...

Siegfried Marcus

Some people believe that an Austrian, Siegfried Marcus, built the very first car. As early as 1864 he built a gas engine fed by liquid fuel and mounted it in a pushcart. One night Marcus, with a friend and a house-porter, pushed it to a quiet street near a cemetery. After careful adjust­ments and much trouble the magic moment came.

The engine spluttered and roared into life, the three men jumped aboard, and they rode for a victorious 201 metres. But something went wrong, and Marcus became the first of a long line of motorists who had to push their cars home! Perhaps that was why Marcus lost interest in his invention - turned to something else and did not make another car for over 20 years.

Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler

The first really practical petrol-driven motor car the world ever saw was a three-wheeler, designed, built and driven by the German, Karl Benz, in 1885. It startled people so much that Benz at first was refused permission to drive it on a public street. By now, though, nothing could stem the growing interest in cars. The following year, another German, Gottlieb Daimler, demonstrated the first four-wheeled petrol-driven machine.

Benz and Daimler are covered in detail elsewhere on the Unique Cars and Parts web site, so lets travel back to England, where John Henry Knight made history by building the first British petrol-driven car. It was no racer. The water-cooled engine was at the back and it could do eight mph in top gear!

Emille Levassor

Cars had not only arrived. They were capturing the imagination of the public with the world's first road race. It was held in France from Paris to Bordeaux and back, covering what seemed the enormous distance of 73.2 miles. The first to finish was Emille Levassor driving the car he designed himself, the Panhard Levassor.

It was a gruelling journey! There was no steering wheel, only a tiller like a boat's. Emille had to concentrate every inch of the way. He travelled for two days almost non-stop and arrived back in Paris six hours ahead of. his nearest rival. His average speed? Fifteen miles an hour. The Panhard became one of the popular cars of the day.

Renault Brothers

The famous Renault brothers also realised the value of successful racing and, in 1899, their cars took the first two places in the Paris to Trouville race. Motoring began to leap ahead as makers found the weaknesses in their' cars under the stress of racing. Big improvements were made on the Continent, however a short sighted law prevented better, faster cars from being designed in England.

Known as the "Locomotives on Road Act", it decreed that cars should not travel at more than 12 mph! Of course it dealt a death blow to road racing there. Over in America the Stanley Steamer becameas increasingly more popular, and remained so for many years. But the Steamer was fighting a losing battle with the petrol driven automobiles, these now being manufactured en-masse by manufacturers such as Winton, Buick, Duryea, Oldsmobile, Franklin and Cadillac.

Captain Harley Tarrant and Howard Lewis

Even Australia made its contribution, with the Thomson Steamer in 1896, followed three years later by the first entirely Australian' made petrol, driven vehicle, a two' cylinder chain-driven car built by Captain Harley Tarrant and Howard Lewis, of Victoria. By the turn of the century, the people who made cars had learnt some important lessons. They knew that a car should be driven by the rear wheels and steered by the front ones, that the flywheel should go round vertically and not horizontally, and that every petrol engine needed a carburettor of some kind to mix air with the petrol.

An exciting era began in the development of the motor car. New ideas poured from the minds of enthusiastic designers. Cars were built in all shapes and sizes. The early models had one, or perhaps two'cylinder engines of low horsepower. They had tiller steering and solid tyres. Some car bodies were made of wood with beautifully hand, modelled mudguards, others combined wood with metal.

The radiator, used for cooling the water round the engine block, usually consisted of a bunch of copper tubes in front of the bonnet with tin fins attached to catch the air. Many cars had a chain,drive between engine and axle, rather like a bicycle chain. Often the gear cogs were exposed, for there was no gearbox. The chassis, consisting of engine, framework and wheels, alone cost much more than the common person could afford, let alone the need for a car body to be added by a coach builder. Tyres only lasted about 1,000 miles, and for some reason British made tyres were very weak and forced designers to build light cars.

Montague Napier

One of the first to do so was Montague Napier, almost a forgotten name in the world of cars today. Yet his was the first successful 6 cylinder car ever made. It was light - the chassis weighed less than a ton - and the steering wheel was in the middle. Napier also set out to build cars that were cheap, and was so successful that in 1910 you could buy a 2'cylinder, 10 horse'power, two'seater Napier for £270. It was still a lot for those days. Gifted engineers and businessmen worked together in producing all types of cars - forever experimenting and improving. The Hon. C. S. Rolls, a businessman, and Henry Royce, an engineer, formed a partnership which became legend.

Herbert Austin

Herbert Austin, another great name, left the Wolseley Company and branched out on his own in 1906 to make the first Austin cars. In 1908 he built three light touring six cylinder cars to take part in the French Grand Prix, the big race of the year. Yet another new name was Vauxhall, a Company which in 1903 turned from marine engines to cars. One of their most elegant creations was the 1913 Prince Henry with a 4 cylinder side-valve engine. World War 1 broke over Europe and progress on the motor car, as with so many things, was stopped for four long years. It brought to an end the first generation of "horseless carriages" - the colourful "veteran era" of ploneers,

The Australian Horseless Carriage Syndicate

We should also take a moment to reflect on what might have been right here in Australia, with the Pioneer steam driven vehicle of 1897, developed by the Australian Horseless Carriage Syndicate. Only one iteration was to be developed before short-sighted creditors called their debts in, however if they had given the venture a chance, their is every probability that Australia's role in the evolution of the automobile would have been far greater.

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