history of cars

Modern life is hardly conceivable without the automobile. Critical to both local and long-distance transportation the world over, cars have captured the imagination of countless people and continue to symbolize individuals who make their own decisions about where life will take them.

The history of the automobile is quite interesting, and there is much that can be learned about the many steps that lead to the automobile, its transformation from a luxury item to one owned by the masses, and much more.

Pioneer Inventors.

Many people think of the modern automobile as going back only to the early twenty-first century, but the history goes back as far as the fifteenth century when Leonardo Da Vinci drew up the first tentative plans for motorized vehicles. It was Nicolas Cugnot, however, who first built a wheeled vehicle that was propelled by a steam motor, constructing a tractor that could tow military equipment in France in 1769. This technology could not produce much speed in the tractor, but Cugnot proved that motorized vehicles were viable, and for a time there were steam-powered stagecoaches in use in Europe and elsewhere.

The modern gasoline-powered automobile first appeared in the late nineteenth century. Nikolaus Otto, in Germany, created the first practical and viable four-stroke internal combustion engine, which he included in a motorcycle that he also constructed. Otto’s engine would be the basic design for all internal combustion engines that followed, although German inventors and engineers, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, improved upon Otto’s initial design.

In 1885, Daimler patented the first modern gasoline engine, and its size, efficiency, and the amount of speed it could produce allowed for innovation and flexibility in car design. Benz would patent the first gasoline-fueled automobile in 1886, being the first individual to combine a gas engine with a car chassis. By 1900, the company that Benz formed was producing more automobiles than anyone else in the world.

Other important developments during this era include Rudolf Diesel’s creation of the four-stroke diesel engine that is now used in large trucks, factories, and more. In Hungary, Stephen Ányos Jedlik created in 1828 the first form of what is now known as the electric motor, which would be important to industry in general and in the later development of electric cars. The internal combustion engine requires spark plugs to combust the gasoline and drive its pistons, and French physicist Gaston Planté created the lead-acid battery in 1859, the first rechargeable battery that could be used to power the sparks needed to get the internal combustion engine roaring to life.

Even though the hydrogen fuel cell would not be widely adopted initially, it is also worth noting that in 1838, German scientist Christien Friedrich Schöbein came up with these cells that many believe may be the future of fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly vehicles. Finally, although American lawyer George B. Selden did not invent any important technologies for the automobile, he did own a patent for the four-wheeled car engine. For a time he collected royalties on every car manufactured in the United States, but Henry Ford and several other car manufacturers sued to have the royalties overturned. Eventually, they proved that their automobiles did not share the same design as Selden’s and that Selden’s patent could not really even result in a workable car, thus ending Selden’s stream of royalty income.

Early Automobiles

Since the steam-powered engine was the first to be invented, it is no surprise that the earliest automobiles were powered by steam. Having seen that Cugnot was the first individual to make a steam-powered vehicle that human beings could drive, it is also important to see that Jesuit missionary Francis Verbiest actually drew up plans for steam-powered toys in China in 1672. In any case, the steam-powered vehicles that were popular in the earliest days of automobiles functioned through the use of fuel to heat water in a boiler. Steam was produced that moved pistons, turned crankshafts, and moved wheels. This was not a viable automobile technology for long because steam engines tend to be very heavy and produce too much drag on smaller vehicles. Electric cars were also very popular for a time in the nineteenth century but soon were replaced by gasoline-powered automobiles, which have longer ranges than electric cars because electric cars must be recharged at regular, short-distance intervals.

To this day, it is this need to recharge and the inconvenience of not being able to drive for very long distances between recharging that helps keep electric cars from becoming widely adopted. As the price of oil came down in the late nineteenth century, the internal combustion engine became the most affordable and viable way to produce cars with the ability to cover long distances before refueling. In the internal combustion engine, a carburetor injects gasoline into cylinders where it is ignited and drives pistons, which then turn crankshafts and wheels that propel the vehicles.

The Veteran Era

As with any other product, the key to getting automobiles into the hands of the common person was the development of mass production. Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company is often associated with such mass production, as he was one of the first to combine interchangeable parts and other existing technologies into the moving assembly line, which he first opened in 1913. Ford was not the first company to build automobiles exclusively; that honor belongs to Panhard et Levassor, which in 1887 Paris became the first corporation to produce nothing but cars.

Today the company only produces military equipment. Ford was not even the first American company to manufacture automobiles. In 1895, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company was founded as the first commercial automobile-manufacturing company in the United States, and Duryea vehicles were produced until 1917.

Another notable early American automobile company was the Winton Motor Carriage Company, which was established in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1896. Although Winton no longer manufactures cars today, General Motors would later purchase Winton and its diesel engine technology in the 1930s, technology that can still be found in diesel trains and other vehicles today. Of course, no history of the automobile in America could be complete without mentioning Henry Ford. After an unsuccessful early attempt at running a car company, Ford became the chief engineer of the Henry Ford Motor company in 1901. Ford would later leave this company over disagreements in how it should be run, and what was left of the Henry Ford Company became the Cadillac Motor Company in 1902, producing the well-known Cadillac brand of luxury automobiles.

Today, Cadillac is a subsidiary of General Motors, having been purchased by GM in 1909. Ford’s goal was to produce a car that would be affordable for any American, so in 1903 he helped to found the Ford Motor Company. Five years later he would introduce the famous Model T, which was made on Ford’s famous assembly line and was affordable for most people in the country. The Ford Model T would become a staple of American culture for the next twenty years until it was finally retired, and many of its new design features, such as the placement of the steering wheel of the left side of the car, continue on in American automobiles today.

The period from about 1905 to the beginning of 1914 is known as the Brass Era of automobile manufacturing, which gets its name from the fact that brass fittings were used heavily in the construction of cars. As noted in the Model T, this was the era in which average users first owned cars and in which vehicles were no longer owned by only enthusiasts and hobbyists. Many technological advances occurred during this period.

The manual transmission came into widespread use even though it had been invented much earlier by Panhard and Levassor. Electric ignition systems that use spark plugs and are powered by batteries were also introduced, and angle-steel frames made cars much stronger than they had been previously. Steam-powered cars declined in popularity, although early high-wheeled models were almost exclusively steam-powered. These are the famous cars with large, multi-spoke wheels that many people think of when they think of collectible cars. Brake systems that worked on all four wheels of cars simultaneously were also developed, and all of these various technologies were combined to produce the touring car.

These open-topped vehicles with front-engines, sliding gear transmissions, rear-wheel drive, and internal combustion engines were the forerunners of modern passenger automobiles and the sedan body type. As enclosed passenger compartments became more popular, the prevalence of touring cars declined.

The Vintage Era (1919–1929)

As automobiles continued to increase in popularity, certain elements became more and more standardized. Front-engined cars slowly became the norm, largely because placing the engine in the front of a car puts it in a space that drivers, passengers, and luggage would not ordinarily fill. Thus, having the engine in the front allows automobile manufacturers to produce cars that are versatile in what they can carry and do. Other standardized controls came into being, and engines began to be almost exclusively enclosed within the car’s body instead of sitting out in the open.

Even though cars became more and more seen on the roadways around the United States, the Great Depression had a tremendous impact on automobile manufacturing during this time, and several car makers closed for good. Many of the largest motor companies in the world survived and even thrived despite the economic downturn, including Ford, whose Model A was the best-selling vehicle of this era.

New technologies introduced in this period included hydraulic brakes, automatic transmissions, and tempered glass. Automatic transmissions made driving easier for the driver and much easier for teaching others to drive. Instead of having to shift gears manually, automatic transmissions shift gears at the appropriate time without forcing the driver to do anything. Hydraulic brakes that make use of brake fluid to apply the pressure needed to stop a vehicle were also developed during this time. This allowed manufacturers to create cars that were capable of faster speeds than were seen before, as hydraulic brakes can supply the pressure needed to stop objects that are spinning at high speeds.

Finally, the safety of automobiles was improved through the addition of tempered glass, which is specially-treated glass that is not as likely as traditional glass to break into shards upon impact. This lowers the risk of lacerations and other severe cuts in the event of a crash.

The Pre-WWII era (1930-1948)

The run up unto World War II is the first period of the Classic Car Era. At this time, fenders were introduced to prevent the debris generated as wheels go over the road from flying into the air. The increased car speeds meant increased debris, and so fenders came along at just the right time. Front-wheel drive was also developed at this time, which is a more efficient use of an automobile’s energy.

Instead of wasting energy as pistons turn the drive shaft all the way down to the rear wheels, front-wheel drive vehicles move the front axles immediately. Headlights, which were originally separate from the chassis, were integrated with the body of automobiles, enabling the driver to control them from the dashboard. Running boards were added to give people help stepping into taller cars and rear trunks for storage were also added.

It was also during this time that touring cars were gradually phased out in favor of sedans. The tiny runabouts and open-carriage phaetons were also eliminated, although they had long been declining in popularity. One of the best-known car models of all time, the Volkswagen Beetle, also made its debut, and it would be in production with very little changes for over sixty years.

The Post-War Era.

Following World War II, nearly every family in the United States owned a car. This reality, coupled with soldiers returning from the war and the accompanying baby boom drove the growth of suburbia across the country. Cars also became a status symbol for teenagers, with many high-schoolers begging their parents for their own car. Competition with foreign car manufacturers became the new reality, and U.S. carmakers introduced new advances to keep up with cars from other countries. V8 engines consisting of eight pistons in the engine block made cars faster than ever, and the era of car racing began in earnest. “Muscle” cars like the Mustang were popular, and the Camaro soon followed to compete with it.

Independent suspension that keeps each of a car’s four wheels moving vertically as the car goes over bumps and dips also improved car handling. Turbochargers increased the air pressure going into an automobile’s engine, giving the new cars more power, as did gas turbines, which were also highly sought after in this era. Compact, rotary “Wankel” engines allowed the internal combustion engine to be incorporated into chain saws, go-karts, and generators, as well as automobiles. Fuel injection also replaced carburetors for mixing gasoline and air before it enters the engine, improving fuel efficiency along the way.

During the 1960s, automobile safety and design became more of a pressing concern because of all the vehicles on the market. The United States Department of Transportation was created in 1966 to help address safety issues, and the National Transportation Safety Board followed in 1967. These bodies continue to be important in the automobile manufacturing process today, ensuring that newly-developed vehicles are safe, as well as efficient.

Due to their affordability, car manufacturers also branched out beyond simple utility into the design, creating new models, shapes, and colors to help attract new customers away from their competitors. One notable model introduced during the modern era is the Toyota Corolla, which is the best-selling car of all time as of 2011.

The Modern Era (ca. 1970–present)

The modern era, beginning roughly in 1970, has seen a stronger focus on auto safety and efficiency than ever before. The federal government of the United States plays an increasingly important role in establishing these standards, and major energy legislation typically includes new basic levels for fuel efficiency and miles per gallon that all vehicles must meet to be sold in the country. Fuel cells, gas-electric hybrids, and natural-gas-powered cars are becoming more widely adopted in order to meet these challenges.

Today, the automobile market is dominated by hatchbacks, sedans, and sport utility vehicles (SUVs), although the rising price of gasoline makes it unlikely that SUVs will remain dominant without a marked improvement in their fuel efficiency. These SUVs often feature all-wheel drive wherein the engine turns all four wheels of the vehicle, allowing better handling and off-road capabilities. Fuel injection systems are now universal, having replaced carburetors entirely, and computer-aided design is universal in the industry, to improve both performance and appearance.


The history of the automobile has had its shares of ups and downs, and it has seen its share of advances and developments that have affected many other industries. As history moves forward, there is no doubt that new and better vehicles will be introduced, and the world will continue to benefit from the four-wheeled vehicles that are now so important to us all.

Automotive History – The history of the automotive industry from the Library of Congress.

Who Invented the Automobile? – Information about Karl Benz and others credited for the invention of the automobile.

Early Automobile History – Links and resources about the early automobile industry and roads in Michigan.

Automobile Collection – Provides a comprehensive record of automotive history with extensive information on passenger cars, motorcycles, commercial vehicles and carriages.

Explore GM History – Information about the history of General Motors.

Henry Ford – Information about the life of Henry Ford.

History of Electric Vehicles – The history of electric vehicles from the U.S. Department of Energy.

History of the Automobile – The history of the automobile and its impacts on the 20th Century.

Automobile in American Life and Society – The automobile and the environment in American history.