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Many historic “firsts” paved the way for the automobile. The first car was made in 1769. Steam drove this earlier self-powered land vehicle. It was called the Cugnot Fardier and was a three-wheel truck designed for the French military. The first internal combustion car was an 1807 one-off fueled by hydrogen gas. 1881 saw the first electric vehicle. Finally, the carburetor paved the way for the first gasoline-powered internal combustion car. This was Karl Benz’s 1885 Motorwagen. The Benz Patent Motorwagen is a revered classic car to this day.

The first car was made in 1769

This is an illustration of Nicola-Joseph Cugnot testing his steam car in 1770 | Hulton Archive. the first car was made in 1769. The steam powered military transport predated the Benz patent Motorwagen by a hundred years. | Hulton Archvie / Stringer / Getty Images
Nicola-Joseph Cugnot crashing his steam car in 1770 | Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

Nicola-Joseph Cugnot was one of the pioneers of the steam-powered car. He was an engineer in the French military. Previously, others had experimented with steam pistons. But Cugnot invented a ratchet so a piston could create rotational power. His steam-powered cart, designed for transporting military supplies, was the first self-propelled land vehicle.

The first internal combustion engine car was made in 1807

This is an artist's interpretation of Rivaz's 1807 hydrogen-powered automobile. Though it was not powered by gasoline, The first internal combustion engine car was made in 1807 | Daimler AG
An artist’s interpretation of Rivaz’s 1807 hydrogen-powered automobile | Daimler AG

While Cugnot invented the first car was in 1769, it was not an internal-combustion car. Rivaz invented the first internal combustion car forty years later.

Like Cugnot, François Isaac de Rivaz was born in France. But he later moved to Switzerland, where he was a politician. He also worked with steam engines, and began experimenting with a new engine type.

A steam engine is an external combustion engine. First, an external fire heats a fluid. Then, when the liquid expands into a gas, this pressure creates power.

Several inventors experimented with internal combustion engines. But internal combustion requires an explosion that creates enough expanding gas it can build pressure on its own. The only problem was finding a powerful fuel source.

Inventors experimented with many fuel sources. For example, Nicéphore Niépce built an internal combustion engine powered by a mixture of moss, coal-dust, and resin. It was powerful enough to propel a boat but never drove a car.

Isaac de Rivaz built an internal combustion engine powered by hydrogen gas in 1804. The powerplant was strong enough to propel the first internal combustion car in 1807. 

The first rechargeable electric car was made in 1881

The Trouvé tricycle was the first rechargeable electric vehicle. This is a replica with a safer, modern battery.

As early as 1832, inventors experimented with electric horseless carriages. But no one had successfully built a rechargeable battery. Therefore, early electric vehicles were essentially disposable. Gustave Trouvé was a multi-talented French inventor. He first pioneered new, lightweight rechargeable battery technology. Then he greatly improved the efficiency of existing electric engines.

He used these components to invent many devices. For example, he invented a self-propelled boat and electric helicopter. He also invented the metal detector and headlamp. Trouvé’s other contributions include an early endoscope and a portable slide projector. 

It was only a matter of time before Trouvé turned his attention to the automobile. In 1881 he mounted his battery and motor on a British tricycle. Then he rode it around the streets of Paris. Thus, the first rechargeable electric car was made in 1881.

The first gasoline powered car was made in 1885

1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen. This was the first gas-powered car, but both steam vehicles and electric vehicles predated it.  | Francois Durand/Getty Images
1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen | Francois Durand/Getty Images

In the 1800s, mass-producing hydrogen gas was unfeasible. Liquid gasoline is easier to refine. But liquid fuels do not work for internal combustion. Then, the invention of the carburetor made it possible to mix liquid gas and air. As a result, the internal combustion engine became viable for widespread use.

Several inventors attempted to merge carburetor technology with internal combustion technology. But it was Karl Benz who first perfected a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine in 1878. He won a patent in 1879.

Benz mounted his engine on the back of a tall, three-wheeled buggy. The motor spun a pair of chains which in turn drove the back wheel. Therefore, he called his invention the Benz Motorwagen. It was the first gasoline, internal combustion car. Consequently, he was granted a patent in early 1886. The “Patent Benz Motorwagen” went on sale in 1888. But while this was a major automotive milestone, the first car was made in 1769–over a hundred years earlier.

Cugnot’s 1769 steam powered “fardier” or cart was the first automobile. See a replica in action.

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