Speeds of Early Steam Cars—English Enterprise destroyed by Stupid Legislation—Daimler’s Invention—The Great Road Races—How the Pneumatic Tire came into Being.

THE first vehicle to run by its own power upon a highroad was French. This was the steam carriage made by Cugnot in 1769. It was an amazingly clumsy contrivance, with a huge, kettle-like boiler, and its highest speed was about four miles an hour. It ended by running into a wall and upsetting, spilling hot embers and boiling water in every direction. Its unfortunate inventor was arrested and put in prison.

Next came the attempts of various Englishmen, Murdoch, Watt, and Symington, until in 1802 Trevithick, assisted by Vivian, built a steam carriage which actually traveled at nine miles an hour. It was the disgraceful state of English roads which prevented Trevithick’s steam coach from becoming a practical success; but a little later, when roads began to improve, all sorts of people built steam automobiles. Between 1833 and 1836 Hancock’s steam omnibuses ran in London and from London to Brighton at speeds up to twelve miles an hour, while Scott Russell’s steam coaches made regular journeys between Glasgow and Paisley. Horse owners, however, and railway companies, were intensely jealous of this new means of transport, and finally succeeded in inducing Parliament to pass the "Red-flag Act", which limited the speed of self-propelled vehicles to four miles an hour and which laid down that in front of each must walk a man with a red flag. This unfortunate piece of legislation, which was not repealed until 1896, deprived England of the honor which would otherwise have been hers of being the first nation to supersede the slow and uncertain method of horse traction by motor-driven vehicles.

The early steam vehicles have been so completely
Wind-propelled carriage
A wind-propelled carriage, 16th century
A forerunner of the modern motor car.
forgotten that very few beyond those who have specially studied records of the time have the least idea of their speed and power. Gurney’s steam coaches climbed the steepest hills without trouble and at a pace much faster than that of any horse-drawn coach; while in 1830 a vehicle built by Messrs. Ogle and Summers, and fitted with a tubular boiler, actually attained a speed of thirty-five miles an hour on the level and climbed a hill at twenty-four miles. It ran eight hundred miles without a breakdown. The steam coaches of the early thirties were immensely popular and always crowded; and since Hancock’s London services ran over four thousand miles without serious accident, it could not be alleged that they were in any way dangerous. But those responsible for that iniquitous Red-flag Act were blinded by their own foolish prejudices, and the law which they passed cost England countless millions and set back the clock of locomotion by many years.

For forty years so little was heard of self-propelled vehicles that hardly any memory of them remained. Then French inventors began to turn their thoughts toward road locomotion, and in 1873 M. Bollée of Mans built a steam car which ran from Mans to Paris. Five years later another car of this inventor’s design journeyed
steam carriage
Trevithick's steam carriage
from Paris to Vienna at the good round speed of eighteen miles an hour. In 1884 M. Bouton and the Comte de Dion brought out a motor tricycle, and a year later M. Serpollet built another vehicle fitted with a novel and ingenious form of boiler. But all these were steam carriages; and although steam will drive a car as fast as gasoline, the steam car requires much more expert management than the motor.

Then at last came the great invention for which the world had been waiting, the gas motor, first made by Gottlieb Daimler, who, on March 4, 1887, ran for the first time a car propelled by an internal combustion engine. I do not think that there is any need
Serpollet's Steam Carriage
Serpollet's Steam Carriage
to explain here the principle of the gasoline motor, for it is even better and more widely known than the mechanism of the steam engine. Gasoline-driven cars soon appeared in numbers on the Continent, more especially in Germany and France; and in 1894 M. Pierre Giffard, editor of a great Paris newspaper, organized a motor race from Paris to Rouen, offering handsome prizes. There were ten starters, and the race was won by the De Dion car, which "scorched" along at the tremendous pace of just over twelve miles an hour. Another race was organized from Paris to Bordeaux and back, and this was won by M. Levassor on a Panhard car of four horsepower.

One point which these early cars proved was that the gasoline carriage was at least as reliable as the steam, and that, too, in spite of the fact that in those days there was no variable gearing for hill-climbing, while electric ignition was still an invention of the future. The charges of gas were fired by an incandescent platinum tube. It was not until the Benz car arrived that electric ignition was first seen.

The Paris-Bordeaux race of 1895 caused an enormous sensation, and led to the Comte de Dion founding the Automobile Club of France. Car makers were deluged with orders, and people who could not afford cars bought the motor tricycles made by the De Dion Company. It is most interesting to look back at the speed records made in the early races and see how rapidly they increased. From twelve miles in 1894 the pace rose in 1895 to fifteen. By 1898 cars were doing twenty-three miles an hour, and in the next year thirty.

In the Gordon Bennett race of 1900 the average speed of the winning car over a course of 353 miles was 38½ miles an hour; by 1903 this had risen to 49¼. So speed went up by leaps and bounds until in 1905 the winner of the Brescia Circuit traveled the 311 miles at a rate of no less than 64¾ miles an hour.

Nowadays we try out motor cars on made tracks, and almost the only competitions held upon the open road are for testing the hill-climbing powers of motor cars. But at that date, less than twenty years ago, every country which had decent roads was constantly organizing motorcar races, and the great drivers such as Rolls, Edge, Farman, Fournier, Charron, De Knyff, and Girardot were popular heroes whose pictures were in every paper and magazine. Perhaps the greatest race of the kind ever held was that between Paris and Berlin in June, 1901. In this the cars of all nations competed in a speed championship, and the road was guarded by thousands of police and troops and officials. This race was won by Fournier in a Mors car, he having covered the 740 miles in just under seventeen hours actual traveling. His average was 44 miles an hour, though at times he had been traveling at very nearly 80 miles an hour.

America’s first road race for motor carriages was held on April 14, 1900, on the Merrick road, in Long Island. There were nine competitors, five being gasoline driven, three steam, and one electric. The prize was won by A. L. Riker with an electric motor car; he covered the course at twenty-five miles an hour. It is interesting to note that in those days, a quarter of a century ago, electric cars were built in considerable numbers, and their designers were confident that they would supersede gasoline-driven vehicles. But, owing to the great weight of the necessary accumulators, the electric car, although delightfully silent, simple, and clean, has so far not succeeded in competing with the gas-driven vehicle.

The growing success of the motor car on the Continent roused emulation in England, and pressure brought to bear on Parliament caused the repeal of the ridiculous Red-flag Act and the passing of a new law which permitted autocars to travel at a speed of twelve miles an hour. In order to celebrate the removal of the old restrictions, a procession of motor vehicles was organized from London to Brighton. "Freaks" is the only term one could apply to the majority of the cars which took part in that test; and, so far as I can remember, less than half of those that started reached their destination. English built vehicles were particularly untrustworthy; but this is hardly surprising, seeing what a long start the continental designers had obtained. English drivers, however, were soon to the fore, and it was not very long after the London-Brighton race that the Hon. C. S. Rolls, driving a Panhard on a private road, covered the course at a rate of nearly forty miles an hour.

Within less than ten years English builders had made up all their leeway, and by 1902 were producing cars the equals, if not the superiors, of anything built elsewhere. In that year Mr. S. F. Edge, driving an English-built Napier car, won the Gordon Bennett race against all corners.

But if the success of the motor car was great in Europe, what shall we say of its progress in America? According to statistics, the world at large possessed in 1925 just under sixteen millions of motor vehicles. Of these Great Britain owned 469,490, Canada 554,874, and the United States nearly thirteen and a half millions! From Oregon’s mountains to Florida’s sandy shores, the whole of the United States throbs with motor-propelled vehicles of every possible description.

The change which motors have made in the United States is almost miraculous. At the beginning of the present century many of the highways were shockingly bad and in some cases quite unfit for heavy traffic. To-day hundreds of thousands of miles of fine roads have been constructed. Every new experiment in road building has been tried, and you can drive a car in comfort from New York to San Francisco or from Seattle in the extreme northwest to Tampa in the far south.

For mass production of cheap, yet sound, cars the world owes a great debt to Henry Ford. Ford devoted his attention to horseless carriages as early as 1879. He followed all the modern developments, and eventually came to the conclusion that manufacturers "were in such a hurry to obtain something to sell that they did not take time for adequate preparation." In 1903 he formed the Ford Company. Its success may be gathered by the fact that, when in 1919 Mr. Ford’s son Edsel bought up the outstanding shares, he had to pay $12,500 for each, the original price having been one hundred dollars only. It was in 1909 that Mr. Ford, after many experiments, standardized his "Model T." Since that time he has built his chassis on one model only, so that all parts are interchangeable. He also decided to paint all his cars black. At the time he made the following announcement:

"I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise; but it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one, and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces."

The principle of the motor-car engine is still the same as that invented by Gottlieb Daimler, but the improvements have been such as to convert an uncertain plaything into a machine so reliable that it will run for thousands of miles with no attention except the provision of oil, gasoline, and water. The first great improvement was the substitution of a magneto for the dry-cell batteries and transformer coil which formerly provided the ignition; the second was the alteration from the old makeshift drip-feed arrangement to the modern carburetor. In the old machines it was simply a toss-up whether the gas was mixed in proper proportion with air, but nowadays automatic devices regulate the mixture to perfection and procure smooth running and great economy of fuel. The oiling system has also been revolutionized, and with the modern car all that is necessary is to keep the oil container filled to the proper level. The oiling of every part of the engine is then automatic.

The great advance in the power, efficiency, and comfort of the motor car achieved within a period of less than forty years is revealed at a glance by a comparison of the six horse-power Daimler made for King Edward VII in 1900, three years after the appearance of Daimler’s first car, with the company’s present-day enclosed landaulette, with its powerful engine, its ample accommodation, and its sumptuous furnishings.

No wheeled vehicle could travel at the speed of the modern motor car without some means for eliminating road shocks and vibration. This is provided for by the pneumatic tire, the invention of the late J. B. Dunlop, of Belfast. In November, 1909, a great banquet at the Hotel Cecil in London was held to celebrate the coming of age of the pneumatic tire. Five hundred business men gathered from all parts of the world, and sitting on the right hand of the chairman, Prince Francis of Teck, was a gray-bearded man of nearly seventy, Mr. Dunlop himself.

"I tried two of the first pneumatic tires I ever made on my son’s tricycle," he said. "I fitted them on to the back driving wheels. The forks of the machine were too narrow, I remember, for me to attach one to the front wheel. Clumsy things they were, as you may imagine, yet they enabled my boy to win a race against a number of other boys. More than once I had been mindful to give the whole thing up. It was so tedious. I had to buy rubber, and fashion it to my purpose with my own hands. The very first pneumatic tire I made I fitted to a heavy block of wood, and ran it to and fro across my own backyard in order to test it."

It was in July, 1888, that Mr. Dunlop patented his pneumatic tire, and at that time there were but three hundred thousand cycles in the world. Twenty years later there were more than three million, to say nothing of some hundreds of thousands of motor cars. And this great extension of road locomotion could never have come about but for what was first described as "an inflated rubber band."

Chapter 18
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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman