Being what can only be regarded as one of the most important inventions of the modern age, the motor car has become an intrinsic part of our functioning society. From personal transport to logistics the automobile is as essential foundation on which the world now runs.

Antique Ford Coupe
Cars have come a long way in the last century or so – here’s the quick version.

Of course with any great invention it has been developed through countless generations of pioneers standing on each other’s shoulders to take the motor vehicle to where it is now. Here we look at the cornerstones that put the motor vehicle on its way from 0 to 60… 

The Steam Powered Propulsion Vehicle

Not the catchiest name but the first true step on the road to developing the motor vehicle as we know it. The earliest incarnation of such a steam powered invention dates back as far as the 16th century, built as a toy for the Chinese Emperor by a missionary named Ferdinand Verbeist. Although this wasn’t a device capable of carrying any passengers, the basic principal became the building block for rapid evolution of motorised steam vehicles in Western Europe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

As early as 1770 steam powered vehicles were being developed in the form of the artillery tractor in France and by 1784 the steam carriage in Britain. While many inventions like these were quickly dismissed due to often poor results, their brief popularity brought about the invention of hand brakes, early transmissions, and enhanced steering.

The idea for transport of people was formed through these trial and error times and was reasonably progressive until the passage of the Locomotive Act (1865) which brought about a variety of progress pampering stipulations, effectively killed road auto development for the next couple of decades.

The Internal Combustion Engine

It would be the internal combustion engine that fuelled the renaissance of the motor vehicle, but fuelling the vehicles themselves was the major problem. A lack of suitable fuels for such vehicles put many delays on progress.

It was not until 1885 that German inventors pioneered the petrol powered automobile with Karl Benz building his first automobile in 1885. This invention was to provide the first long distance motorised journey proving the viability of the invention and signalling the surge of automobile development worldwide.

Karl Benz 1885 car prototype
This 1885 prototype by Karl Benz is generally agreed to be the first modern iteration of the automobile.

Henry Ford’s Assembly Line

While motor vehicles had become viable and were being built throughout Europe and North America at the crossroads of the 19th and 20th century, they were still expensive and time consuming to build making them unattainable to the general public.

While there where automobile manufacturing companies as early as 1893 creating reasonable volumes of motor cars, it would be the revolutionary work of Henry Ford that would make the motor car available to everyone. The development of the assembly line allowed rapid construction compared to previous practices, making the vehicles far easier to mass produce and consequently bringing down the price.

Ford Rouge plant 1928
A photo of Ford’s Rouge assembly plant, which was considered state of the art in 1928.

This assembly line process would have far ranging applications beyond what was perceived at the time with all modern mass production founded on these early principles.

War – The Mother of Invention

“War is the mother of invention” is an often cited sentiment for the amazing progress that is made so often during war time, but it was originally bastardised from “Necessity is the mother of invention” which in the right circumstance carries the same meaning.

Throughout the first and second World Wars the necessity to carry artillery, supplies and troops to the front line was a key factor in investment in more powerful vehicles with more efficient and powerful engines. Great strides where made in war time to enhance the motor vehicle and this rapid development eventually filtered through to commercial distribution bringing motor vehicles ever closer to their current incarnation.

US Army jeep
As auto manufacturers focused on producing millions of vehicles for the war effort, they learned to improve every part of the vehicle production process.

Modern Technology

In the modern era motor cars have become so readily available that families can often have several cars to one home (a concept that would seem absurd only a matter 50 years ago). Advancement in mechanics, electronics and computer software have made vehicle production one of the most efficient production line technologies in the world.

5th Gear into the Future

So where does the motor car go from here? From its humble steam powered roots to global mass production how much further can this technology evolve?

While many excitable minds would envision hover cars and space highways, practicality and necessity will always be the motor cars fuel for advancement. Right now the decline of fossil fuels and global warming are the ‘wars’ that are driving the motor cars evolution as science searches for alternative fuel sources and evolving or transplanting the combustion engine.

Nissan leaf first real production electric car
Will historians one day credit the Nissan Leaf with beginning yet another new era of the automobile?

The modern electric car is the guiding light at present, but who knows that revolutionary ideas are transpiring in the mind of the next Karl Benz or Henry Ford?

Guest Author Louise West works for a museum that specialises in Historical Automobiles which has helped her to build up a good knowledge in Car Valuation.

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