The first self-propelled, motorized road vehicle was introduced in 1769. It took two years for that steam-powered invention to become involved in the first motor vehicle accident, when the driver (and inventor) Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, a French engineer, crashed into a wall.
More inventors tried their hands at creating steam-powered road vehicles. Attempts at engineering literal horseless carriages in England resulted in the beginning of the British rail system in the 1830s. However, steam power lacked the spark to push automobiles into the public sphere.
Meanwhile, attempts at creating internal combustion engines (ICE), whether steam powered, coal powered or even hydrogen powered, were causing interested ripples. Eventually gasoline became the fuel of choice. Nikolaus August Otto perfected an efficient ICE in 1876: the four-stroke engine, which transformed the world. Cars were now possible (not to mention planes, motorcycles and powerboats).
Success of the Benz Velo
After many attempted, it was Karl Benz who built what would arguably be the first automobile in the modern sense, in 1885.
Benz’s wife, Bertha, and their two sons took her husband’s auto without permission on the first long-distance car ride, demonstrating the practicality of this invention in 1888. Within a short period of time, Benz became the leading car manufacturer of its time. From there, it was trial and error in attempting to build a useful, marketable automobile.
This led to the world’s first production car, the Benz Velo, in 1894. It was a durable, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive compact car. But the automobile was still out of reach to the mass market.
The Introduction of the Model T and Rise of General Motors
Cue Henry Ford. Ford decided to make the most basic possible car that was so inexpensive that everyone could buy one. He labored for 12 years to develop his perfect model, which was the Model T.
The Model T was introduced in 1908 and cost $850. The first mass-produced car, the Model T also became the first car to roll off the assembly line, introduced by Ford in 1913. The line was eventually, at its peak, turning out 2 million cars a year.
Not all cars were so inexpensive however, and in 1916, the Great American Pastime of taking loans to buy cars began.
Before Ford reluctantly retired the “tin lizzie,” more than 15 million of them clogged the roads of the United States. Forty percent of all cars sold in the US were Model Ts. But Ford didn’t change the design at all, and when rival companies began rolling out new models every year—largely cosmetic in design—the idea of getting new and upgrading every year took hold. We were now driven, literally, to keep up with the Joneses to satisfy our need for innovation and novelty.
This realization was had by Alfred Sloan, president of General Motors in the 1920s. As more people had more money, they bought more cars. If there was a new edition every year, more people would want to buy more cars every year, even if they didn’t need to.
This market change saw the decline of Ford’s empire and the rise of GM as America’s largest car manufacturer. The Great Depression and World War II saw this need ebb for a time as practical concerns took hold. But after the war, after so many years of patching cars together out of necessity, people wanted bright, shiny new cars.
New and Improved Vehicles Through the Decades
Of course, through the decades it wasn’t always the style that changed. Quite a bit of substance went into the car as well, creating a technological race that shows no sign of abating. Infrastructure for this new vehicle also had to be created out of the rural landscape. Ribbons of asphalt, inspired by the mania for driving everywhere and not getting stuck, tied this nation together as never before, all because of the car.
The first gas pump was set up in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1885. The car heater was invented in 1890, curiously when most cars were not at all enclosed, which would only really happen in the 1920s. The steering wheel was first used on cars in 1900. Drum brakes were introduced in 1902 by Louis Renault. The electric starter started replacing the crankshaft beginning in 1911. And a steel body started replacing wood in 1914.
Air conditioning cooled things off beginning in 1939, the same year turn signals blinked on. From 1958, three-point seatbelts could be found in cars, though the lap belt goes back to at least the days of the Model T. The airbag came along in 1973.
The Drive for Innovation
Vehicles continue to be works in progress, as our reliance on these mechanical marvels has only increased, as we spend more and more of our time in one, and as accidents continue to occur every year. Inside and out, vehicles change, improve and move, literally and figuratively, into the future.
Learn more about the most popular tech features for driver safety or a brief history of tirescience.