Discovering the fascinating history of the automobile

From the first prototype in the 18th century to the all-electric, the history of the automobile has many surprises in store.

The invention of the wheel? The first traces found by archaeologists date back to the 4th millennium BC. The first prototype car? Six thousand years later, around 1771… At that time, these vehicles were designed to move heavy loads. It was only in 1801 that the first transportation vehicle was born, before it became the main mode of transportation. As for the mode of propulsion, everything will be examined: steam engine at the beginning, electric from 1852 (which) was followed a few years later by the internal combustion engine. The mass production of the Ford T, from 1908, would introduce a thermal engine that would be important for decades. It had to wait until the 1990s for manufacturers to regain interest in alternative engines. In particular the hybrid and the electric… Climate change is obligatory.

1769: the “Cugnot truck”

Considered the first true prototype of a motorized vehicle in history, Cugnot’s load carrier was intended to move artillery pieces. This machine was designed in 1769 by French military engineer Nicolas Cugnot. It had a single driving wheel powered by two pistons that transmitted energy supplied by a steam boiler. It was the first engine to propel a car.

The “Cugnot truck”. © Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot / Museum of Arts and Crafts / Wikimedia Commons

1834: the first electric car

In early 1834, the electric motor appeared. But it wasn’t until the 1850s and the invention of the rechargeable lead-acid battery, which went on sale in 1852, that an engine allowed a car to run. The lack of fuel was obligatory, the electric car reappeared during the Occupation with manufacturers such as Breguet with the Faure, or Peugeot and its VLV (Light city car).

1885: the Benz Patent-Motorwagen Nummer 1, the first automobile in history

Benz Patent-Motorwagen Nummer 1, built by Carl Benz in 1885, is considered the first car in history with an internal combustion engine. A particularity? It has only three wheels. Benz & Cie will become Mercedes-Benz.

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen Number 1. © Wikimedia Commons

1908: the first factory car

The first Ford T was produced at the Ford plant in Detroit on September 27, 1908. A symbol of the low-cost car as well as the power of the internal combustion engine, it ushered the automobile into the era of mass production. It also marked the end of electricity.

1908 advertisement for the Ford Model T. © Wikimedia Commons

At the dawn of the 1920s, the American manufacturer took over mass production. The United States entered the Roaring Twenties (the roaring years) marked by technical and scientific innovations and productivity gains following the advent of Taylorism, a reorganization of manufacturing processes. Industrialist Henry Ford was at the forefront of this second industrial revolution. Thanks to assembly lines, its factories produce more cars than all other manufacturers combined. It only took ninety-three minutes to assemble the Ford T chassis! In May 1927, the model was produced in 15 million copies. Following this, cars continued to evolve in the direction of greater comfort: car radio and power steering in 1932, air conditioning in 1939, cruise control in 1945, reversing camera in 1956… Finally a full engine our car has electronics.

1913: 4-valve power

In 1913, the Indianapolis Grand Prix in the United States inaugurated a new era in motor racing. Frenchman Jules Goux won the prize in a Peugeot. Its secret: a four-valve engine. If this change made the peak of speed races, it would not form the series until the 1990s.

Dedication of the four-valve engine at the 1913 Indianapolis Grand Prix. © HUM IMAGES/ALAMY/HEMIS.FR

1926: the legendary Route 66

It was the first paved transcontinental highway in the United States. Running east to west, Route 66 connects Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California. The project was started at the end of 1926 and its construction was not completed until 1937. Until then the roads were either dirt or asphalt which, for reasons of grip, greatly increased travel times. .


1934: the legendary traction

Both a Gestapo car and an icon of the Resistance, it has entered our collective memory. The Citroën traction was also the preferred vehicle of gangsters because of its road characteristics, unique for its time. With front axle drive wheels, it provided better road holding than most other contemporary cars.

Citroën Traction. © pxhere

1938 and 1948: Willys MB, the first 4 x 4

Convinced that, sooner or later, the country would enter World War II, the American government decided to finance a light reconnaissance vehicle, ideal for its army. The Jeep Willys, a four-wheel drive off-roader, left the factories in 1941. This type of transmission was a precursor to today’s military and civilian models.

Jeep Willys. © Spurzem/Wikimedia Commons

1941: the Beetle, das car!

More than a car, it’s a legend! From 1972, the Beetle became the best-selling car and exceeded the record set by the Ford T. Its designer was the Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche who, at the request of Adolf Hitler, conceived the Volkswagen (“car of people”) ). Capable of accommodating a family of four, sensible, fast, and cheap, it represents a propaganda weapon that should subdue the power of the National Socialist regime. The first Beetle landed in 1939. After the war, the British, attracted by this funny car, relaunched production. The Beetle, as the Anglo-Saxons called it, became the darling of Europeans and Americans. It would be the first foreign car to win in the United States.

Choupette, the star of the Walt Disney Pictures films. © Jakob Montrasio / Wikimedia Commons

1955: 403, the first French diesel

The Peugeot 403 was presented on April 20, 1955 at the Palais de Chaillot. Four years later, the manufacturer sold the Diesel version, the first in France. In total, 1.2 million copies of the 403 would be made, the last in 1966.

The Peugeot 403. ©Pixabay

1996: Toyota released the first hybrid

The Japanese manufacturer launched the Toyota Prius I in 1996, the first mass-produced hybrid car. Its slogan: “Just in time for the 21st century”. It will only be sold in Japan. Two years later, the Honda Insight followed, this time exported to the United States. It is especially in the 2010s with ecological awareness that the hybrid car will establish its position. By 2021, European sales of these vehicles will match those of diesel engines.

The Toyota Prius I XW11 (2000-2003). © Julien Florent / Wikimedia Commons

1997: electric, the new oil

General Motors’ EV1 was the first mass-produced electric car. The two-seater coupé, which was only available for rental, was put on the market in 1997. Despite its success, the program was deemed unprofitable and abandoned in 2001. Most of the 1,117 cars produced were destroyed. In 2008, Nissan and Tesla will launch their 100% electric models. By 2022, the market will represent 22% of global car sales.

The General Motors EV1. © RightBrainPhotography (Rick Rowen) / Wikimedia Commons

2003: the hydrogen bet

Two manufacturers start the hydrogen race and show their prototypes: Mazda, with the RX-8 Hydrogen RE (2003) and BMW, with the Hydrogen 7 (2006). It will be necessary to wait until 2018 to see the first mass-produced sedan hit the market: the Toyota Mirai. Since then, the market has taken off: in 2021, 15,000 hydrogen cars have been sold worldwide, compared to 8,000 last year.

Mazda’s RX-8 Hydrogen RE. © Wikimedia Commons

2014: robots for manufacturing

The automotive industry is the main user of industrial robots. In 2014, manufacturers bought nearly 100,000 new machines, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). Nearly 1.5 million robots are now in use in factories worldwide and another 1.3 million units are expected to enter service in the next two years.

2022: brakes on thermals

Hard times for our old car and its piston engines. Fossil fuels are dead. Today, driving in the city is subject to increasingly strict constraints with the formation of ZFEs (Low Emission Zones), which prohibit the circulation of the oldest and most polluting models. In 2022, the European Parliament recorded the planned death of thermal and hybrid engines. From 2035, only sales of 100% electric or hydrogen engines will be allowed in Europe. Vintage lovers can go to the second-hand market or resale platforms.

There is

The National Automobile Museum in Mulhouse. On the occasion of the museum’s 40th anniversary, the “Mechanical Iconics” exhibition presents for the first time vehicles and objects from the museum’s reserves. Nearly 450 emblematic models from major manufacturers that revolutionized the automotive industry. Until November 06, 2022.

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