Have you ever wondered what the oldest cars in the world are? A quick answer may be the Ford Model T. That is understandable, since one of the few pieces of car history taught in American schools is Henry Ford’s contributions to the mass production of the automobile. Unless you have the desire to delve deep into automotive history, you may not even realize that the internal combustion engine is bit of a johnny-come-lately addition to the automobile, putting the Model T fairly far down the list of oldest cars in the world.
Part of becoming a fan of car history is to realize that the oldest cars in the world were powered by steam. The oldest gasoline powered car was not built until 1885, when Karl Benz produced the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. Eventually diesel and gasoline powered internal combustion engines proved to be easier to produce. The engines also proved to be more predictable and reliable to use as well as being more economical to operate. Those qualities have allowed the internal combustion engine to dominate car history. However, that may change as alternative fuels become more attractive to a wider customer base.
There were literally thousands of automobiles built before Henry Ford sold his first Model T. So, how do you narrow what could become a very long list? First, we limited our list to vehicles that actually traveled across terrain. We are using the word ”terrain” because streets were limited to large towns and there was no highway system when the first cars and trucks were built. Second, we restricted ourselves to vehicles that there is an existing example of. Third, the vehicle had to be capable of carrying a passenger. That eliminates the earliest electric units that were either small-scale models only or just traveled on a track without an operator. Lastly, we eliminated trains, motorcycles, steamboats, etc… in order to focus on cars and trucks. With all of those factors in mind, these are ten of the oldest cars in the world.
1. Cugnot Fardier
At the request of French military officials, French inventor and fortifications expert Nicholas Cugnot designed and built the first self-propelled carriage. The first prototype was built in 1769. Designed to tow artillery to the battlefront, its speed was set at three miles per hour so that soldiers could keep pace with it. It could pull a load of five tons and could operate for one hour and fifteen minutes before stopping. The only known example, pictured above, is on display at the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris, France.
2. Hancock Omnibus
The Hancock Omnibus was built by English inventor Walter Hancock and can be considered the first commercially successful steam-powered vehicle in the world. Where Cugnot’s fardier was a military triumph, Hancock’s Omnibus ran a successful passenger route between London and Paddington. The nine carriages that were built carried an estimated 4,000 passengers between 1832 and 1834.
3. Grenvile Steam Carriage
In 1875, Robert Neville Grenville of Butleigh, Glastonbury, Somerset, United Kingdom began designing his steam carriage. It was an era when most cars were built by hand and were extremely expensive to operate. Grenvile’s carriage looks more like a locomotive than a car, but is only capable of carrying seven passengers. One of the passengers had to feed the steam engine to maintain speed — sometimes you have to pay a price to catch a ride! Incredibly, the vehicle ran as recently as 2009.
4. La Marquise
Built in 1884 by De Dion-Bouton et Trepardoux for the Count De Dion, La Marquise is a De Dion et Trepardoux Dos-A-Dos Steam Runabout. It has a claim to fame as having won the first automobile race in 1887. De Dion built its competitor as well. It also has the distinction of being the oldest known running automobile. La Marquise was last sold in 2011, setting an auction record for an early automobile when the gavel fell at $4.6 million. The Sotheby’s listing makes quite an interesting read.
5. 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen
The Benz Patent Motorwagen is generally acknowledged in car history as the first gasoline powered car. Actually built in 1885, it was not patented until 1886. It was powered by a 954 cubic centimeter single-cylinder engine that created two-thirds of a horsepower. Fuel was supplied to the engine through evaporation initially, but Benz added a rudimentary carburetor in later models. He went so far as to add leather brake shoes in 1887.
Built in 1886, the Hammelvognen was the first car built in Denmark. It was powered by a two-cylinder engine capable of three horsepower. It was quite innovative for the time. The Hammelvognen is one of the oldest cars in the world to offer brakes and a reverse gear. It had an estimated top speed of six miles per hour. Can you imagine going that fast over unpaved cobblestone without a suspension system? The original sits in the Danmarke Tekniske Museum.
7. 1889 Daimler-Maybach Stahlradwagen
Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach were both early pioneers of automobiles powered by the internal combustion engine. Daimler was more concerned with the powerplant, while Maybach viewed the automobile as a whole. This split vision can be seen in the opulence in every Maybach-badged Mercedes-Benz marketed today. The duo were lifelong friends and continued to work together until Daimler’s death. The Stahlradwagen was powered by a single-cylinder engine that sat under the driver.
8. De Dion-Bouton Quadricycle
The success of the De Dion-Bouton tricycle mentioned earlier allowed the builders to move forward with internal combustion engines. De Dion-Bouton engines were so durable that many automobile builders of the day sourced their engines from the company. By 1891, De Dion-Bouton had moved to quadricycles. Some were advanced enough to incorporate an engine cover (also known as a hood or bonnet), rudimentary passenger cabins, running boards, and fenders. Unfortunately, none equipped like that have survived. The model pictured above was built in 1900 and had a top speed of 31 miles per hour. It is on display at the Louwman Museum in The Hague, Netherlands.
9. Duryea Car
Brothers Charles Duryea and Frank Duryea are credited as being the first gasoline-powered commercial car manufacturers in the United States. They drove their first car through the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts in September 1893. It was powered by a single-cylinder four-stroke gasoline engine that was water-cooled. An 1893 Duryea is on display at the Smithsonian Institute.
10. 1894 Balzer
Another American-built car was the Balzer. Built in 1894 by New York inventor Stephen Balzer, it was powered by a very lightweight three-cylinder rotary mounted engine. The engine was mounted around a stationary crankshaft that turned a short shaft that fed into the driving gears. The Smithsonian Institute has displayed the Balzer pictured above at various times.
We didn’t even make to 1900 and still had to skip dozens of cars. If you’re interested in reading further about car history, there are numerous books on the subject. Automobiles Of The World by Albert L. Lewis and Walter A. Musciano was used as a reference base for the vehicles listed in this article. Another is The Encyclopedia of Classic Cars by David Lillywhite. This compendium features over 1,000 vehicles from around the globe.