The motor car has become an integral part of the world as we know it, but who is credited with inventing the first car? Tracking the history of the automobile has been challenging historians for many years and it continues to evolve.
The story of the invention of the automobile features various characters who have played a part in its history.
In the table below, you can see a selection of highlights in automobile history.
|Steam – he built the first self-propelled road vehicle (military tractor) for the French army
|Electric – electric carriage
|Karl Friedrich Benz
|Gasoline: Automobile powered by an internal combustion engine. It was a three-wheeled, four cycle, engine, and chassis to form a single unit
|Germany Patent DRP No. 37435
|Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach
|Gasoline: First four-wheeled, four-stroke engine known as the “Cannstatt-Daimler”
|George Baldwin Selden
|Gasoline: Combined internal combustion engine with a carriage (patent no. 549,160 1895). It was never manufactured but Selden collected royalties
|Chares Edgar Duryea and his brother Frank
|Gasoline: First successful gas-powered car, 4hp, two-stroke motor. The Duryea brothers set up the first American car manufacturing company
Karl Friedrich Benz may have patented the first gasoline-powered car, but he wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of a self-propelling vehicle.
For example, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a horseless, mechanized car in the early 1500s. He never got around to building it himself, but a replica is on display at the Château Clos Lucé, which is his last home and now a museum.
When the first visitors arrived in China, they found sailing chariots propelled by the wind being used. In 1600, Simon Steven of Holland built one that carried 28 people and covered 39 miles. It wasn’t the fastest mode of transport as the short journey took two hours to complete.
Over the years, the word car has meant different things. Towards the end of the 19th century, a tram was called a streetcar. Before streetcars, there were “horse cars” which were omnibuses pulled by horses on rails.
The Internal Combustion Engine – An Important Cog in the History of the Automobile
The internal combustion engine plays a key role in the history of the modern automobile. An internal combustion engine uses an explosive combustion of fuel to push a piston within a cylinder. The movement of the piston turns a crankshaft. This is connected to the wheels of the car via a drive shaft.
Much the same as the car, the combustion engine also has a long history. Some of the developments include:
- 1680: Christiaan Huygens, an astronomer, designed but never built an internal combustion engine that used gunpowder.
- 1826: Samuel Brown, an Englishman, adapted a steam engine to burn gasoline. He put it on a carriage, but the concept was never adopted.
- 1858: Jean Joseph-Etienne Lenoir patented a double-acting, electric spark-ignition internal combustion engine that used coal gas. He made some improvements that meant it could run on petroleum. Once attached to a three-wheeled wagon, the vehicle managed to travel 50 miles.
- 1873: George Brayton, an American, developed a two-stroke kerosene engine that is considered to be the first safe and practical oil engine.
- 1876: Nikolaus August Otto patented the first four-stroke engine in Germany.
- 1885: Gottlieb Daimler invented the prototype of the modern gasoline engine.
- 1895: Rudolf Diesel, a French inventor, patented the diesel engine which was a compression ignition, internal combustion engine.
It is generally considered that the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen was the first proper car. Carl Benz built his new vehicle around an internal combustion engine. He used bicycle parts which has led to many people calling his invention a motorized bicycle.
When Was the First Electric Car Made?
Electric cars might seem like a new invention, but they’ve been around since the 19th century. Unfortunately, following Henry Ford’s development of the Model T, electric cars fell out of favor.
In recent years, the electric car has made quite a comeback. According to CNBC, in 2021, around 535,000 electric cars were sold in the United States.
Who invented the electric car? Once again, its long history makes it challenging to pinpoint one particular inventor.
Two inventors tend to be credited with the invention of the first electric car. A Scottish inventor, Robert Anderson, and an American inventor, Thomas Davenport, independently invented the first electric car in the 1830s.
The first rechargeable battery was invented by Gaston Plante in 1865. This French physicist’s battery replaced the non-rechargeable batteries that were used in the early electric car models.
In 1895, the first automobile race in the US took place from Chicago to Waukegan, Ill, a distance of 52 miles. It took the winner over 10 hours to complete the course. The race had six entries, and two were electric cars.
By the 1900s, the New York City taxi service had around 60 electric cars, while approximately one-third of cars in the US were electric.
The decline of the electric car began when Henry Ford introduced the Model T to the world. It was an inexpensive and high-quality gasoline car that became very popular.
When Was the First Modern Electric Car Made?
In 1976, the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act was passed by Congress. The Act was written because of rising oil prices, dependencies on foreign oil, and gasoline shortages. From that moment, many car manufacturers started researching and designing new fuel-efficient and electric options.
However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that things started to happen. In 1996, General Motors released the EV-1. It was the first mass-produced purpose-built modern electric car. It was released under a leasing program, but the saga had a controversial ending after only 1,000 were produced.
When Was the First Car Made in America?
America might not be the birthplace of the car, but the automotive industry in the US has had considerable influence over the industry as a whole. One of the most significant developments was the use of the assembly line, developed by Ford for his Model T.
However, he was not the first American to build a successful gasoline car. The credit for that goes to the Duryea brothers, Charles and Frank. These two American brothers built and tested their first vehicle in 1893. Three years later, they founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, the first American car company.
Their first car was rather primitive in that it was just a modified horse-drawn buddy that they’d fitted with a single-cylinder engine.
The Duryea Motor Wagon Company has another claim to fame. It was a Duryea car that was involved in America’s first-ever car accident in 1896.
When Was the First Automatic Car Made?
The automatic transmission was invented in 1921, but Alfred Horner, a Canadian steam engineer. The transmission used compressed air rather than hydraulic fluid. However, it wasn’t powerful enough and was never commercially sold.
The first automobile to use an automatic transmission was the 1948 Oldsmobile. It was developed by General Motors engineer Earl Thompson, and advertised as the Hydra-Matic, the greatest advance since the self-starter.
The Hydra-Matic was replaced by the “Jetaway” in 1956, however, it was unsuccessful and replaced by the Turbo Hydra-Matic in 1969.
The Hydra-Matic was one of the most successful innovations in the automobile’s history. It was not the first ever automatic transmission, but it was this first commercial success that helped to guide the industry further.
When Was the First Ford Car Made?
The first Ford car was built in 1896. The 1896 Quadricycle was the first automobile that Henry Ford built. It came to symbolize all the later success achieved by Mr. Ford and the Ford Motor Company.
Following his first experimental car, the first Ford car, the original Model A, was assembled at the Ford Mack Avenue plant in July 1903. Five years later, in 1908, along came the very successful Model T.
When Was the First Hybrid Car Made?
The history of the hybrid car stretches back more than a century. It might feel like hybrids are a recent phenomenon, but the technology has been around since the creation of the automobile.
The first hybrid car was built in 1899, by engineer Ferdinand Porsche. It was called the System Lohner-Porsche Mixte and used a gasoline engine to supply power to an electric motor that drove the car’s front wheels.
The car was received very well and more than 300 were made. Sadly, demand for hybrids dropped off when Henry Ford started mass-producing automobiles on his assembly line in 1904. The hybrid market shrunk dramatically because it couldn’t compete with Ford’s ability to produce gasoline-powered cars and offer them at low prices.
When Was the First Tesla Car Made?
Tesla released its first electric car, the Roadster, in 2008. The Tesla Roadster is a battery electric vehicle sports car, based on the Lotus Elise chassis. It was produced by Tesla Motors in California from 2008 to 2012.
Around 2,450 Roadsters were sold in over 30 countries. Most of the last Roadsters were sold in Asia and Europe during the last quarter of 2012.
According to the US EPA, the Roadster can travel 393 kilometers on a single charge. It can accelerate from 0 to 97 km/h in 3.7 or 3.9 seconds. Its top speed is 201 km/h and its efficiency was reported as 120 MPGe.
The Roadster was the first highway-legal serial production all-electric car to use lithium-ion battery cells. It was also the first production all-electric car to travel more than 320 kilometers per charge. It is also the first production car to be launched into deep space. It was carried by a Falcon Heavy rocket in a test flight on February 6, 2018.
The Model S sedan followed the Roadster in 2012, then the Model X SUV, in 2015, the Model 3 sedan in 2017, the Model Y crossover in 2020, and the Tesla Semi truck in 2022.
As you can see, there’s been a lot going on in the auto industry to get us where we are today. Where things are heading for the future, who knows, but we’ll be keeping our finger on the pulse and keeping you up-to-date with all the latest developments.