Many people credit either Gottlieb Daimler or Karl Benz with inventing the automobile as both developed successful and practical vehicles powered by gasoline that resembled and worked like cars driven today. Although they ushered in the modern age of automobiles, it’s incorrect to say either actually invented them. The first self-powered road vehicles ran via steam engines. Frenchman Nicolas Joseph Cugnot built a fardier à vapeur, or steam dray, in 1769 that is recognized by British Royal Automobile Club and the Automobile Club de France as being the first automobile.
The Late 1800’s – Steam, Combustion and Battery
By the late 1800s, electric, steam and combustion engines had been attempted in vehicles. At first the electric car, invented by Robert Anderson in Scotland, was the most popular, but batteries were neither large or powerful enough to allow vehicles to go very far or fast. Only with the invention of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine by Karl Benz in 1885 did the modern age of automobiles begin. Benz’ three-wheeled vehicle has a four-cycle engine and a chassis that formed a single unit.
At virtually the same time, Gottlieb Daimler also developed a four-wheeled vehicle with a 1.5 hp, two-cylinder gasoline engine known as the Cannstatt-Daimler. Sporting a four-speed transmission, the vehicle traveled at 10 mph. Gasoline-powered automobiles remained primarily a curiosity for the remainder of the century, with only a handful manufactured in Europe and the United States.
First Successful Gas-Powered Car
Charles Edgar Duryea and his brother Frank produced the first successful gasoline-powered car in the United States in 1893 featuring a 4 hp, two-speed transmission motor. The Duryea brothers also established the first American car manufacturing company, called the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, in Springfield, MA, in 1895.
The 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile, by Ransom E. Olds, was the first automobile to be produced in quantity in the United States, of which 425 were sold that year. That number increased to 5,000 in 1904. From 1904 to 1908, 241 automobile manufacturing firms began business in the United States, including the Ford Motor Company, organized in June 1903.
Henry Ford, who built his first gasoline-powered car in 1896, instituted mass production and the use of the modern industrial assembly line. Ford produced 1,700 cars during its first full year of business and released the benchmark Model T in 1908, making automobiles accessible for the average person. By 1927, over 18 million had rolled off the assembly line.