BA for the history of the motor car


In the beginning

The success of the motor car could eventually be its downfall, for today in the region of five hundred million cars crowd the world’s roads and make it increasingly more difficult to move from place to place.

In the beginning there was Nicholas Cugnot (1725-1804) experimenting in 1769 with a steam driven vehicle. Cugnot’s vehicle, travelling at walking pace, was used for towing cannon as well as carrying four people and from there we have seen a slow progression to what we have today. The speed of evolution was controlled by the pace at which technology progressed. Even today we do not appear to have what we should, partly due to technology not being there, but mostly due to the manufacturers not taking the lead prompted by their experimental cars.

Cars have not moved far along their line of evolution, for in the beginning an engine was mounted on a horseless carriage, hence the original name. One would have expected the evolution to have taken the car into new concepts, but no radical thought has been allowed to develop into new areas, partly because of the financial aspects that govern the running of a car production company, but mostly because radical thinking has been stifled.

So where have we come from and where might we be heading?

After his earlier experiments Cugnot developed the Steam powered “Fardier” of 1770, which consisted of a basic wooden chassis on which was mounted the boiler at the front, a seat behind with a brake pedal and a steering tiller, but with no protection from the weather. Then came the Bordino Steam carriage in 1854. The Bordino consisted of a Landau carriage body mounted on a chassis to which four wooden wheels were attached. At the back, the boiler provided the steam to drive the twin cylinder steam engine mounted below the carriage, providing the power to the rear wheels. Today a chauffeur is the driver of the car, but his original function was to sit on a seat at the back to act as stoker of the boiler. Then a driver sat in front of the carriage and steered the vehicle by means of a tiller whilst also controlling the brake lever.

It was not until the Belgian born Frenchman Jean-Joseph Etienne Lenoir (1822-1900) patented the internal combustion engine in 1860 that a practical power unit was available for road vehicles. This engine ran on town coal gas which was ignited inside a tube called a cylinder by a spark from a Ruhmkorff induction coil. To try the engine Lenoir mounted it on an old cart, attached wheels to the cart then drove it down a dirt track in a wood. The gas was not compressed as with later engines, but drawn into the cylinder by the piston and ignited half way through the stroke, thereby supplying the impulsion to finish the stroke. A crank returned the piston to its starting position and expelled the burnt gas. Thus we have a two stroke engine. It was not long before a firm called Gautier was making the engine in various sizes at a factory.

The next initiative was provided by the German engineer Nikolaus-August Otto (1832-1891) who patented a four-stroke engine, on which today’s car engines are based. This patent was subsequently proved to be invalid because a Frenchman Alphonse Beau de Rochas had patented a four stroke engine some years before. The Four Stroke engine was so called because it had four movements, one to suck a mixture of air and gas into the cylinder, one to push the piston back up to compress the mixture, one to ignite the mixture and push the piston down and one to push the piston back up to force the burnt gases out of the cylinder through a valve. Otto ran a business making engines with his partner, a lawyer called Eugen Langen (1833-1895), but their interest was making stationary engines at their factory at Deutz in Germany. However, the dynamic technical director at the time was a time-served Swabian apprentice gunsmith called Gottlieb Daimler (1834-1900) who midway through the 1870's became interested in replacing the coal gas with petrol as the fuel. This interest provoked his employers to banish him to their factory in St. Petersburg in Russia and instigated Daimler’s resignation in 1882, taking with him the chief draughtsman Wilhelm Maybach (1846-1929).

The two friends set up a factory in Cannstatt and made small stationary engines that operated at higher speeds of about 700 rpm. It was this higher speed that enabled Daimler to patent a high speed, petrol-fuelled, four stroke engine in 1885 which he installed in a crude wooden bicycle frame, and so invented the motorbike. Daimler was interested in the wider use of the engine and produced them for boats, tramcars and airships. However, in 1886 came a four wheel vehicle, that was in fact a four seat, horse-drawn carriage from a Cannstatt coachbuilder, with a steering column and a larger engine mounted below the back seat and projecting through the floor. The engine had a four speed gearbox that turned the back wheels by means of a belt-driven mechanism. Daimler also developed a more efficient carburettor that mixed the air and petrol vapour to be ignited in the cylinder. Concentrating on stationary engines Daimler did not made another motor car until 1889.

At the same time other people were working on vehicles, one being Karl Benz (1844-1929) an engineer born in Mühlberg, in Germany and the son of a locomotive driver. Benz was forced to make two stroke engines for well over ten years because it was thought that Otto and Langen held the four stroke patent. As soon as Benz was allowed to make four stroke engines he set up a new company with two friends, Max Rose and Friedrich Esslinger called Rheinische Gasmotorenfabrik Benz and Co., and turned his attention away from stationary engines to produce a small engine to power a motor car.

Now the car began to develop, with Benz producing a lightweight, purpose built, U shaped steel frame on which the body and the new wire spoked wheels were mounted The first car was made in 1885 and had three wheels, with one at the front with which to steer. When it was first ran is unknown, but its engine was not as advanced as that of Daimler. On the 29th of January, 1886 Benz took out a series of patents to cover the development of his car and started to publicise it; press reports started to appear in 1886 with one about the car on the 4th of June and another about a ride in the car on the 3rd of July, 1886. Meanwhile, his partners were losing patience with his experiments with a self propelled vehicle that was not producing any income to the company. Undaunted Benz exhibited his car at the Paris Exposition of 1887 and promptly sold a licence to assemble the car in France to Emile Roger, a cycle maker.
Daimler’s car.

Daimler’s car

Daimler had also sold the French manufacturing rights to his engine to a Belgian lawyer called Edourd Sarazin. Sarazin did not have a factory so the engine was made in France by his friend Emile Levassor, who had an engineering firm called Panhard et Levassor. Levassor subsequently married Sarazin’s wife after the death of her husband. The first car was made in 1890 by Panhard et Levassor and altered several times during the year until, in 1891, it emerged as a totally different design which gave the pattern of things to come. The engine was mounted at the front and protected from the weather by a box, which the French called “un capot”, the English a “bonnet” and the Americans a “hood”. The crankshaft was mounted in line with the chassis frame which then necessitated a 90 degree bevel gear wheel to power the back axle, thus allowing the number of cylinders to be increased. A hand and foot brake were now in place and connected to a clutch for instant disconnection of the engine, later to have its own pedal. Wilhelm Maybach introduced an atomising spray type carburettor in 1894, five years after Edward Butler had introduced it in England, and the “gearbox” came into being in 1895 when the grease covered gears were covered by a box.

The first car was sold in 1891 for 3,500 francs. In 1890 Armand Peugeot (1849-1915), a cycle manufacturer, became interested in producing cars and after a meeting in 1890 Daimler and Levassor decided to use Panhard built engines to a Daimler pattern. Daimler set up the Daimler Motor Company in 1890 which he then merged with the Benz Company in 1926 to form Mercedes-Benz; Mercedes being the name of the daughter of one of Daimler’s backers. It can be said that the sale, by Daimler and Benz, of rights to manufacture in France gave birth to the French motor car industry and the development of the motor car.

Benz introduced a four wheeler in 1892 which he called the “Viktoria” which sold well, but it was with the introduction of the cheaper and lighter two seat “Velo” in 1894 that the success came and sales increased.

In Britain progress was restricted by the law that forbade vehicles to exceed four miles per hour in the country and two miles per hour in the towns. The only Englishman to make a car was Edward Butler who took out a patent “for the mechanical propulsion of cycles” in 1884 and then had made a direct drive, two cylinder petrol engined, three wheeled vehicle at the Merryweather Fire Engine works in Greenwich in 1888. The car had a lot of firsts for a petrol driven car, for it had Ackerman steering with a fixed front axle and sub axles that steered the wheels, a spray carburettor and mechanically operated inlet valves. Next came a car made in Walthamstow, London by an ingenious young engineer Frederick William Bremer which was begun in 1892 and completed from limited resources in 1894. At about the same time a brilliant engineer in Birmingham called Frederick Lanchester was working from first principles, copying nothing. The result was a smoother running engine. Gone was the vibration due to the two crank shafts rotating in opposite directions, each with its own connecting rod and flywheel, one flywheel being fitted with vanes that blew air over the cylinder which had a mechanically operated inlet valve. Transmission was by the revolutionary epicylic gears. The varnished walnut body was mounted on a tubular frame suspended on long C-springs at the rear and a single transverse cantilever spring at the front and there was full width space for three in the rear seat. The perfectionist Lanchester did not offer the car to the public until 1890 when he was completely satisfied with it. Another innovation that happened was the introduction of a car with an electronic self starter by Arnold of Paddock Wood in Kent, but very little else was emerging.

Meanwhile experiments with the motor car were going on throughout the world, with many of the industrialised countries starting car production, but mostly following the designs of the successful machines and therefore not initiating many new features. The exceptions were in Sweden where Gustaf Erikson (1857-1922) built an engine that ran on paraffin in 1897, and in Norway, where Paul Henningsen Irgens (1843-1923) designed what was probably the first taxi. He never built it, but he did build a steam bus in 1899. Italy’s input was from Enrico Bernardi (1841-1919), a Professor of Hydraulic and Agricultural Machinery at the University of Padua, who built a car in 1884 that has laid claim to being the first car in the world. Bernardi ’s engine was first used in 1882 to power a sewing machine and two years later to power his son ’s tricycle to make it a self propelled vehicle. Another pioneer was Michele Lanza (168-1947) who made a wagonette in 1895, but it was typical of that period. F.I.A.T gave Italy its real standing when they established a factory in 1899. Other countries such as Czechoslovakia, Russia and Australia were also all experimenting with the motor car.

In America during the 1890s a number of people were building petrol engined cars and in 1896 the Duryea brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts sold the first car. The poor roads and lack of originality slowed progress until John William Lambert of Ohio City, Ohio produced a three wheeler and Henry Nadig of Allentown, Pennsylvania produced a four wheeler in 1891. Meanwhile in Kokoo, Indiana, Elwood Haynes and the Apperson Brothers had built a car which first ran on the 4th of July, 1894. Hayes was a publicist and got into many disputes, mostly with Durea.

Thus at the beginning of the 20th century the car was poised to make an impact. © BA

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