Discover the incredible history of the car

From the first prototype in the 18th century to fully electric cars, there are many surprises in the history of the automobile.

The invention of the wheel? The first traces found by archaeologists date back to the 4th millennium BC. The first car prototype? Six thousand years later, around 1771… At that time, these vehicles were designed to carry heavy loads. It was only in 1801 that the first transport vehicle appeared and became our main means of transport. As for the mode of propulsion, everything will be tested: first the steam engine, from 1852 the electric engine (already), a few years later the internal combustion engine. Mass production of the Ford T from 1908 would sanctify the heat engine essential for decades. It would be necessary to wait until the 1990s for manufacturers to become interested in alternative engines again. Especially hybrid and electric… Climate change is forcing.

1769: “Cugnot Truck”

Considered the first real prototype of a motorized vehicle in history, Cugnot’s cargo carrier was designed to move artillery pieces. This machine was developed in 1769 by the French military engineer Nicolas Cugnot. It had a single drive wheel driven by two pistons that transmitted the power provided by the steam boiler. It was the first engine to propel the car forward.

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

1834: first electric car

As early as 1834, the electric motor appeared. But it wasn’t until the 1850s and the invention of the rechargeable lead-acid battery, which came on the market in 1852, that the engine allowed the car to run. Gasoline shortages force, the electric car reappears during the occupation with manufacturers like Breguet with the Faure or Peugeot and its VLV (Light City car).

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

Benz Patent-Motorwagen Nummer 1, produced by Carl Benz in 1885, is considered the first car in history to use an internal combustion engine. Feature? It has only three wheels. Benz & Cie later became Mercedes-Benz.

Benz Patent-Motorwagen Number 1. © Wikimedia Commons

1908: first factory car

The first Ford T was produced on September 27, 1908 at the Ford plant in Detroit. The symbol of the cheap car and also the power of the internal combustion engine brought the car into the era of mass production. It also marks the end of electricity.

1908 advertisement for the Ford Model T. © Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1920s, the American manufacturer took the turn of mass production. United States entered Roaring Twenties (prosperous years) were marked by technical and scientific innovations and increased productivity following the advent of Taylorism, a reorganization of production processes. Industrialist Henry Ford is the leader of this second industrial revolution. Thanks to its assembly lines, its factories are able to produce more cars than all other manufacturers combined. It took only ninety-three minutes to assemble the chassis of the Ford T! By May 1927, 15 million copies of the model had been produced. Later, vehicles will continue to evolve in the direction of greater comfort: in 1932, the car radio and power steering, in 1939, air conditioning, in 1945, cruise control, in 1956, a reversing camera… Finally, we equipped our car with electronics. make it a full machine.

1913: 4-valve power

In 1913, the Indianapolis Grand Prix in the United States opened a new era in automobile racing. Frenchman Jules Goux won the prize in a Peugeot. Its secret: a four-valve engine. If this innovation was to lead to the flourishing of speed racing, it would not be developed consistently until the 1990s.

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

1926: the legendary Route 66

It is the first paved transcontinental highway in the United States. Running east-west, Route 66 connects Chicago, Illinois with Los Angeles, California. The project was started in late 1926 and its tarring was not completed until 1937. Until then, roads were either dirt or paved, which greatly increased travel time due to grip.


1934: legendary traction

It has entered our collective memory as both a Gestapo car and a symbol of the Resistance. The Citroën tow truck was also the car of choice for pirates due to its road qualities, exceptional for its time. With drive wheels on the front axle, it provided better handling than other modern 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 military. Jeep Willys, a four-wheel off-roader, left the factories in 1941. This type of transmission is the forerunner of current military and civilian models.

Jeep Willys. © Spurzem/Wikimedia Commons

1941: Beetle, das car!

More than a car, it’s a legend! Since 1972, the Beetle has been the best-selling car, surpassing the record set by the Ford T. Its designer was the Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who conceived the Volkswagen (“people’s car”) at the request of Adolf Hitler. Capable of accommodating a family of four, nimble, fast and cheap, it represents a propaganda weapon that should embody the power of the National Socialist regime. The first Beetle landed in 1939. After the war, the British, who were deceived by this funny car, started production again. Beetle, as the Anglo-Saxons call it, has become a favorite of Europeans and Americans. It will even be the first foreign car to win in the United States.

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

1955: 403, first French diesel

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

Peugeot 403. ©Pixabay

1996: Toyota released its first hybrid

In 1996, the Japanese manufacturer introduced the Toyota Prius I, the first mass-produced hybrid car. Its motto: “Just in time for the 21st century.” It will be available only in Japan. Two years later, the Honda Insight followed suit, this time being exported to the United States. Especially in the 2010s, the hybrid car with environmental awareness will define its position. In 2021, European sales of these cars coincided with diesel engines.

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

1997: electric, new oil

General Motors’ EV1 is the first mass-produced electric vehicle. The two-seater coupe was launched in 1997 as a rental-only coupe. Despite its success, the program was canceled in 2001, deemed unprofitable. Most of the 1117 cars produced were destroyed. In 2008, Nissan and Tesla will introduce 100% electric models. In 2022, the market will account for 22% of global car sales.

General Motors EV1. © RightBrain Photography (Rick Rowen) / Wikimedia Commons

2003: the hydrogen bet

Two manufacturers start the hydrogen race and present their prototypes: Mazda with the RX-8 Hydrogen RE (2003) and BMW with the Hydrogen 7 (2006). We’ll have to wait until 2018 to see the first mass-produced sedan hit the market: the Toyota Mirai. Since then, the market has grown: 15,000 hydrogen cars were sold worldwide in 2021, up from 8,000 the previous year.

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

2014: Robots for Manufacturing

The automotive industry is a major user of industrial robots. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), manufacturers bought about 100,000 new machines in 2014. About 1.5 million robots are currently in use in factories worldwide, and another 1.3 million are expected to enter service in the next two years.

2022: braking in thermals

Hard times for our old car and its piston engines. Fossil fuels are dead. Urban driving is already increasingly restricted by the development of ZFEs (Low Emission Zones), which ban the circulation of the oldest and most polluting models. In 2022, the European Parliament marked the planned death of thermal and hybrid engines. From 2035, only 100% electric or hydrogen engines will be allowed to be sold in Europe. Vintage lovers can turn to the second-hand market or resale platforms.

there is

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

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