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The automobile did not come into being in a flash of one man's inspiration. To the Daimler is usually accorded the honor of being the first motor car, but there are many who dispute the claim. One thing is certain: the first self-propelled wheeled vehicle was a steam car and there were many of them before the Daimler. But automotive historians usually exclude the steam cars from the discussion, because they were not direct ancestors of the modern car. The history of the automobile as we know it begins with the internal combustion engine.
What is an internal combustion engine? For the purpose of definition, let us assume that such an engine consists of an enclosed vessel into which an explosive or rapidly burning chemical is inserted. When this is ignited the expansion of the gases pushes a piston. The piston moves something else, and the "something else" makes wheels turn. All of this was done long before Daimler was born.
Back in 1677 the Abbe Jean de Hautefeuille used gunpowder as the fuel. The idea seemed to have merit and he was followed in rapid succession by Christian Huygens and Denis Papin. But gunpowder was dan gerous and difficult to handle; so in 1820 a man named Cecil, an English experimenter, used a mixture of air and hydrogen. This worked much better. Then William Barrett, also of England, added a pilot light to provide a constant ignition, and the internal combustion engine began to look practical. Etienne Lenoir of France made it even more practical. He used ordinary illuminating gas in 1859, and G. Schmidt of Germany introduced the idea of compressing the fuel-air mixture.
It seemed that the internal combustion engine was about ready to be invented. Step by step, country by country, the ideas and innovations were coming together. It finally remained for Alphonse Beau de Rochas, another Frenchman, to supply the first description of a four-cycle engine. This description will fit any modern engine, and de Rochas worked it out in 1862!
Then Nikolaus Otto built a working four-cycle engine in 1867 and obtained a patent ten years later. The Otto engine became the prototype for all future internal combustion engines. It served widely as a stationary industrial power source and played a large part in the industrialization of America.
Now the final step. Wheeled vehicles were common. The early steam cars had worked out many of the transmission problems and all that was left was to place an Otto-type engine in a vehicle. This too was done before Daimler. In 1862 Lenoir ran a sort of car with illuminating gas, but since the modern car operates on liquid petroleum fuel, Lenoir's car cannot be called the first.
Siegfried Marcus of Germany really built the first car. He was a harum-scarum sort of inventor and putterer, but he did engineer a two cycle machine in 1865. It ran, but somewhat crudely. Marcus then flitted away to other engineering projects. But in 1874 he returned to the automotive field. He produced a true four-cycle, four wheeled machine with electrical ignition, jet carburetion, and a throttle. In spite of all other claims, this can be called the first automobile. It still exists in a German museum.
What about Gottfried Daimler? He is still called the inventor of the motor car. Well, so is a man named Karl Benz. To clear up this confusion we must insist that the first automobile be a true prototype of the modern car. Both men did it. The mechanical, electrical, and fueling systems used by Daimler and Benz most closely resemble those in use today. Therefore, both men really fathered the automobile. Benz produced a four-wheel car with a water cooled engine in 1885. Daimler's similar machine appeared in 1886. But it is not wise to rely completely on the dates. The technological developments of over a century had progressed to a crucial point. The automobile was ready to be invented, and here were two men working simultaneously, each in complete ignorance of the other's progress. In the long view of history, a year one way or the other is not important, and we may well consider that the modern motor car was first started by Gottfried Daimler and Karl Benz.
The word "started" is used advisedly, because in the opinion of most-experts the Siegfried Marcus machine of 1874 was the first automobile. Had Marcus possessed the determination of either Daimler or Benz and developed his machine, the world today would acclaim him as the true inventor.
After Daimler and Benz had placed their machines on the roads of Europe, the idea of the automobile spread rapidly. England's Edward Butler developed a powered tricycle in 1887.The Peugeot brothers were the first to develop a car in France. In the beginning they used a Daimler engine, but soon designed their own. Daimler engines saw wide service. As a power source they operated boats, and then took to the air. A Daimler engine flew one of the first dirigibles of Count Zeppelin.
Although a Daimler engine was brought to America, two Yankee inventors, Charles and Frank Duryea, were working on their own. In Springfield, Massachusetts, they built the first American automobile. That was 1892. They installed a one-cylinder engine in a high-wheeled buggy, named it a "buggyaut," and won the first automobile race in this country.
The Daimler influence was felt everywhere. A subsidiary corporation was started in England in order to handle the car for the British public, but it soon broke away from the parent company. Licensing the original patents from Daimler, the English proceeded to produce a Daimler of their own. Today we distinguish between these early cars by calling them English Daimlers and Canstatt Daimlers. Canstatt in Germany was the site of the original Daimler factory. The English Daimlers became the official car of the royal family, and Queen Elizabeth rides in the biggest car made today. It is a Daimler limousine with a 147-inch wheelbase; it weighs over 5,000 pounds.
The Daimler Company Limited of England is still an independent organization and has pioneered many new ideas. Although fluid drive is standard on almost all American cars today, and is accepted as an American development, it was a Daimler that first used fluid drive as an automatic transmission - in 1931!
The Canstatt branch of the early Daimler organization made itself famous by developing the Mercedes, one of the truly great cars in all of automotive history. Then in the twenties, the Benz and Daimler corporations merged and became Daimler-Benz.
One of the great ironies of automotive history lies in that merger. Daimler and Benz were the pioneers of the automobile. The companies they founded finally merged and today produce some of the finest and most advanced motor cars in the world. Yet Gottfried Daimler and Karl Benz never met!