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.
The first event in which the public saw cars competing on the road is considered to be the Paris-Rouen motor race of 1894. The French motor industry led the way both in terms of quality and commercial success and would continue to do so until the outbreak of war in 1914, producing a very diverse assortment of cars ranging from luxury models though medium-sized cars, experimental low-priced cars (in contemporary terms at least) and cyclecars. The French motor industry was dynamic, quite strong in export sales, and won most of the races. Panhard, Peugeot, Renault, De Dion Bouton, Delaunay- Belleville,Delahaye and Lorraine-Dietrich are amongst the best known names of the day.
Germany saw the construction of a number of high-quality cars as well as mid-range cars, but far fewer than in France. But Germany was France’s main rival in motor sport, with such makes as Benz, Mercedes, Opel and Adler, all of which were steadily developed over the years. The British industry was slow to start, producing some interesting cars such as Lanchester, Daimler and the famous Rolls Royce (“the best car in the world”) as well as popular cars. However a great many cars built abroad were imported into the country. Italy before 1914 was a poor country, little developed. The motorcar was for the privileged few.
This did not stop a high-quality motor industry from starting up, whose products frequently put the accent on performance in a mountainous country where road holding and adequate power are useful attributes.
Exports were helped too by numerous victories in international competition. Fiat quickly became the principal brand, followed by Lancia. Though a small country, Belgium was active in motorcar production and noted for high quality, technical excellence and competitive prices. Three quarters of all Belgian cars were exported. Makes such as Minerva, FN, Métallurgique and Pipe were universally known. Practically every country in Europe endeavoured to produce motorcars. Austria-Hungary was noted for its remarkable technical excellence, the Netherlands for its Spijker, while Switzerland and Spain also produced various interesting vehicles.
As we have noted, the United States made a slow start, but its industry soon made up for lost time and rapidly achieved world dominance, at least in terms of quantity. It was there that mass production was born, the pioneer of the assembly line being Henry Ford with his famous Model T.
The revolutionary production methods he introduced resulted in a spectacular reduction in the price of American cars : and a lower price invariably results in increased sales. The United States built huge numbers of popular cars but also large numbers of mid-range cars such as Dodge as well as a number of superb prestige makes such as Packard and Cadillac. The Belle Epoque also saw the transition from horse-drawn to motorised goods vehicles, lorries and buses, to the relief no doubt of the horses.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 there were scarcely any lorries or cars for military use. Troops and material were transported by train over long distances and field movements still depended on the horse. On the battlefield artillery was hauled by horses, if not by dogs! The first mass use of motorcars occurred soon after the declaration of war.
The Governor of Paris, General Gallieni, requisitioned Paris taxis, mainly Renaults, in order to transport reinforcements to the front. The motorcar thus played its part in the Marne victory which saved Paris. Trench warfare ensued and lorries began to be used to relieve the troops at the front.
One example of this is the famous ‘voie sacrée’ with its solid line of Berliet, Latil, Renault and Peugeot lorries carrying the troops to the battle of Verdun. Motorisation was further increased with the arrival of the American troops early in 1918 : here was an army that was almost completely motorised. Troops and material were carried by lorries, liaison was assured by light cars as well as numerous motorcycles, while headquarters made use of luxury cars. The motorcar also entered the field of battle itself.
A number of armoured cars were used throughout the war for reconnaissance missions and during the later stages armoured tanks were tried in an effort to put an end to the trench warfare that had been dragging on for years.
There were British tanks and above all the famous Renault light tanks which played an important role in the offensive that brought victory to the Allies in the late autumn of 1918.
Throughout Europe numerous men came to grips with the motor car while in uniform during the war. Once demobilised, they formed an important potential market. Although motorcar production recommenced in 1919 it was slowed by the surplus American stocks, particularly of lorries, for the US Army in Europe did not repatriate its vehicles but sold them on the spot. The small numbers of European cars to reach the market in 1919 were essentially similar to those of 1914. But the American influence was not slow to make itself
felt. For during the war it had become clear to the engineers and manufacturers in Europe that the contemporary American designs were lighter, simpler and made in far greater quantities than their own products. Makes such as Renault, Peugeot, Opel, Morris, Austin and above all Citroen soon launched high-volume small and medium sized cars onto the market which were simpler and more economical than their predecessors.
Cyclecars too made a reappearance. Conceived before 1914, these were extremely lightweight vehicles often using motorcycle engines and transmissions. They benefited from low road tax (capacity under 1100cc and weight below 350kg). They performed well due to their light weight, but the combination of poor road surfaces and the price of used real cars soon put them out of business. Certain cyclecars grew and developed into attractive small sportscars, notably Amilcar and Salmson.
After the armistice a new class of car buyers came into being : war profiteers and the newly rich. The latter (as well as a few with old money) wanted cars to reflect their status.
Various splendid and extremely expensive chassis made their appearance : Hispano-Suiza, Delage and Voisin, Farman, Isotta-Fraschini, Rolls Royce and Daimler, Exelsior and Minerva vied with one another in the marketplace, while Bugatti, Mercedes, Bentley and Alfa Romeo competed for the honours on the racetrack as well as providing well-heeled and speed-hungry young men with the means to fulfil their dreams. Early in the 1920s in the USA General Motors launched a new mass-produced Chevrolet to rival the current Ford, and other makes too tried to compete with these two giants.
These cars were not complicated and offered less speed and comfort, but they were reliable and inexpensive. The appearance of a new make, Chrysler, in 1924 heralded a marked improvement in design and performance in the mid- range of American cars. They offered a high-performance six- cylinder engine and hydraulic brakes, good performance and a competitive price.
From then on, popular American cars filled out and six or even eight cylinders became the norm by the end of the decade. Whilst the major part of the US output was aimed at the mass market, certain truly remarkable luxury cars should not be overlooked, such as Lincoln, Packard, Cadillac and Pierce- Arrow. These had imposing eight-cylinder engines, and even twelve or sixteen cylinders by the early 1930s.
1930 marked the beginning of a terrible worldwide economic crisis. Numerous low-volume makes simply disappeared. The production line inaugurated by Ford was now in general use by the major manufacturers,the variety of models on offer was greatly reduced and series remained in production for longer so as to keep prices down. Only specialist makes of luxury and sports cars could continue to build cars ‘by hand’ with a degree of finish that mass-produced cars could not match.
The thirties saw much technical innovation : designs that were previously only found in low-volume cars due to their cost now cameto be incorporated into quite mundane popular models. Independent front suspension and front-wheel drive, for example. The all-steel body also became a commonplace feature.
In the United States threemajor groups formed : Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, in addition to a dozen independent firms. In France the event of the decade was the launching of the Citroen ‘7’, the famous Traction Avant, the first of a long line that would fascinate the public with its low build, front-wheel drive, and unitary all-steel construction resulting in road- holding abilities unequalledin its class. It rapidly became the favourite get-away car for gangsters. For its part Peugeot was a pioneer of independent front suspension from 1931 in its popular 201 model.
Peugeot also took an interest in aerodynamics with its 402 which appeared in 1935. Renault’s designs kept to the well-trodden path, and the company was France’s biggest motor manufacturer. France still had several manufacturers of prestigious and sporting cars which excelled both in concours d’élégance and sporting events, such as Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza, Delage, Delahaye, and Talbot, while in Great Britain numerous makes supplied all sorts of cars, small, medium, luxury and sporting in character. Technically they were rarely up to-the-minute but their detail finish was usually above average. Famous luxury and sporting names were Rolls-Royce, Daimler, Bentley, Lagonda, and Aston Martin.
The German economy was at a very low ebb in the 1920s. Galloping inflation, political instability and massive unemployment were hardly conducive to a blossoming motor industry. The output of Opel, Mercedes and Benz (which had merged in 1926) and others was mediocre compared with the major players in France and England.
Germany nevertheless produced some notable technical innovations: the supercharged Mercedes, the Maybach with semi-automatic gearbox, numerous models with independent suspension (both front and rear), the successful application of the two-stroke engine and front- wheel drive in the DKW, and front-wheel drive in the Adler. Everything changed when Hitler came to power.
Unemployment fell, industry was revitalised, and a sensible taxation system favoured the motorcar. Government grants enabled Mercedes and Auto Union to set up racing teams that soon became invincible, the motor industry developed exponentially and exports were at a record level. Every type of car was being produced, whether the popular DKW and Opel, the mid-range Adler and Wanderer or the luxurious Horch and Mercedes - not to mention numerous goods vehicles in which the Diesel engine would soon find its niche. The last creation of the Third Reich was Dr Porsche’s Volkswagen, destined for the whole German people for whom a vast network of motorways was under construction. But the war prevented the Volkswagen from fulfilling its original purpose before 1940 and it was not until after the war that this ingenious small car became famous.
It was Fiat in Italy that dominated every aspect of locomotion. The 500cc Topolino (little mouse) in 1936 enabled countless impecunious Italians to take to the road. But Italy was the country par excellence of fast sporting cars such as Lancia and Alfa Romeo, competing alongside Maserati in races and rallies.
War became almost totally mechanised. While part of logistics still used the railways, truck traffic became increasingly important.
Light four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicles were introduced, with the American Jeep Willy’s and the German Volkswagen Kübelwagen as their finest examples. In the occupied countries, fuel was scarce and there was a search for alternative fuels.
Gas-powered vehicles were already in use from the thirties, while the first small electric cars like the Peugeot VLV appeared on the market in 1941.
In 1945, Europe was largely devastated. Pre-war models were being produced at a slow rate. Engineers developed new cars, which were more focused on fuel-efficiency.
Micro-cars made their appearance. American manufacturers built cars with large engine capacity, which were unsuitable for European requirements in the early ‘50s. They had European subsidiaries like Opel and Vauxhall, where cars for European roads were built.
During the ‘50s, mass production began of popular cars like the Fiat 600, Morris Minor, Renault Dauphine and the ever-popular Volkswagen Beetle. The countries of Eastern Europe, which had original and high quality production before the war came under the Communist regime.
Czechoslovakia continued production of Skodas and Tatras, and East Germany specialised in cars with two-stroke engines, while the Russian car industry started making the Moskvich.
The reconstruction after World War II was complete. In the swinging ‘60s, prosperity grew, but young people were increasingly restless, resulting in a lot of protest campaigns.
Technology was making huge advances, while in the car industry, a wave of consolidation occurred. Large groups took over smaller makes.
They increasingly built world cars, the same models with a different badge. Large-scale production of many models, which became affordable, resulted in ordinary households being about to buy a car.
Japan became mobile, and Japanese brands started to conquer American and European markets. The car triumphed, but some worrying side-effects began to become apparent. Traffic congestion, more and more parking problems in cities and the start of air pollution. After the first oil crisis in 1973, mentalities changed fundamentally
Emission standards were imposed and low fuel consumption became the most important selling argument. Safety too was a key concern. The first airbags were introduced and the crash-test was further developed. In 1980, the ear of the modern car began, characterised by more standardisation, platforms, front-wheel and four-wheel drive and fuel injection.
Transverse engines were gaining in popularity, while CAD (Computer Aided Design) radically changed the shape of cars. In 1986 came another pivotal moment in the history of the car.