When was the first automobile built? Daimler and Benz are traditionally credited with building the first cars in 1886, but the French claim it was first built in 1884 by Delamare-Deboutteville. Still others claim it was built in 1860. It all depends on your definition of a car.

Contrary to popular belief, Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. He wasn't even close. What Ford did was perfect the assembly line technique, well after the turn of the century. This allowed him to lower the cost of the automobile drastically, bringing a rich man's plaything within reach of the masses, thereby changing Western society. Reason enough to be famous.

In 1860 a Frenchman, Edouard Delamare-Debouteville, did some experiments and filed some patents for a self-propelled car. In 1884 France built the world's first car. However the first self-propelled automobile existed long before 1884.

Steam-powered stage coaches were in regular service between many towns in Britain from 1820 to 1840. They were built by such men as Goldsworthy Gurney, Walter Hancock, Ogle & Summers, Squire & Macerone, John Scott Russell and others.

Charles Dietz and his sons ran steam-driven road tractors hauling passenger carriages on routes around Paris and Bordeaux prior to 1850. And in America, steam coaches were built in the 1860 to '80 period by Harrison Dyer of Boston, Joseph Dixon of Lynn, Mass., Rufus Porter of Hartford, Conn., and William T. James of New York City.

Amedee Bollee Sr. was the most remarkable of the steam-car pioneers. Heir to a bell foundry at Le Mans, he added mechanical workshops and built a series of advanced-design vehicles from 1873 to 1883. There was nothing particularly new or refined in his steam power systems, but his sense of vehicle architecture was superb. La Mancelle, built in 1878, had a front-mounted engine, shaft drive to the differential, chain drive to the rear wheels, steering wheel on a vertical shaft and driver's seat behind the engine. The boiler was carried behind the passenger compartment. Bollee built a series of steam carriages with romantic names like Rapide and L'Obeissante (the Obedient One). His sons, Amedee Jr. and Leon, both became makers of gasoline-powered cars. Amedee Sr. also invented an independent front-wheel suspension system with upper and lower transverse leaf springs in 1878.

Use of steam power for road vehicles can be traced back to 1769, when a French artillery engineer, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, constructed a three-wheeled military tractor at the Paris Arsenal. It ran at a speed of 2 1/2 mph, but it was nearly uncontrollable and crashed into a stone wall during a demonstration.

Was this the birth of the car? It depends. The Cugnot vehicle can be regarded as the first automobile in the world, if the definition is broad enough. How should it be defined? By fuel, type of engine, drive system, seating capacity, speed or what?

When Daimler-Benz (makers of Mercedes-Benz cars) says that the automobile was invented in 1886 by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, it's basing its claim on its own definition: a light carriage for personal transport with three or four wheels, powered by a liquid-fueled internal combustion engine. In doing so, the company ignores Daimler's gas-powered motorcycle of 1885

But even by that definition, the French have a prior claim: Belgian-born Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir, who settled in Paris and became a naturalized French citizen, invented his gas engine in 1858 and patented it in 1860. He used electric spark ignition, but the engine ran on stove gas and had no compression. It was shown to the press in a three-wheeled cart in 1860. A liquid-fuel version, with a primitive carburetor, was built in 1862 and installed in a three-wheeled wagon early in 1863. It is on record that it successfully covered the 18 kilometres from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont and back, securing its place in history as the first spark-ignition petroleum-fuel car to demonstrate its roadworthiness.

But Lenoir did not continue his work on cars. So we (and Daimler-Benz) can make the Lenoir claim void by narrowing the definition further: It doesn't count as a car if you gave up. You must persevere, and your experiments must lead to actual car production. That's what Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler did. Or did they?

From the experimental cars of Daimler and Benz it was indeed a short step to industrial production -- but not in Germany. Daimler-Benz concedes that the first car manufacturers in the world were French -- Panhard & Levassor in 1889, followed by Peugeot in 1891. Since both were buying their engines from Daimler when production began, vital participation by the motor makers of Germany is implicit. At that time, Daimler was more interested in royalties and licensing fees for his engines than he was in actually building cars.

The French companies made each new car a little bit different from its predecessor for years. The first true production model was the Benz Velo of 1894. Benz built 134 cars to the exact same specification during 1895.

In the meantime, the French had invented motor racing: The Parisian daily newspaper Le Petit Journal sponsored a run from Paris. to Rouen in 1894. The following year, a group of wealthy enthusiasts founded the Automobile Club de France, the first of its kind.

Daimler and Benz did not work in a vacuum; they were aware of many experiments going on at the time:

When Henry Ford refused to pay royalties, a famous court suit followed. During the long trial, the owners of Selden's patent were finally forced to build a vehicle in 1904. Essential details in Selden's patents had been left deliberately vague, and the car built in 1904 had much benefit from then-current technology. Despite all these loopholes, the "1877" Selden barely ran. The patent was finally shot down in 1911.

Those are uncontested facts. The trouble is that now the French want the world to believe it was Edouard Delamare-Deboutteville who invented the automobile, in 1884.

Deboutteville was 22 years old when he went to work in his brother's textile plant just outside Rouen. A year later, in 1879, he invented a universal machine capable of cutting, milling, drilling and turning. He became interested in the internal combustion engine primarily as a source of power to run the machinery in factories, and secondarily for propelling road vehicles. He was aware of the patents of Beau de Rochas and Lenoir, and also knew of Otto's patent.

His first engine was a single-cylinder four-stroke unit, built early in 1883. It ran on stove gas, but Deboutteville had also created a carburetor for running on liquid (petroleum) fuels. The outstanding things about his engine were:

This engine was put in a three-wheeled vehicle that was destroyed in an accident. Undaunted, Deboutteville built a four-wheeled car with a two-cylinder engine. This design figures in the 1884 patent. The vehicle was a modified horse-drawn wagon, but the new engine was noteworthy for its:

It is certain that the car was built, but the evidence that it ever ran is weak. You'll look in vain for any mention of a test drive in local newspapers. Deboutteville's patent went unnoticed. It was never exploited at all.

A great pity, for Deboutteville's proposed car was extremely well thought out. He had solutions to all the basic problems, but he had to give up his experiments to concentrate on making a living. Instead of developing the car, he removed its engine and put it to use in the factory. He became a manufacturer of industrial engines, but had nothing more to do with automobiles.

Both Daimler and Benz could have gained by reading the 1884 patent, for their first vehicles were very primitive in several regards. Daimler's engine from 1885 was a vertical single-cylinder of 462-cc displacement, delivering 1.1 hp at 650 rpm. It had a suction-operated intake valve and hot-tube ignition. It had an evaporative "surface" carburetor, and the speed control was a butterfly valve mounted on the exhaust pipe. He did not design a car for it, but installed it in a horse carriage with a centrally pivoted front axle. And it did not run in 1886. The first test drive took place on Mar. 4, 1887.

Karl Benz spent many years developing the two-stroke engine before turning his attention to the four-stroke cycle in 1885. He put a slide valve on the intake port and fired its sparkplug from a high-tension coil. The mixture was produced in a surface carburetor, and he put a speed governor on the intake side. The single-cylinder Benz engine had 954-cc displacement and delivered 0.67 hp at 250 rpm.

The "car" Benz designed around the engine was a light three-wheeler with belt drive, which first ran on the streets of Mannheim in June 1886. Benz did not build a four-wheeled car until 1891. It was only after seeing the success of Peugeot and Panhard & Levassor that Daimler and his assistant, Wilhelm Maybach, began to think in terms of complete cars rather than just engines.

Was the automobile invented in France or Germany? The argument may never be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides. One thing to bear in mind is that the car is not one invention but a mechanical creation composed of hundreds, if not thousands, of inventions. In truth, we are still inventing the car, for the car is an ever-changing assembly of ideas, systems and parts. In the past 100 years, the French contribution to its advance has been as significant as that of the Germans.

Back to The Auto Page