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A line of vintage motors

You can’t profess to be an expert on cars unless you have some grasp of their history. So sit down, relax and slip into neutral. Here’s a short timeline of the evolution of the motor car.

1885 – The birth of the petrol-powered automobile

The first really recognisable petrol car was revealed in 1885 by a German engineer called Karl Benz. With his walrus moustache and prominent ears, Benz looked as if he’d stepped from a cartoon in an early issue of Punch magazine. His car was a tricycle with solid tyres, one wheel at the front and a thumping engine under the seat.

It looked like the progeny of a pram and a pony and trap, but without the pony. Benz was one of a number of engineers working on horseless carriages, but his design was the first one that really worked properly.

To prove that there’s never anything new, a Frenchman, Étienne Lenoir, had already made the Hippomobile, a giant, hydrogen gas-powered three-wheeler way back in 1860. It looked a bit like a cattle-feeding trough on wheels but was a very early precursor to the fuel-cell cars that today’s carmakers are spending billions trying to perfect to replace diesel- and petrol-engined vehicles, since the only thing they emit is water vapour. The Hippomobile wasn’t ideal transport for people in a hurry, taking almost three hours to cover eleven miles – although that would be considered a good rate of progress in London today.

Another French inventor, Gustave Trouvé, had come up with a three-wheeled electric tricycle in 1881, having already thought up ideas for telephones, microphones and what was probably the first outboard motor for a boat (most of which, with the possible exception of then outboard, remained unfulfilled).

So why did the world end up with petrol rather than gas or electric cars? Well, the technology developed more quickly for internal combustion power and got progressively better. The infrastructure for fixing and fuelling these cars was established, but, to start with, finding fuel really limited the usability of early cars – though chemists did often sell it, alongside prophylactics and hair cream (‘Going somewhere nice for the weekend, sir?’). In addition, early automobiles didn’t need to carry hefty batteries filled with acid, could be refuelled quickly and didn’t require hours of charging – a problem that true electric cars still have today.

Mind you, both electric and steam cars held the first landspeed world records, with the French Jeantaud electric car achieving an eye-watering 39.24mph in 1898. The following year, the company managed almost 66mph, and in 1902 a steam car called the Gardner-Serpollet ‘Easter Egg’ reached 75mph, which must have been terrifying, although nowhere near as buttock-clenchingly petrifying as the 127.659mph managed by Fred Marriott in the Stanley Rocket steam car on Daytona Beach, USA, in 1906.

Why would any sane person wedge himself into a confined space shared with a furnace and a lot of boiling water, and hurtle down a beach at over 100mph? Fred’s explanation is unrecorded, but he managed to survive another 50 years, dying at the age of 83 in 1956.

Early road cars could only be afforded by the rich and privileged classes. They cost a fortune to buy and maintain, with costly things like solid rubber tyres lasting only a few hundred miles.

1896 – The first speeding ticket

Road cars were legally able to go faster as they no longer needed someone walking in front of them carrying a red flag, and could achieve speeds of 12mph without being caught out by early speed daguerreotype cameras (actually, that last bit’s made up). But the following year, the first headlights appeared along with various types of audible warning, namely, a klaxon or horn. Continental motorists have never looked back.

Despite this, the first speeding ticket was issued to one Walter Arnold for driving at 8mph in a 2mph zone. If that law still stood today, you could get nicked for jogging.

1896 was also the year that cars started killing people. The first victim in Britain was Bridget Driscoll of Croydon, who was mown down in the grounds of Crystal Palace by a demonstration automobile travelling at a reckless 4mph (although a terrified passenger said it could have been as much as 8mph).

1906 – Road traffic law and institutions

By 1906 the AA had arrived in the UK; followed swiftly by car insurance (not mandatory until later), number plates, vehicle registration, driving licences (although still no driving test), road signs, the first Rolls-Royce and, in the USA, the first filling station.

1907 – the launch of the Ford Model T

When Henry Ford launched his Model T, nicknamed ‘Tin Lizzie’, most cars were recognisably car-shaped, with an engine at the front – unless they were Hillman Imps or Volkswagen Beetles, which hadn’t yet been invented.

An important piece of a bluffer’s impress-your-friends Model T-related trivia is that in 1921 it was possibly the first car to be offered with a child seat, even if the ‘seat’ was little more than a bit of sackcloth with a drawstring.

Ford, who later became famous for his mix of philanthropy and ruthlessness (he had a private army to sort out industrial disputes), had a knack for taking engineering ideas and making them work properly, and he came up with moving assembly lines from observing automated meat-packing plants in Chicago. State firmly that this was not only the end of the beginning but also the beginning of the end for car workers in the UK.

Mind you, if anyone tells you that Ford invented the mass-production process with the Model T, you can smugly point to the 1902 Oldsmobile Curved Dash, which looked more like a wheeled musical box than a car but was definitely the first mass-produced automobile.

Ford hugely sped up and brought down the cost of car production. He could make more cars for less money and the Model T, to use that tired old cliché, put America on wheels, with its original price falling from $850 to $260 by the mid-1920s.

Ford was obsessed with the materials his cars were made from and started using vanadium steel, which was strong, light and flexible, and helped make the Model T as tough as old boots. It needed to be, given the extremes of temperature in the USA and the often awful dirt roads with which its high ground clearance coped admirably.

1914 – The First World War

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the industrialised world discovered industrialised warfare – in which motor vehicles played their part. And when that finished four years later, the US car giants were even better at making stuff because they’d had a lot of practice supporting the war effort. Even though they came to it late (as usual).

In Europe, things were tougher. Infrastructure and economies suffered lasting damage but countless entrepreneurs in the UK, France, Italy and Germany nonetheless all had a go at making cheap, affordable vehicles.

1922 – The appearance of the Austin 7

By 1920, it was estimated that there were nearly 9 million cars and trucks in the USA and nearly 100,000 in the UK, some of them with electric rather than kerosene lights – so there was less excuse for running over people in the dark.

Two years later, a Birmingham-based carmaker called Herbert Austin launched his own version of a car for the masses. Called the Austin 7, it cost £165 and was so successful that versions were built in France, and in Germany, where it was called the Dixi and was assembled by a company that would soon be known as BMW.

1927 – The unusual demise of Isadora Duncan

If people weren’t by now aware of the perils associated with the motor car, as well as its undoubted pleasures, the well-documented garrotting of celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan in Nice, France, was a warning to car occupants everywhere not to let their scarves get tangled up in the rear wheels while wearing them, especially when the car is moving at some speed. Her death wasn’t the only vehicle-related tragedy she experienced. Her two children drowned in 1913 when the car they were travelling in plunged over a bridge and into the Seine in Paris, and Duncan herself was seriously injured in car accidents in 1913 and 1924.

1928 – The Morris Minor

Morris Motors Limited successfully launched a rival to the Austin 7, called the Minor, which could be bought brand new for £100. Not to be confused with the later model of the same name designed by Alec Issigonis, 86,318 of them were sold before production finished in the early 1930s.

1930s – The advent of hydraulic brakes and steel panels

By the late 1930s, with the Second World War looming, many cars were now fitted with hydraulic brakes that were marginally more effective than the rods and cables that drivers had been accustomed to relying on. This was the decade when the car really came of age. Roads got better, and the cars more reliable and safe, although they were often cold because heaters were still a luxury.

During the 1930s, traditional coach-working skills were still being used in car production, with wood and canvas still present in many car bodies. But these were gradually giving way to pressed steel panels, thanks to an American engineering genius called Edward Budd, whose foresight made cars lighter, stronger, safer and rounder, allowing car builders to create new automobile designs in the 1930s with a lot of sweeping art deco curves.

In 1934, Budd’s ideas influenced the Citroën Traction Avant, a car famously favoured by Inspector Maigret, which, instead of having its body bolted onto a separate chassis frame like a carriage, had a welded structure that was all one piece (just like most modern cars), so it was lighter, lower, potentially stronger and ultimately cheaper to build.

It also had front-wheel drive – again, like many cars today – getting rid of all the gubbins that connected the engine to the back wheels and freeing up space in the cabin so that there was more room. In addition, being pulled round corners by its front wheels, rather than pushed by the back ones, helped with its roadholding.

For more information on the evolution of the automobile, read the Bluffer’s Guide to Cars®