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Who invented the first car and when was it made?

Henry Ford generally gets the credit for the first assembly line and the production of cars en masse, with the Model T, in 1908.

Who invented the first car? The commonly accepted answer is Karl Benz, of Germany, and it is one that people who work at the company that grew from his name, Mercedes-Benz, never tire of telling you. 

Standing in the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, however, it is both a moment of awe and underwhelming surprise to see the world’s first car in the see-through flesh. Truly, the term used at the time, “horseless carriage” seems more apt, yet it is Benz’s vehicle, patented in 1886, that gets the credit for being the first car ever made, even though other road vehicles preceded his work by many years.

Why is this the case, and does Benz deserve the credit he gets for building the world’s oldest car? 


Pouring fuel on the fire of the first-car controversy

It could be argued, of course, that an absurdly talented genius, known to his friends as Leo, beat Benz to designing the first automobile by several hundred years. 

Among the many incredible inventions of the great Leonardo da Vinci was a design for the world’s first self-propelled vehicle (no horses required).

His ingenious contraption, drawn by his hand in 1495, was spring driven and needed to be wound up before setting off, but it was highly complex and, as it turns out, completely feasible.

In 2004, a team from The Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence used da Vinci’s detailed plans to build a full-scale model, and sure enough, “Leonardo’s Automobile” actually did work.

Even more incredibly, the ancient design features the world’s first steering column, and a rack and pinion gear system, the basis of the way we still steer our vehicles today.

To be fair, though, Leonardo probably never got as far as building his idea for a prototype - it actually would have been nearly impossible with the tools available to him at the time - or riding around town on it. He even forgot to include seats. 

And, when it comes to the most common modern automobiles we know of today, his automobile was missing something vital that Benz’s could boast; the first internal-combustion engine, and thus the first petrol car.

It is the use of that fuel, and that engine design, that eventually won out in the race to make the world’s first horseless carriages, and why the German gets the credit, despite the fact that a Frenchman called Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built the first, self-propelled road vehicle, which was basically a tractor with three wheels for use by the military, back in 1769. Yes, it could only do about 4km/h and it wasn’t really a car, but the main reason he’s missed out on household-name status is that his contraption ran on steam, making it more of a land-going train.

Mind you, the Automobile Club de France does still credit Cugnot as the creator of the first car ever. Tres French.

Similarly, Robert Anderson misses out on claiming to have made the first car in the world, because his self propelled car, built in Scotland in the 1830s, was an “electric carriage”, not one with an internal-combustion engine.

Of course, it’s important to note that Karl Benz wasn’t the first person to come up with the engine, either. As early as 1680, a Dutch physicist called Christian Huygens came up with the idea for an internal-combustion engine, and it’s probably a good thing he never actually built it, because his plan was to power it with gunpowder.

And even Karl Benz had help, from a another fellow with a name familiar to fans of Mercedes-Benz (or Daimler Benz as it has otherwise been known), Gottlieb Daimler, who, in 1885, designed the world’s first modern engine, with a single, vertical cylinder and petrol injected through a carburettor. He even attached it to a car, of sorts, called the Reitwagen (“riding carriage”). His engine was very similar to the single-cylinder, two-stroke gasoline engine that would drive the vehicle patented by Karl Benz the next year.

Benz, a mechanical engineer, takes the lion’s share of the credit for building the world’s first automobile, powered by an ICE, largely because he was first one to file a patent for such a thing, which he received on January 29, 1886. 

To give old Karl his due, he did also patent his own spark plugs, gear system, throttle design and a radiator.

While the original Benz Patent Motorwagen was a three-wheeled conveyance that looked exactly like a horse buggy of the time, with the horse replaced by a single front wheel (and two truly whopping, yet spindly wheels at the back), Benz soon improved on the design to create a proper, four-wheeled car by 1891. 

By the turn of the century, the company he founded - Benz & Cie - was the largest car manufacturer in the world.


Where to from there? 

When was the first car invented is a question as much up for debate as it is definition. Certainly, Gottlieb Daimler has his claims to the title, as he came up with not only that first basic engine, but then a much-refined version, in 1889, featuring a V-shaped, four-stroke, two-cylinder engine, which is far closer to the designs still used today than the single-cylinder unit on the Benz Patent Motorwagen.

In 1927, Daimler and Benz merged to create the Daimler Group, which would one day be Mercedes-Benz.

Credit must also go to the French, with Panhard and Levassor in 1889 and then Peugeot in 1891 becoming the world’s first proper car manufacturers, meaning they didn’t just muck around building prototypes, they were actually building whole motor vehicles and selling them. 

The Germans soon caught up and overtook them, sure, but still, it’s a pretty credible claim that you rarely hear Peugeot banging on about.

The first mass produced car, in the modern sense, was the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile, built in Detroit by Ransome Eli Olds, who came up with the concept of the car assembly line, and kicked off the Motor City.

It is the far more famous Henry Ford who generally gets the credit for the first assembly line and the production of cars en masse, with his famous Model T, in 1908. 

What he did create was a much improved and bigger version of the assembly line, based on conveyor belts, which much reduced both production costs, and build times, for motor vehicles, soon making Ford the biggest car manufacturer in the world.

By 1917, a staggering 15 million Model Ts had been built, and our modern infatuation with the motor vehicle was well and truly under way.

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