From 9km/h to over 400km/h in 139 years, take a walk through the history of the automobile industry.
We drive them every day without thinking twice, but it’s about the evolutionary steps in technology that have made them what they are today. The ‘automobile’ dates its humble beginnings back to a toy, built for a Chinese Emperor in the 17th century – now being the high-powered, luxury beasts that roam our roads and highways today.
Though it wasn’t an ‘automobile’ as such. Ferdinand Verbiest’s steam-powered vehicle is arguably the genesis of what we know as the ‘motor vehicle’ today. A member of the Jesuit mission in China, Verbiest was building a toy for the Chinese Emperor in 1672. It was, of course, too small to carry a driver but it created an innovation in transportation.
Almost two centuries later, in 1815, Josef Bozek, a professor of Prague Polythenic, built an oil-fired steam car – possibly the world’s first automobile. 50 years after this invention, Canadian jeweller, Henry Seth Taylor, began working on a project, which he dubbed as his “steam buggy”. The basis of the vehicle was a high-wheeled carriage with a two-cylinder steam engine, mounted on the floor and supported by bracing. He would later demonstrate his buggy at the Stanstead Fair in Stanstead, Quebec in 1867 and again in 1868.
However, what many credit as the first ever ‘real’ automobile was a self-propelled steam road vehicle produced by France-native, Amédée Bollée, in 1873. It was capable of transporting groups of passengers. On 8 May 1879, American, George B. Selden, filed for a patent. Karl Benz – co-founder of Mercedes-Benz – filed a German patent in 1886 and would later go on to produce the world’s first production car.
1871 was the first time that a carriage-sized automobile was made suitable for use on the then ‘wagon-only roads’, in the US. The vehicle was a steam-powered invention created by Minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Dr J.W. Carhart. Dr Carhart’s native Wisconsin, offered a $10 000 reward to anyone who could produce a suitable and practical substitute for horses and other animals. The vehicle would have to average more than 8km/h, over a 320km course. The offer spawned the first city-to-city automobile race. Seven vehicles registered to compete, although only two completed the race. A vehicle from Oshkosh completed the race in 33 hours and 27 minutes, clocking in an average speed of 9km/h.
While steam-powered vehicles continued development throughout the 20th-century, the advent of petrol engines, in the late 19th-century, saw a drop in the production of steam-powered vehicles.
In 1888, Karl Benz produced the first production of automobiles in Germany, with the same happening in France by Emile Roger, under license by Benz. Many other vehicles went into production, including tricycles by Rudolf Egg, Edward Butler, and Léon Bollée. In the 1897 Paris-Tourville, Bollée enabled his driver, Jamin, to average 45km/h using his self-designed 650 cc engine. By 1900, the mass production of automobiles had begun throughout France and the US.
For Central Europe, the first of what we know today as ‘the motor car’, was produced by a Czech company, Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau (later renamed ‘Tatra’), and launched in 1897. The vehicle became popularly renowned as ‘the Präsident automobile’.
The first company dedicated solely to producing motor cars was Panhard et Levassor in France. It also introduced the world’s first ever four-cylinder engine. French car company Peugeot was founded two years after Panhard in 1891.
The first US automobile manufacturing company, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, was founded in 1893, by brothers Charles and Frank Duryea. It was to be Ransom E. Olds and his Olds Motor Vehicle Company – later renamed ‘Oldsmobile’ – however, dominated automobile production of the American era, starting his production line in 1902. The world’s second mass-produced automobile, the Rambler, was developed by the Thomas B. Jeffery Company. In the company’s first year, 1 500 vehicles were sold, representing a sixth of all the existing motor cars in the country at the time. A year later, Cadillac was formed by the Henry Ford Company. Winton and Ford also came into existence; all three going on to mass produce thousands of vehicles.
In 1894, the fastest production car on the road was the Benz Velo, by Karl Benz, with a top speed of 19km/h. Credited as the world’s first production car, 1 200 were produced. The fastest production car of the 20th-century is the McLaren F1 – clocking in at a top speed of 386km/h. It still holds the title of the world’s fastest naturally aspirated production car. By 2010, the world’s fastest production car was the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport with a Guinness World Record top speed of 431km/h.
It is incredible to see how automobile developers have advanced the production of motor vehicles, from the humble 9km/h top speed of the Oshkosh steam-powered automobile to the Bugatti Veyron’s skyrocketing 431km/h. Who knows what they will achieve next.

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