Credit for the invention of the first “production” automobile is usually given to Karl Benz, who developed a petrol-powered vehicle with a single cylinder four-stroke engine in 1885. However he was building upon a concept which had suggested itself some considerable time before, not least by notables such as Nikolaus Otto, who patented the first petrol engine, not to mention da Vinci who mooted the notion of a self-propelled vehicle as early as the fifteenth century.
Before the end of the twentieth century cars had already become hugely popular amongst that class of people who could afford to own one. Benz’s Viktoria car retailed at £9,000 in 1893 – a huge amount of money at the time – and perhaps unsurprisingly only a grand total of 45 cars were sold. It was the US engineer Henry Ford who turned things around, famously doubling the pay of his workers so that they could, theoretically at least, afford to buy the comparatively inexpensive Model T cars that they were producing (the car was priced at about $260 by 1925).
The Motor Car in Mass Production
In 1940s Germany the Volkswagen, or “People’s Car”, was intended to bring the joys of motoring within the reach of everyday folk. The famous “Beetle” model remained intact and more or less unchanged all the way through to 2003. Other manufacturers throughout Europe began to emulate VW’s success, whilst the United States – with its high incomes and low petrol prices – developed what was largely its own self-contained market of huge gas-guzzling machines, oddly hampered during later years by a somewhat austere 55 mph national speed limit.
1940’s VW Beetle
It was in the 1960s that the European market began to be penetrated by large-scale imports from Japan, from companies such as Honda, Toyota and Nissan. The face of US motoring likewise began to change, with some car users opting for smaller and more economical models from both Japan and Europe.
Motoring in the Modern Age
Today of course we live in an integrated global economy in which free trade and the proliferation of multinational industrial ownership means there is little by way of a truly “national” car industry. Many Japanese cars are made in Britain, British cars are made in Spain, and even cars manufactured in the UK by traditional British companies may include engines or other parts which are imported from other car models.
More intriguing still though is the increasing use of computer technology and artificial intelligence to entirely revolutionise the way we approach the whole question of car use. The world-renowned London taxi faces an uncertain future with the advent of the Uber app which allows customers to summon a cab on their phones, which will navigate the journey by satellite where once this was a discipline acquired by years of performing “the knowledge”. Driverless cars are ready to take over just as soon as humans have learned to trust them and increasingly, if tentatively, vehicles that are powered without the need to burn fuel are taking to the roads.
Mercedes-Benz driverless car
Motoring today is undergoing a new revolution every bit as radical and exciting as the coming of the Model T.