The First Automobile

The following is the first draft version of The First Automobile. Figures and photos are yet to be selected. Your help in supplying figures and photos for the final version will be welcomed.



The three essentials requirements for the invention of the self-propelled carriage were: 1) a carriage that could be steered and stopped by the driver, 2) a small, powerful engine to convert heat to useful mechanical force, and 3) a practical combination of these two machines. Although “inventors” had dreamed of and sketched self-propelled carriages since antiquity, it was the invention of the small internal combustion engine with a rotating crankshaft that first made the dream practical—but internal combustion always had two worthy competitors–steam and electric power.

In American history books, the most frequently noted “inventor of the automobile” is George P. Selden, a clever patent attorney, who in 1879 initiated application for a patent for a self- propelled vehicles power by a gasoline engine. His patent did not require the actual construction of the vehicle. When Henry Ford began producing cars in 1903, he refused to pay for a license as required by the holders of the Selden patent. Ford’s long but successful court battle against the Selden patent holders gave rise to the still popular (and equally preposterous) myth that Ford, not Selden, invented the automobile. It should be noted that Ford saw no need to correct this misconception.

Elwood Haynes claimed the lesser title of inventor of “the first American automobile.” Ford had built his first horseless carriage in 1896, whereas Haynes built a horseless carriage in 1894. In truth both American inventors got their ideas from Europe. Carriages powered by internal combustion engines were first seen on German roads as early as 1886 and by 1894 well-designed horseless carriages had been in series production in France for three years.

Over the last century, hundreds of authors have offered scholarly inquiries into the origins of the automobile. In the first chapter of James E. Homans’s 1911 edition of Self-propelled Vehicles, his history of the automobile begins with a description of two very early steam- powered vehicles, the 1769 Cugnot military tractor and the 1802 Trevithick road-going wagon. In his 1961 edition of The Kings of the Road, Ken Purdy intentionally skipped steamers and started his history of the automobile with the first wagon to be powered by an internal combustion engine—the 1862 Lenoir. Today, most automotive historians acknowledge Carl Benz’s 1886 Patent Motorwagen as the first practical horseless carriage. The Patent Motorwagen was the first of a series of gasoline-powered, three-wheeled buggies produced and offered for sale by Carl Benz. The Benz had all the features of the class of vehicles that came to be called “automobiles”—except for one. The Benz Motorwagen was a tricycle. Three-wheelers would always be considered to be something less than true automobiles. They remained in limbo, halfway between automobile and motorcycle.

Can we reasonable determine who built the first self-propelled carriage? Does it really matter who was first? Of course historians care, but the public had a more personal concern, “who built the first production model automobile—cars available to the public?” The financiers, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and engineers who first brought the automobile to market also deserve credit for building the first production model automobile. So let’s rephrase the question. “What was the first production model automobile?”

If automobile is defined as a four-wheel carriage propelled by an internal combustion engine, then the first “automobile” to go into series production was the Type 3 Peugeot. Louis Rigoulot, chief engineer at Peugeot’s bicycle works, deserves the credit for designing “the first automobile.” Production began on the Type 3s in the summer of 1891 and by the end of year five had been produced. That same year Panhard et Levassor, Peugeot’s engine supplier, also began producing automobiles. It would be two more years before Benz began producing its four-wheel Viktoria.

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