Several Italians recorded designs for wind driven vehicles. The first was Guido da Vigevano in 1335. Vaturio designed a similar vehicle which was also never built. Later Leonardo da Vinci designed a clockwork driven tricycle with tiller steering and a differential mechanism between the rear wheels.
Steam-powered self propelled vehicles were devised in the late 17th century. A Flemish priest, Ferdinand Verbiest, presented in 1678 a small steam car. The car was made for the Chinese emperor. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot successfully demonstrated such a vehicle on a real scale as early as 1769. Cugnot’s invention initially saw little application in his native France, and the center of innovation passed to Great Britain, where Richard Trevithick was running a steam-carriage in 1801.
Such vehicles were in vogue for a time, and over the next decades such innovations as hand brakes, multi-speed transmissions, and improved speed and steering were developed. Some were commercially successful in providing mass transit, until a backlash against these large speedy vehicles resulted in passing a law, the Locomotive Act, in 1865 that self-propelled vehicles on public roads in the United Kingdom must be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn.
The first vehicle to move under its own power for which there is a record was designed by Nicholas Joseph Cugnot and constructed by M. Brezin in 1769. A replica of this vehicle is on display at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, in Paris. The Smithsonian Museum in Washington D. C. also has a large scale model.
A second unit was built in 1770 which weighed 8000 pounds and had a top speed on 2 miles per hour and on the cobble stone streets of Paris this was probably as fast as anyone wanted to go it.
The early steam powered vehicles were so heavy that they were only practical on a perfectly flat surface as strong as iron. A road thus made out of iron rails became the norm for the next hundred and twenty five years. The vehicles got bigger and heavier and more powerful and as such they were eventually capable of pulling a train of many cars filled with freight and passengers.
Many attempts were being made in England by the 1830’s to develop a practical vehicle that didn’t need rails. A series of accidents and propaganda from the established railroads caused a flurry of restrictive legislation to be passed and the development of the automobile bypassed England. Several commercial vehicles were built but they were more like trains without tracks.
The development of the internal combustion engine had to wait until a fuel was available to combust internally. Gunpowder was tried but didn’t work out. Gunpowder carburetors are still hard to find.
Steam cars had been built in America since before the Civil War but the early one were like miniature locomotives. In 1871, Dr. J. W. Carhart, professor of physics at Wisconsin State University, and the J. I. Case Company built a working steam car. That was enough to encourage the State of Wisconsin to offer a $10,000 prize to the winner of a 200 mile race in 1878.
The 200 mile race had seven entries, of which two showed up for the race. One car was sponsored by the city of Green Bay and the other by the city of Oshkosh. The Green Bay car was the fastest but broke down and the Oshkosh car finished with an average speed of 6 mph. From this time until the end of the century, nearly every community in America had a mad scientist working on a steam car. Many old news papers told stories about the trials and failures of these would be inventors.
After developing a successful gas-powered two-stroke piston engine in 1873, Karl Benz focused on developing a motorized vehicle. His Patent Motorwagen (or Motor Car), introduced in 1886, is widely regarded as the first purpose-built automobile, that is a vehicle designed from the ground up to be motorized. Benz unveiled it officially on July 3, 1886 on the Ringstrase in Mannheim, Germany. The vehicle was patented with German patent number 37435, which Benz applied for on January 29, 1886.
Henry Ford had an engine running by 1893 but it was 1896 before he built his first car. By the end of the year Ford had sold his first car, which he called a Quadracycle, for $200 and used the money to build another one. With the financial backing of the Mayor of Detroit, William C. Maybury and other wealthy Detroiters, Ford formed the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899. A few prototypes were built but no production cars were ever made by this company. It was dissolved in January 1901. Ford would not offer a car for sale until 1903.
Ford Quadracycle (1896)
The first closed circuit automobile race held at Narragansett Park, Rhode Island, in September 1896. All four cars to the left are Duryeas, on the right is a Morris & Salom Electrobat. Thirteen Duryeas of the same design were produced in 1896, making it the first production car.