The motor car, powered by the internal combustion engine, was born in 1884. Its potential was evident and inventors in many countries, notably in Germany and France (the UK and the USA were late arrivals) took to it with enthusiasm. To make one that worked seemed to be quite easy but to make one that could go off on a trip and come back again in the foreseeable future was difficult. Much ingenuity had to be applied to getting the right amount of fuel into the engine, igniting it, and transmitting whatever power there was to the wheels.
In 1888, the Benz family rose early and took out this prototype for a spin (less its inventor Mr. Benz who was still asleep). Their journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim of almost 100km, was the first ever made powered by an internal combustion engine.
By the end of the century they were quite reliable, if ungainly, to the point of not only trundling reliably around the neighbourhood, but actually engaging in long-distance rallies and races, where lessons learned were quickly fed back to the makers. Speeds increased and reliability improved. By 1903 the Gordon Bennett trophy race, run over a total distance of 524km on a course in the Counties of Kildare and Laois in Ireland (read After the Race by James Joyce to get an idea of the excitement cars provoked at that time) was won at an average speed of just under 80 kph. This video has some rare footage of the event. Speeds continued to rise steadily by about 10% per year. With higher speeds sadly, came fatal accidents.
Steam and electricity competed strongly to provide motive power during the declining years of the 19th and the early 20th century, especially in cities. They were more reliable then, being essentially far simpler and having had more time to evolve. However steam cars, despite quite remarkable gains in efficiency, were hindered by their dependence on quite large quantities of water and the time required to build up steam before being able to move off. This was later remedied by the invention of the flash boiler. Electricity suffered from its lack of autonomy and need for heavy batteries. These problems could have been largely overcome, at least in the case of electricity, as is happening today with its return in the hybrid. However, the concentration of manufacturers and public interest on long distance racing and endurance tests favoured the internal combustion engine, with a higher power to weight ratio and greater autonomy. A vast infrastructure of fuel pumps and garages followed rapidly, consolidating its dominance. Our rendezvous with electricity was postponed for a hundred years.
Motor cars rapidly proliferated on city streets. Gradually they shook off their horse drawn heritage. Engines, now almost always at the front, and passengers, eventually roofed, were both blended within the lines of the car and rather than simply placed on a platform. Durable tyres, front wheel brakes and so on developed during the twenties. However in Europe they still remained essentially a luxury item until the early twenties when the Bébé Peugeot came out in France and the baby Austin in the UK at prices within the reach of the middle classes, although it would take almost forty years more before its descendants would be generally accessible. In the US they reached a wider public far earlier, before the First World War with the Ford Model T which continued more or less unchanged until 1927.
Competition intensified on both continents and prices fell steadily until the second world war. Following this growing prosperity resulted in rapid growth in numbers and size, in the US, to the point of absurdity, until the 1973 oïl crisis injected sanity in design but unreliability in motorisation, since American designers, used to tweaking basically 1930’s concepts, could not get their minds around small efficient engines.
The past fifty years, due to a very large extent to the competition from Japanese car makers, has produced much more reliable and safer cars with more efficient engines, due largely to better fuel management by injection and turbocharging, better brakes and tyres, and generally much improved passenger protection and vehicle roadholding. Unfortunately, they have become so numerous that they threaten, like so many benevolent but misguided aliens, to destroy the planet.