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From Wheels To Automobiles

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For most of us, it is hard to imagine a time when there was no automobile. However, as far as history is concerned, the motorcar is an extremely recent development. The first self-propelled road vehicle emerged in about 1800, but it was a steam vehicle, not an internal combustion, engine driven machine. It wasn't until about 1900 that the gasoline powered car came into existence. Even then it was more a novelty than a viable means of transportation.

Dreamer of Dreams

Leonardo da Vinci, back in the 1500s, was probably the first dreamer to envision a self-propelled vehicle. There was no way his ideas could be put to use, because at the time there was no such thing as a dependable engine. In the eighteenth century, a French artillery officer, Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, designed and built a three wheeled carriage powered by a steam engine.

Europe Leads The Way

During the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a great deal of experimentation in Great Britain. Most of the work revolved around steam buses.

It was generally agreed at the time that steam was the answer, but in France and America work was underway to develop an internal combustion engine. The first was a two-cycle engine patented in Paris by the Belgian fitienne Lenoir. Meanwhile in America, George B. Bray ton designed a two-cycle engine, which he displayed at the Philadelphia Continental Exposition in 1876. The first four-cycle engine was developed by a German, Nicholas Otto, in 1878. These early engines weren't designed for cars, but for industrial application. The distinction of inventing the first motorcar goes to Siegfried Markus of Vienna. Yet, Markus did not have an operational car until about the mid-1880s.

Back in the United States, a patent attorney named George B. Selden from Rochester, New York, felt that Bray ton's engine could be put to use in a road vehicle. In 1879 Selden filed an application for a United States patent on the road engine, a motor that used liquid hydrocarbon fuel (gasoline), a mechanism to uncouple the engine from the drive wheels (the first clutch), and a steering device. But he never built a vehicle with any of these elements, and his patents eventually created some controversy in the American auto industry.

About the same time, another method of propulsion came into being, the electric motor. Suddenly, there were some options. But what good are power plants if there aren't any vehicles to put them in? Enter the bicycle industry.

From Bikes To Cars

In England in 1885, J. K. Starley invented the safety bicycle, which was the first of the low-wheeled type we still enjoy today. It replaced the high wheeled velocipede, which had one big wheel in the front and took quite some strength to pedal. Starley's bike, with its low wheels, was safer and had one more important advantage that it was driven by a chain and had gearing. The safety bicycle could be used easily by women and children. The sudden popularity of bicycles made it immediately apparent that American roads were insufficient. Bicyclists in America called for something to be done, and Congress instituted the Bureau of Road Inquiry under the Department of Agriculture to study the situation. Congress appropriated $1,000 for the job. Coincidentally, the year was 1893- the same year the Duryea car made its debut.

Bicycle manufacturers were responsible for much more. They invented steel-tube framing that combined strength with light weight. They were responsible for the chain drive, as well as ball and roller bearings. During the height of the bicycle craze, the manufacturers invented the differential gearing arrangement for use on multiple geared bikes. The importance of the bicycle industry becomes obvious if you take a look at the bicycle companies that later crossed the bridge to the auto. In Germany there was Opel; in England, Morris; and in the United States, Duryea, Pope, Winton, and Willys.

Perhaps one of the most significant inventions leading to the motorcar was the pneumatic tire perfected by John B. Dunlop of Ireland in 1888. Without the development of good roads and the pneumatic tire, there probably would not have been much incentive for highway travel, since rail transportation was much easier and speedier.

The Second Generation

The direct ancestors of today's automobile had their beginnings at the hands of two Germans, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, who both made internal combustion engines. Both men made single-cylinder engines. Daimler's, however, was a high speed engine that relied on something called a hot tube, while Benz was using a spark ignition much like today's engines. Both first put their engines to use in some sort of bicycle.

Within ten years, cars were being built. In France, Armand Peugeot was putting Daimler engines in cars for the firm of Panhard and Levassor. At the same time, William Steinway was trying to interest the American people in the German engine, but without success.

Europe was buzzing with self-propelled vehicles powered with everything from gasoline to steam to electricity. There were road races and exhibitions everywhere. Levassor won a race in Paris in 1894 and the next year drove a Panhard from Paris to Bordeaux, covering 1,200 kilometers in the remarkable time of forty eight hours. His average speed was fifteen miles per hour.

These cars were hand built. There was no such thing as a repair shop. Cars were expensive to build and operate, and they were nothing more than a curiosity for the rich to play with. But by the turn of the century, high society began to accept the motor vehicle for use as a limousine, and ladies as well as men were driving electric vehicles.

The Era Of American Autos

The era of the automobile in the United States really began in September 1893, when a couple of bicycle mechanics drove a one-cylinder machine through the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts. Frank and Charles Duryea had read a description of Benz's car in Scientific American and decided to build their own.

The Chicago Times, Herald helped the development of the automobile in another way. It sponsored races. In November 1895 the Duryea brothers entered a two-cylinder car, and they won. Who were the mechanics? The Duryeas had to do all the repairs themselves. The mechanics were the people who built the cars.

Commercial Production

At about the same time, Hiram Percy Maxim, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, went to work for the American Projectile Company. He got together a used tricycle, some empty shell casings, and a couple of cups of gasoline. He experimented to see what would happen when gas was ignited in a cylinder. Fortunately, he didn't kill himself. He eventually built an engine that he put on his used tricycle, and it worked-sort of. But what is important is that he attracted the attention of the Pope Manufacturing Company. Pope was the world's largest maker of bicycles, and the company offered Maxim a job as chief engineer of motor carriages. This marked the beginning of the first commercial effort at motor vehicle production in America. However, Albert Pope, the owner, had Maxim building electric cars, since Pope believed that people would be afraid to sit over an explosion. The engines were usually placed under the seats. Within a couple of years, the Pope Company had built about five hundred electric vehicles and forty gasoline ones. The Popes had been making bicycles sold under the name Columbia, so they kept the name for their cars. The cars were called the Columbia Mark HI Electric Phaetons.

In September 1895 the first American company was organized to produce gasoline cars. Organized by Frank and Charles Duryea, it was appropriately called the Duryea Motor Wagon Company.

In June 1896 Henry Ford drove his quadracycle down the streets of Detroit. Although Ford did not build the first American automobile, he did sell his quadra cycle for $200 dollars to Charles Ainsley of Detroit. Ford was probably the first used car salesman. At the same time, the French word automobile was beginning to appear in print in American publications.

Detroit: Motor City

Two other companies were organized in 1897. The first auto company in Michigan was organized on August 21, by Ransom E. Olds. He called his firm the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, but it failed, so he reorganized it two years later as the Olds Motor Works. He developed his curved dash run about in 1901 and sold it for $650, making it the first low priced car. Unfortunately, fire destroyed his Detroit plant that year, so he moved the operation to Lansing, only to sell it two years later. It ultimately became the Oldsmobile division of General Motors.

As a result of the fire, and in order to get back into business, Olds had to use his one and only car as a sample for building others. He was forced to contract for parts and subassemblies from small shops in the Detroit area. Most of these subcontractors eventually decided to get into auto-making themselves, and consequently Detroit became the "Motor City."

A Booming Industry

By 1899 the American auto industry was blossoming. The American Motor Company in New York opened a garage and advertised that it had "competent mechanics always on hand to make repairs when necessary." Meanwhile in Boston, the Back Bay Cycle and Motor Company opened a shop for "renting, sales, storage, and repair of motor vehicles."

In 1900 many of the United States manufacturers at last moved the engine from under the driver's seat to under a hood. The gasoline car finally beat a steam car in a free for all race held at the Washington Park horse racing track outside of Chicago. Something else happened that was to ultimately put gasoline engines ahead of steam and electric. The tremendous gusher called "Spindletop" near Beaumont, Texas, came in on January 10, 1901. The price of crude went down to five cents a barrel. The irony of this is that gasoline was formerly considered a waste byproduct that was burned off in the production of lubricants. With the advent of the gasoline engine, it was suddenly in demand, and because of its ready availability, it was cost effective to use. Besides, steam engines needed a trained technician to control the burners and valves on board. The gasoline engine could operate by itself, so the driver did not need a helper.
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