Overland transport is as old as history itself. First using beasts of burden, then following the invention of the wheel by means of wagons, mainly for transporting goods but also for passengers. The luxury version of the chariot was the coach. This was gradually improved with the passing years, first with suspension systems and later with the addition of brakes.
The discovery of steam power early in the 17th century led to the invention of various machines, including ventilation pumps that were used in certain English mines. Numerous inventors sought to apply steam power to locomotion.
The earliest we know of was Père Verbiest, a Belgian Jesuit missionary in China at the end of the 17th century. He built a reduced- scale model of a chariot that was steam powered. This greatly amused the Emperor but the project went no further. It was not until the end of the 18th century that a full-sized steam powered utility vehicle emerged, Cugnot’s dray, made in France by an officer from Lorraine. The French revolution interrupted these experiments and it was in England that steam powered vehicles next appeared, where they were used with some success in the hands of driver-mechanics for a number of years.
Unfortunately, high maintenance costs and accidents combined to bring a halt to further experiments. Simultaneously the railways came into use and here steam proved to be more efficient than for road vehicles. Steam continued to attract various inventors during the 19th century but few achieved practical results. Another source of energy that was the subject of various experiments during the 19th century was coal gas, and the Belgian Etienne Lenoir built a stationary engine in Paris shortly before 1860 using this fuel. Lenoir’s engines enjoyed some success in competition with small stationary steam engines. Then Lenoir set about adapting one of his gas engines to a road vehicle. As he was unable to attach his vehicle to a fixed gas supply, he replaced coal gas by paraffin gas. Several tests were made in 1862-63 but the inventor was not satisfied and gave up the idea. Lenoir did however succeed in building the very first petrol driven vehicle.
Numerous other inventors experimented with this type of vehicle, including Marcus, Delamarre Deboutteville, Frederic de la Hault, without any of them reaching commercial production. The first petrol driven car to be sold to the public was that of Karl Benz : it had a low-revving stationary engine set in a tricycle chassis, and the vehicle was both homogeneous and viable. The year was 1886 and the Benz was the first motorcar ever marketed. At the same time another German, Gottlieb Daimler, assisted by Willhelm Maybach, were developing another type of petrol engine entirely different from the heavy and slow stationary engines of the day.
Their goal was a high-revving, lightweight engine that could be used in all sorts of machines. Strangely enough this type of engine was first put to use not in Germany but in France, where Panhard- Levassor built them under licence from Daimler. Peugeot also bought these engines from Panhard and fitted them in the first rear-engined Peugeots.
Soon afterwards Emile Levassor installed a Panhard Daimler engine in the first Panhard- Levassor motorcar, which was to presage the layout of cars for generations to come: a front engine with a gearbox behind it driving the rear wheels (in those days by chains). To Daimler
therefore goes the credit for the modern engine and to Levassor for the vehicle’s layout which would be followed by all cars in future years.
Three types of car - petrol, steam and electric - now began to be offered to the public in competition with one another.
France led the way in this nascent industry with Panhard, Peugeot, De Dion Bouton. Germany was slower to begin in spite of its technical lead, for the country was more divided and there were fewer roads, while England was handicapped by restrictive legislation such as the law stating that every motor-powered vehicle had to be preceded by a man on foot carrying a red flag - hardly conducive to rapid industrial expansion. In the United States too the motor industry had a slow start due to lack of roads and also to the Selden patent.
This was the name of a swindler who claimed to have invented the motorcar and by means of various legal manoeuvres succeeded in claiming a royalty on every car built or imported.