Most experts agree that the first company to produce a car (according to the modern understanding of a ‘company’ and a ‘car’) is Mercedes Benz. Karl Benz, the founder, developed the first prototype in 1885 (the Benz patent motorwagen) and had the patent for his design registered in 1886 .
However, at the time, Karl Benz hadn’t named the company, but since he was the first person to register the patent, the award for the first car manufacturing company went to him.
It was later, in 1901, that Mercedes-Benz formally came into existence as a registered car manufacturer and became one of the best-recognized car brands.
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The First Gasoline-Powered Vehicle
The motor car Karl Benz built in 1885 was quite different from modern cars, but it had the same DNA that we see in gas-powered vehicles today with internal combustion engines.
It was a three-wheeled vehicle with two wheels in the back and one in the front. It had a 954cc, single-cylinder, four-stroke internal combustion engine that produced 0.75HP (0.55Kw) .
The engine was mounted horizontally in the rear, and in the front, there was space for two people to sit.
In July 1886, Benz made headlines in newspapers when he drove his vehicle for the first time on public roads.
For the next seven years, he improved on the design of the first motor car he had patented and continued to develop better versions of the three-wheeled vehicle. However, the production of this vehicle was very limited.
In 1893, he launched the Victoria, which was the first four-wheeled vehicle, and it came with some major improvements in performance, power, comfort, and handling. The Victoria was also produced in greater numbers and was available in several different body sizes. It featured a 1745cc engine with an output of 3HP (2.2Kw).
The first mass-produced vehicle by Mercedes came a year later (1894) in the form of the Benz Velo. Approximately 1,200 units of the Benz Velo were made.
It was designed to be a durable and inexpensive vehicle that could be used by the masses. The Velo had a big impact on the car industry as it was the first mass-produced car in Europe.
The First Steam-Powered Road Vehicles
Vehicles did exist prior to the invention of the combustion engine and the internal combustion car. Nearly all of them were powered by steam engines.
In fact, steam engines were quite popular and were used to power everything from trains to large carriages (similar to modern vans and buses) and even military vehicles.
The earliest steam-powered car was finished in 1769 by French inventor Nicolas Cugnot . It also had three wheels, but the mechanics and the size were very different from what Karl Benz made. It was for commercial and military use.
This vehicle was designed to carry large and heavy loads like cannons and other military equipment. Like a modern pick-up truck, the driver and passenger seats were in the front and close to the steam engine, and the rear of the vehicle was long and open so equipment could be loaded onto it.
The steam engine was not very efficient, even by 18th-century standards. On a full tank of water and fully loaded with wood, the vehicle could only move at a pace of 1-2 MPH for 15 minutes until it had to be refueled.
It had to be brought to a complete standstill to reload the water and wood.
Moreover, it was also extremely unstable, and in 1771 Cugnot drove the vehicle into a stone wall while testing it. Many count this incident as the first recorded automobile accident.
The First Electric Vehicle
Robert Anderson from Scotland is considered the first to have developed a vehicle driven by an electric drivetrain. He invented the first electric carriage somewhere between 1832-1839.
The challenge he faced was the battery pack that powered the vehicle. Rechargeable batteries had not yet been invented, and it wasn’t feasible to power a vehicle with single-use batteries. However, the engineering was right; it just needed a rechargeable battery pack.
Later on, Robert Davidson, also from Scotland, developed a bigger and more powerful version in 1837. The vehicle he made could move at a speed of 4 MPH for 1.5 miles while towing 6 tons .
That was incredible, but the challenge was the batteries. The cost of replacing them every few miles was too high for this to be a feasible project for commercial use. However, it was a great sight and an incredible piece of engineering.
The first real breakthrough for electric vehicles came in 1894 when Pedro Salom and Henry G. Morris developed the Electrobat. In 1896 they improved their design with 1.1Kw motors and batteries, enough to power it for 25 miles at a speed of 20MPH.
The fact that the batteries were rechargeable made these vehicles a lot more practical and economical. Even in the early days, people appreciated the torque electric cars could produce without rechargeable batteries. They were used as racing cars and often outdid gasoline-powered competition.
The First Mass-Produced Vehicle
Even though cars were being produced as early as the mid-19th century, they weren’t common on roads, and only a handful of people ever got to use them.
Henry Ford wanted automobiles to be something the average person could afford, and the only way to do that was to make them cheaper. He needed to produce in such large quantities that the average cost per unit was low enough for people to afford.
This is why and how he developed the Model T, which was the first mass-produced, gasoline-powered vehicle between 1908 and 1927 . It’s safe to say that the Model T didn’t have the most advanced or powerful machinery, but it certainly made cars a lot more common and gave the broader population a chance to enjoy the luxury experience of an automobile.
The Model T wasn’t the first automobile, but it was the first production car and was quite a success. Today, Ford is a well-known car brand all over the world.
Cars have gone through several evolutions and changes to be the reliable, safe, and practical machines they are today. There have been multiple vehicles in the past which have been the first in their category, the first of their kind, or the first to be practical for use.
The work to invent better, more efficient, and more powerful vehicles is still ongoing. With electric cars becoming more affordable and more convenient, we are likely to see a rise in electric vehicles in the future.