The Top 10 Cars Made Before The 20th Century

The Top 10 Cars Made Before The 20th Century

I know Mercedes-Benz likes to crow about “inventing the automobile” in 1885, but we all know that’s complete bullshit. Motorised, wheeled vehicles capable of transporting a human being have existed since at least 1769, and there were actually quite a number of these very early cars built. They were powered by steam, electricity, and internal combustion engines, though in the first century of automobiles, steam was king. So, just to piss off Mercedes-Benz a bit, let’s rank the top ten cars from 1769 to 1869, which, incidentally, is the year that Ulysses S. Grant became president of the United States.

My only real criteria here for defining what is a car is that it needs to be a trackless motorised vehicle capable of carrying at least one human being.

10. 1769 Cugnot Steam Drag

Of course, the original has to be on the list. Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot’s Steam Drag was designed to haul heavy artillery and cannonballs and that sort of thing, but it was absolutely also an automobile. It was also a barely-controllable (FWD, even) vehicle, and introduced the world to terminal understeer and gave us the first car wreck when it ran into a wall.

9. 1832 Robert Anderson’s Electric Car

Scottish inventor Robert Andersen put together this simple but at the time absolutely bleeding-edge EV back in 1832. It used non-rechargeable batteries, which is hardly ideal, but it did also have the first electric lighting as well, which appears to consist of some sort of simple arc lamps.

8. 1807 de Rivaz’ Hydrogen Internal-Combustion Car

This one also makes the list not because of its practicality or usability, but because it was such an influential first: the first internal-combustion engined car. As you well know, internal combustion definitely caught on in the automotive world, and de Rivaz’ hydrogen (stored in a balloon!) powered cart pulled it off before anything else.

The internal combustion engine was still very much in its larval stage here, with the person driving required to manage the valves and fire the spark, effectively asking the driver to be camshaft and distributor.

7. 1869 Thomson Road Steamers

These thicc Edinburgh-built three-wheeled (iron, with 5-inch thick solid rubber tires) brutes were arguably the very first successful, commercial, hauling vehicles, or, as we’d call them, trucks. A lot of these were built, and many exported to other countries, where they hauled/towed all kinds of loads, including, in at least one case, passengers.

Thomson is very likely the first truly successful commercial self-propelled road vehicle manufacturer.

6. 1860 Rickett Steam Car

I’m including the Thomas Rickett steam carriage because it was the first car to be advertised and, I believe, sold as a private car to an owner, and was also the first private car to complete a significant (as in 100 mile) road trip.

5. 1863 Sylvester Roper Steam Buggy

While the country was caught up in the horror of the Civil War, Sylvester Roper was building steam carriages and building the first motorcycle, in 1867. Roper would show off his car and motorcycle at fairs all across the country, making the Roper machines the first (non-rail) automobiles Americans would likely ever have encountered.

4. 1829 Goldsworthy Gurney’s Steam Carriages

Gurney’s steam buses started the early 1800s automobile boom in the UK, offering the first motorised bus service in 1829, from London to Bath, averaging 14 MPH, which is pretty damn good for the era.

A boiler explosion of one of his steam coaches (notably not operated by him, and ignoring some key safety considerations) killed two people, which gave rise to at least one parody song:

Instead of journeys people now go upon a Gurney
With steam to do the work by power of attorney
But with a load it may explode
And you may be undone
And find you’re going up to heaven
Instead of to London.

The incident also led to a re-design where the passenger car was pulled behind the engine-car, so in case of a boiler explosion, only working-class people would die, an acceptable compromise in England back then.

3. 1831 Walter Hancock’s Steam Omnibuses

Walter Hancock’s many steam omnibuses were the most successful of the first automotive boom era of the 1820s and 1830s in Great Britian. His strangely-named vehicles (Autopsy? Infant?) conducted regular, revenue-earning runs between multiple destinations, starting with London to Brighton, and overall his vehicles covered over 4,000 miles, carrying tens of thousands of passengers.

One of his omnibuses, the 1836 Automaton stands out for having run over 700 journeys between London and Paddington. All of this was documented in his book, Narrative of Twelve Years’ Experiments (1824– 1836) Demonstrative of the Practicability and Advantage of Employing Steam-Carriages.

2. 1863 Lenoir Hippomobile

Since internal combustion engines came to dominate the next century of automobiles, I think Belgian Étienne Lenoir’s convertible woody-sided station wagon, the Hippomobile, deserves a mention.

The Hippomobile did not use the four-cycle Otto engine that would dominate the 1900s and beyond, but it did have a one-cylinder, hydrogen-gas fuelled, spark-fired internal combustion engine, and was a successful vehicle, driving from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont in one recorded journey. Plus, it’s got packaging that’s basically like a convertible VW Microbus.

1. 1801 London Steam Carriage

I’m going to have to give the top pre-1869 car honour to Richard Trevithick’s 1801 masterpiece, the London Steam Carriage.

The London Steam Carriage was the first purpose-built passenger-carrying automobile. It wasn’t an artillery hauler, it was made to move people, like the cars you know and love. While there were some severe restrictions in its design, especially for a true attempt at a passenger car, I think it was remarkably successful.

Driving it wasn’t easy, but, then again, no one had ever really driven before. We’re also treated to an exciting description of the second automobile wreck in history, thanks to this car, from Life of Richard Trevithick: With an Account of His Inventions, Volume 1:

They kept going on for four or five miles, and sometimes at the rate of eight or nine miles an hour. I was steering, and Captain Trevithick and some one else were attending to the engine. . . . She was going along five or six miles an hour,and Captain Dick called out, “Put the helm down, John!” and before I could tell what was up, Captain Dick’s foot was upon the steering-wheel handle, and we were tearing down six or seven yards of railing from a garden wall. A person put his head from a window, and called out, “What the devil are you doing there! What the devil is that thing!”

Exciting stuff.

So, there you go—ten concrete examples of why Mercedes-Benz did not invent the automobile. Make sure to stop by your local Mercedes dealership and let them know you’re not fooled anymore.

This article was first published in May 2020.

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