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Freewheeling: The car before the motor car

In our first column on automotive design, Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay trace the earliest inventions, from da Vinci’s designs in 1478 to the Benz Patent-Motorwagen.

by Gautam Sen, Avik ChattopadhyayPublished on : Oct 15, 2020

All these years we have been told that the modern motor car was the work of two Germans, living not too far from each other, but quite unaware of the other’s invention and activities. Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were not only two of several progenitors of the automobile era, but also carried the names that eventually merged to become one of the greatest marques of the automobile age.

Benz, who lived in Mannheim, Germany, established a production facility for gas engines in 1883 named Benz & Cie. Daimler, who lived near Stuttgart, breathed life into the first lightweight, high-speed petrol engine, working together with Wilhelm Maybach.

Daimler first fitted the engine in a two-wheeler for the first public test-ride on November 10, 1885. This was the world’s first-ever motorcycle called the “Reitrad”, or riding car in German, registered with the patent office on August 29, 1885.

But patent no. 37435, granted to Karl Benz on January 10, 1886, for his “Patent-Motorwagen”, is the one that many recognise as the birth certificate of the automobile. The first public outing was on July 03, 1886. Folklore says Karl’s wife Bertha, without his knowledge, drove the third one built, from Mannheim to Pforzheim in August 1988, establishing the reliability and practicality of the automobile. 

The Peugeot Bebe | Freewheeling | Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
The Peugeot Bebe Image: Courtesy of Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay

But was that well-documented journey in August 1988 the very first time someone had travelled a long distance in a self-propelled vehicle?

Not at all. 

Half a century earlier, steam-powered buses were operating on a regular basis between Stratford and London, a distance of over 60 kms. Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, who constructed the first steam bus in 1826, has been regarded as the inventor of the first self-propelled omnibuses. His compatriot Walter Hancock received a patent for a steam-powered road vehicle in 1827. In 1831 he built the “Infant”, a 10-seater and in 1833 put the “Enterprise”, specially designed as an omnibus, into operation. In 1836 alone there were over 700 recorded trips.

A 1828 drawing of Gurney's Steam Bus | Freewheeling | Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
A 1828 drawing of Gurney's Steam Bus Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By the 1840s, steam-driven omnibuses were in regular use in England and France. Large carriages without horses, they ran on coke and offered seats for 8 to 18 passengers, with a part of the vehicle covered. Opposition from the operators of the horse-drawn omnibuses in England brought about the Red Flag Act in 1865, which set a speed limit of three km/h in cities and towns, and six km/h in the countryside. Steam-powered vehicles operating at 15 km/h lost their importance in England.

In 1873, the Frenchman Amédée Bollée built a 40 km/h steam bus called “L'Obéissante”. One of Bollée’s cars, “La Mancelle”, built in 1878, had a front-mounted engine, shaft drive to the differential, chain drive to the rear wheels, steering wheel on a vertical shaft and the driver's seat behind the engine. Now that sounds like a car, right? Perhaps the first automobile to be put in series production, about 50 were made over the next few years. This was eight years before patent no. 37435 on January 10, 1886!

 One of Amedée Bollée's surviving example of La Mancelle, on exhibit at Paris' Retromobile Salon in February 2016 | Freewheeling | Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
One of Amedée Bollée's surviving example of La Mancelle, on exhibit at Paris' Retromobile Salon in February 2016 Image: Courtesy of Serge Cordey

Another French engineer, Edouard Delamare-Debouteville, filed a patent for an automobile on February 12, 1884. As per the drawings submitted, his automobile would have a four-stroke engine, a front bench seat and a rear platform, four wheels, a horizontal twin-cylinder engine initially running on gas, then on petroleum gasoline, a transmission to the rear wheels by chain, a transmission shaft and a differential.

No less noteworthy was the work of another brilliant inventor, the Franco-Belgian Jean-Joseph Étienne Lenoir, who filed for patent number 43,624: “for an engine dilated by the combustion of lighting gas ignited by electricity,” basically a two-stroke internal combustion engine, on January 24, 1860. The patent was "amended" six times, with the last and definitive one filed on September 13, 1867.

The dates on which Lenoir built his automobiles vary from 1860 to 1863. But there is evidence that he built a small car with his engine, around 1860. His automobile was capable of running at just three km/h, and his second three-wheeled carriage, the Hippomobile, which may have been from 1863, was a sort of wagon placed on a tricycle platform, and powered by a 2543cc 1.5bhp engine. This vehicle successfully completed the 11km from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont in a lazy 90 minutes!

Gustave Trouvé’s eclectic cart | Freewheeling | Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
Gustave Trouvé’s eclectic cart Image: Courtesy of Christian Descombes

Interestingly, electric power too was gaining traction. The very first electric vehicle predated the first internal combustion engine vehicle. In 1880, French inventor Gustave Trouvé improved the efficiency of a small electric motor developed by Siemens and using the recently developed rechargeable battery, fitted it to an English James Starley tricycle, so inventing the world’s first electric vehicle. Although this was successfully tested on April 19, 1881, he was unable to patent it!

By 1900, more than a third of automobiles produced then were electric. And the land speed record of 105.88 km/h was set in 1899 by the electric powered “La Jamais contente”, designed and driven by Belgian Camille Jenatzy.

Yet there is no denying that the very FIRST automobile – a vehicle that moved on its own power – was Frenchman, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s steam powered three-wheeled “Fardier à vapeur”, which made its first run in 1769. The following year, Cugnot developed a “passenger” version on which four people could sit and be ferried around at about four km per hour! Yes, yes it was quicker to walk.

Cugnot's original Fardeur a vapeur of 1769 at Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris | Freewheeling | Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
Cugnot's original Fardeur a vapeur of 1769 at Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris Image: Gautam Sen

It took more than a century before Karl Benz came into the picture. And Bertha’s first drive must have been so after thousands had traversed thousands of kilometres in automobiles of various forms and sizes. 

The idea of a self-propelled vehicle had been under consideration for centuries before Cugnot. Many may have dreamt of such a device, but it needed Leonardo da Vinci to conceptualise one around 1478. The redoubtable genius gave expression to that dream in the form of a series of rough sketches in his Codex Atlanticus.

Da Vinci’s three-wheeler was spring driven so it had to be wound-up before it could move. Inspired by the first clocks and the study of perpetual motion, he conceptualised a vehicle, driven by two independent wheels, with a rudimentary differential, and a mechanical gear assembly, rack, gear wheel, and pinion. A third tricycle wheel at the rear acted as a “rudder.” The device had no provision for seats, but it could be steered and, in theory, was able to move on its own power for up to about 40 metres or so.

  • Leonardo da Vinci’s three-wheeler was spring driven | Freewheeling | Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
    Leonardo da Vinci’s three-wheeler was spring driven Image: Courtesy of Christian Descombes
  • Leonardo da Vinci conceptualised his design in around 1478 | Freewheeling | Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
    Leonardo da Vinci conceptualised his design in around 1478 Image: Courtesy of Christian Descombes

It was an artist who dreamt of the very first “vehicle.” Eventually though the very first automobiles were the work of engineers. Not high on design, they looked like carriages minus the horses. Aesthetic considerations being last on their mind, they tried to get their fledgling inventions working properly.

From clocks to carriages, aesthetics, specifically the design of the body and the construction of the interior, gained importance starting the 1920s with coachbuilders bringing their art to shaping and colouring of the exterior and interior. That is another story altogether, another month…  

Note from the authors:
It is indeed a privilege for the two of us to contribute to STIRworld every month on the world of automotive design and all it contains…designers, design schools, trends, technologies and materials. The best way to kick it off is by a peep into the history of the development of the “first” modern motor car. This sets into motion all to follow from our collaborative efforts from Paris and Gurgaon.

Read all the other articles in the Freewheeling series here.

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