The history of the car is, as it turns out, not very straightforward. While most automotive historians are generally in agreement over what the first car actually was, the answer can get a little muddled if you start expanding your definition of what a car actually is.
In this article, we'll be taking a look at the history of the automobile and talking about everything that could potentially be described as the first car ever made.
Origins of the Modern Car
If your definition of a car is limited to something that could only really be considered a car by modern standards, then the answer to the question of "what is the first car?" is going to be a pretty easy one. It's generally accepted that the Benz Patent Motorwagen, designed by Karl Benz, was the first car ever made that actually fits the definition of a modern car.
Granted, the Motorwagen was extremely different from basically every other car you're probably familiar with. In terms of its appearance, the Motorwagen resembled some kind of weird three-wheeled carriage more than it did a car. It also used a tiller instead of a wheel for steering, and it used a chain drive like a bicycle.
However, the main thing that makes the Motorwagen the first modern car is the fact that it was the first vehicle to be powered by an internal combustion engine. The internal combustion engine had existed before that point, but no one had ever attempted to create a vehicle powered by one before.
Only about 25 Motorwagens were ever made between 1886 and 1893, and the design was updated throughout the years, so while the Motorwagen was definitely the first car, it was always more of a series of prototypes than an actual production car.
Of course, electric cars are becoming more and more commonplace as well these days, and those certainly meet the definition of a modern car.
What's kind of funny is that electric cars were actually invented before the first internal combustion cars were; the first example of what could be considered an electric car was invented in the 1830s (historians aren't sure what year exactly) by Robert Anderson, a Scottish inventor.
His attempt at an electric car was pretty crude; it was essentially just an electric motor attached to a modified carriage, and the batteries it used for power weren't even rechargeable. However, it did move successfully under its own power, and no doubt inspired other inventors to attempt similar projects.
Who Came Up With the Idea of the Car?
Obviously, the modern car as we more or less know it was invented by Karl Benz, but the concept of a vehicle that could move under its own power existed way before the first Motorwagen was built. If you want to go back to the first documented idea for a vehicle that could move under its own power, you've got to go back pretty far indeed.
Specifically, you've got to go back to around the year 1478, to the time of Leonardo da Vinci. In that year, da Vinci drafted a design for a vehicle that could move under its own power through the use of wound-up springs, a lot like one of those toy cars you pull back and then let go.
Granted, da Vinci's vehicle wasn't actually intended for anyone to ride on it; it was intended as more of a novelty, basically something that could drive around on its own for a short distance and impress a crowd.
As it happens, though, da Vinci never even ended up building this vehicle; it's possible he just didn't have the resources to build it, or perhaps he thought it was too dangerous to actually build an example of one. However, in 2004, engineers from the Institute and Museum of the History of Science attempted to build a vehicle based on da Vinci's design to see if it would have worked.
After crafting a 1/3 scale replica of da Vinci's design, the engineers found out that yes indeed, his design worked. While da Vinci's design never left the drawing board, it proved that even back then, people were thinking about how to make something go under its own power.
Pre-Motorwagen Powered Vehicles
While the Motorwagen is considered to be the first internal combustion-powered car, it certainly wasn't the first powered land vehicle to ever exist. The first electric cars had been invented shortly before the Motorwagen existed, but even before then, there was another kind of vehicle that had gained considerable popularity; the steam vehicle.
Steam vehicles were in commercial production by the 1850s, but the first steam vehicles had come well before that. The very first steam vehicle invented was built in 1769 by French engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, and it was more of an early tractor than an actual car.
Specifically, Cugnot invented his steam-powered tractor to haul large artillery pieces around the battlefield. Cugnot's tractor had a tricycle design, with the single wheel at the front performing both the driving and the steering. The tractor could travel at a top speed of just over 2 mph and could run for about 15 minutes before needing to regenerate more steam power.
Frankly, most historians don't consider the first steam vehicles to be true cars, because many of them were extremely bulky and oversized as well as being complicated and time-consuming to start up. Most of these early steam vehicles were only used for commercial applications.
Steam technology did eventually get advanced enough to the point where it was feasible to put a steam engine in a production car; one of the most advanced steam cars ever made, the Doble Model E, first built in 1922, was able to be started up and driven off in less than 40 seconds.
However, the electric starter had been developed for internal combustion engines just a few years before, which removed the need for crank starters and made starting an internal combustion car a lot less of a hassle. As gasoline cars became more affordable and convenient to use, steam engines quickly fell by the wayside,
First Production Cars
So, we've seen that cars as we know them have existed since the Benz Motorwagen. However, the Motorwagen wouldn't be called a "production" car as such, as a production car is defined as a car that is mass-produced with all models being built identically.
Since only 25 Motorwagens were built, and with later Motorwagens receiving updates that made them distinct from the previous ones, the Motorwagens were more like prototypes, as we've mentioned. However, as it turns out, the first true production car was also made by Karl Benz.
This car, called the Benz Velo (also referred to as the Velocipede), was first built in 1894 as the successor to the Motorwagen. Mechanically and in terms of its appearance, the Velo was pretty similar to the Motorwagen; the biggest changes made were more powerful engines and the addition of a second wheel up front for a total of four wheels.
The Velo was in production from 1894 to 1902, during which time about 1,200 were made. While these are pretty small numbers compared to today's production cars, this was still the most cars of the same model that had been produced up to that point.
Other Firsts for Cars
Let's check out some of the other cars throughout history that have been the first to achieve certain milestones.
First Affordable Car
Of course, while the Velo was the first production car, it wasn't the first car to make driving accessible to the masses. Even though the Velo was being mass-produced, it wasn't exactly cheap to buy; the most luxurious version of the Velo cost 3,000 German marks by 1901, which is over $50,000 USD today.
Essentially, in the early years of the automobile, there was no real "car of the people". Pretty much all of the cars made up until that point were expensive luxury items that only the world's elite could afford. However, this changed in 1908 with the introduction of the Ford Model T.
The Ford Model T was perhaps the most important car of the modern age, as it's generally considered the car responsible for bringing affordable transportation to the masses. A large reason why the Model T was able to be sold so cheaply was the fact that it was one of the first cars made on an assembly line, which helped keep costs down.
So how cheap was the Model T? Even for its time, the Model T was considered to be a real bargain. In 1908, the price of a new Model T was $825 (around $24,000 USD today) but as Ford refined the manufacturing process, they were able to lower the price of the Model T to $260 ($4,200 USD today).
The factory that built most of the Model Ts in America was also the first workplace to offer a minimum wage, and one of the first workplaces to establish the 8-hour workday as the norm. These practices are often considered to be what really helped establish the American middle class.
First Car to Have Airbags
These days, pretty much every new car sold everywhere is required to have airbags, as they've been proven to reduce the risk of serious injury or death in the event of a car crash. Some modern cars have as many as 10 airbags located in various places, but only a few decades ago, there was a time when most cars didn't have a single one.
Even when airbags first started appearing in cars, they only appeared as options and not as standard equipment. The first car to come with airbags was the 1973 Chevrolet Impala, and even then the airbags were only available in the fleet version of the car that was sold to the government.
The following year, airbags appeared as options in several other General Motors vehicles, including various Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile models. However, by 1977, airbags were no longer available as a feature; General Motors cited lack of consumer interest as the reason why airbags were discontinued.
It wasn't until 10 years later that airbags began appearing as standard features in cars, with the Porsche 944 Turbo being the first car to offer driver and passenger airbags as standard equipment.
First Turbocharged Car
The idea of turbocharging has existed for pretty much the entire lifespan of the car itself. Originally, turbochargers were developed for airplane engines as a means of maintaining high performance when the engine was operating at a great height. Eventually, however, engineers realized turbocharging could be used to make cars faster also.
It was quite a while before a turbocharger was used in a car for the first time. The first car to come with a turbocharger was the 1962 Oldsmobile Cutlass Jetfire, which had a single-turbo 3.5-liter V8 that made about 215 horsepower.
Another one of the first turbocharged cars was the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder, which was also released in 1962 just a few months after the Jetfire. The Monza, on the other hand, had a turbocharged rear-mounted 2.4-liter flat-6 that made 150 horsepower.
Unfortunately, these early turbocharged cars failed to catch on at the time; they weren't particularly reliable, and manufacturers were still a long way away from figuring out the solution to the turbo lag problem. It wasn't until the late 1980s when turbocharged cars started to gain any kind of popularity.
First Car to Have a Navigation System
Notice we say "navigation system" and not "GPS' here. The first navigation system to appear in a car wasn't a GPS as such, as it didn't use satellites to determine where the position of the car was.
Instead, this system (called the Electro Gyrocator) used a helium gyroscope to determine whether the car was moving and what direction it was moving in. The Gyrocator featured a display that contained numerous transparent maps, and it would scroll these maps past a screen to indicate movement.
The Electro Gyrocator was developed by Honda, and appeared as an option in the Honda Accord and Honda Vigor in 1981. However, the cost of the Gyrocator at the time was over $2,700 USD, which was about a quarter of the cost of the cars it came in. Unsurprisingly, the Gyrocator wasn't all that successful.
The first car to come with an actual satellite-based GPS system, on the other hand, was the Toyota Soarer in 1986.