By allen watkin from London, UK (Steam) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsAutomotive News Head to Heads & Advice 

History of Cars: Pre-World War I

To see where you’re headed, it’s often helpful to see where you’ve been. No truer is that than in the Automotive Industry, where popular designs or nomenclature stands the test of time, is revived from the graveyard to entertain the next generation of car buyers, or is recycled in new ways.

In this first installment of the History of Cars, we’ll look at the birth of an industry with Pre-World War I vehicles. While plenty of technological advances had to progress prior to the inventions we’ll be looking into, these are the beginnings of the automotive industry.


Rene Thury steam tricycle


Full Steam Ahead

The first cars weren’t gas and they weren’t electric. Some of the first vehicles were little more than glorified tricycles or bicycles converted to run off steam powered, external combustion engines.

In 1789, the first US-based patent for a steam-powered automobile was filed by Oliver Evans, an engineer and businessman of the day (Evans also made the first amphibious vehicle, high-pressure steam engines, and the first automated industrial processing, too).

Whoever built the very first one, by the late 1700s steam-powered modes of transportation existed and that was that.

Fun Fact: Some of the first automobiles were wind-powered.

Centrifugal flyball governorSteam-powered automobiles came before steam-powered trains, not the other way around. Which makes sense, since a small scale version would have been easier to research and develop than their brutish locomotive cousins.

The term ‘balls out’ came into being due to steam power, too. In later model engines, balls were placed at the ends of a centrifugal governor which would control the speed on a steam engine. When the balls were in, little power was being utilized, however, when max power was being utilized, the centrifugal governor would be fully extended, or “Balls Out”. “Full-Steam Ahead” was also coined during the era of steam power, obviously.

A steam engine works by heating up a large reservoir of water, called a Boiler, until it starts making steam. This steam is routed through pipes to push a piston that moves the driveshaft and wheels, propelling the vehicle in the desired direction. Steam is released at the piston’s lowest point, allowing momentum to drive the piston rearward without resistance.

Steam was so popular a mode of transportation, that it fueled the automotive and locomotive transportation boom from the late 1700s to around 1930 when the technology waned due to the popularity of other fuels.


Racing for Innovation

The race for innovation isn’t just an idea in the automotive industry, it’s a way of life. Technological advances in racing still trickle down to normal street cars, today, and so it was with the burgeoning automotive industry.

In 1875, the State of Wisconsin offered a $10,000 (more than $250,000 today, accounting for inflation) for someone to create a viable alternative to horses or other animals. This something would have to be able to average 5 miles per hour over the course of a 200-mile route.

Boom. The first city to city road race was born. Winding its way from Green Bay through Appleton, Oshkosh, Fort Atkinson, and ending (eventually) in Madison.

It took the contestants 33 hours and 27 minutes to complete the 201-mile race, and they averaged a whopping 6 mph.

More than 140 years later and cash prizes are still being awarded for all kinds of vehicular innovation, from the F1 winner’s prizes to the cash prizes for Collegiate Formula, EcoCar, or other research teams. The kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) that many electric cars have to charge batteries and utilize otherwise-wasted energy was created for Formula 1 and trickled down to consumer vehicles., Edison and an electric car, 1913 To Edison and others, electric cars seemed preferable to finicky, smoking gasolene-powered cars. However, refinements to internal-combustion technology brought performance advantages that early battery-powered cars could not match.


Early Electric Vehicles

It seems that around every 100 years, fads come back around, ideas are reborn anew, and the cyclical nature of our society continues.

In 1828, a Hungarian inventor named Ányos Jedlik created an early electric motor and, by 1937, the first electric car was created by Scottish Chemist Robert Davidson using galvanized battery cells. It was seven tons and had two direct drive motors attached to a wooden cylinder on both axles. While it was a beast of a vehicle, it also hauled more than six tons at the rate of four miles per hour for an entire mile and a half! And that was nearly 80 years ago!

Since battery technology wasn’t where it needed to be for the electric cars of history, there were other kinds of electric conduction systems that could be utilized.

Plenty of early automotive inventors tried to utilize electric-powered vehicles on conductive tracks, similar to many rail lines around the world, however, the battery capacity still wasn’t good enough until around the 1900s. The first rechargeable battery was created by French Physicist Gaston Planté, and vastly refined since its inception in 1859.

Electric cars, trams, and even trains expanded in popularity after the creation of rechargeable batteries. France and the United Kingdom adopted widespread support for electric cars and electric trains became popular in oxygen-deficient coal mines where combustion engines of any kind would be problematic.

However, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that driving Americans started looking into electric vehicles and, by that time, there was another big boy on the block.


Daimler Motor-Quadricycle


Internal Combustion as an Alternative Engine Solution

Steam may have been a quick and easy way to propel an object, but it’s extremely inefficient. The ignition source for the boiler wastes heat (and therefore energy) because it’s not close to the heat’s target, it loses energy through dissipation, and a host of other issues. And if you ran out of water, you were stranded. Creeks and paddles and all.

Some ideas, though, aren’t cyclical, some ideas stand the test of time. The same piece of technology that currently powers an estimated 1.2 billion cars (according to Navigant Research in 2014) was developed alongside many of the other technologies we’ve already covered.

The earliest evidence for an internal combustion engine dates back to between 200 and 300 AD, however, the modern iteration thereof wasn’t developed until the mid-1800s. First, there was the first engine carburetor in 1826, then the first water-jacketed cylinder in 1836, and the first in-cylinder compression in 1838, among other important inventions. The patent of the first 4-cylinder, internal combustion engine was issued sometime between 1853 and 1857 while the first gas-burning, internal combustion engine, the predecessor to most common-day engines, came in 1860.

And, nearly immediately, gearheads couldn’t help but tinkering with it. In 1885, German engineer Gottlieb Daimler patented the supercharger.  Diesel engines were developed, with the first patent for a compression ignition engine being awarded to Rudolf Diesel in 1893. The boxer engine was created by Karl Benz in 1896, followed closely by the rotary engine in 1898 by Fay Oliver Farwell. When Wilhelm Maybach designed an engine for Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, he required the engine be named “Daimler-Mercedes” after his daughter.

You may be noticing a correlation between commonly used automotive nomenclature and some of the inventors above, and that’s because these men were so important to the industry that their names and legacies have been immortalized.

As inventors were shaping the nomenclature of our automotive industry, needs were an equally dictating force.

1903 Ford A pic2In 1896, Henry Ford built a Quadricycle powered by a 4-horsepower engine. In 1903, he created the Ford Motor Company and by the time the first Model A (pictured right) sold, he was nearly out of money. Need was so great for the Ford Model A that, two months later, he’d already started turning a profit.

Demand for a mode of transportation that didn’t need to stop for rest, didn’t need to a boiler refill, didn’t need a charge of batteries, and which could haul many people was instantaneous. Between 1908 and 1927, the Ford Motor Company sold 15 million Model Ts at a time when there were only around 18,000 miles of paved road anywhere in the US.

More automobile manufacturers started anew with internal combustion engines and, after the upcoming world wars, the automotive industry was shuffled and mixed up even more.

Since then, billions of internal combustion cars have been produced. In 2014, there were 1.4 billion cars actively on the road, not including the probably billions that have been recycled, trashed, or abandoned. More than 60 million vehicles are produced a year.

Of course, that’s a different story, as we’ve come a long way already. The history of cars may have started full steam in the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s to early 1900s that the car industry as we know it really started taking shape.


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Thanks for joining us for this first part of a special series on the history of the vehicles we all enjoy today! To test drive one of our more than 30 associated-manufacturer vehicles, call or drop by your local AutoNation retailer, today!

Join us next time for the second installment of History of Cars focusing on the evolution of the vehicle design up to World War I.

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