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  Automotive Eras 1                                                   

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Vehicles that can be considered automobiles were demonstrated as early as 1769, although that date is disputed, and 1885 marked the introduction of gasoline powered internal combustion engines. Automotive history is generally divided into a number of eras based on the major design and technology shifts. Although the exact boundaries of each era can be hazy, scholarship has defined them as follows:

Steam Era (1700’s – 1900)
Steam-powered self-propelled vehicles were devised in the late 17th century. A Flemish priest, Ferdinand Verbiest, was thought to have demonstrated in 1678 a small (24 inch / 61 cm long) steam 'car' to the Chinese emperor, yet there is no solid evidence for this event.

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot demonstrated his fardier à vapeur, an experimental steam-driven artillery tractor in 1770 and 1771. Cugnot's design proved to be impractical and his invention was not developed in his native France - the centre of innovation then passed over to the United Kingdom. By 1784 William Murdoch had built a working model of a steam carriage in Redruth, and in 1801 Richard Trevithick was running a full-sized vehicle on the road in Camborne.

Walter Hancock the builder and operator of London steam buses, in 1838 built a four-seat steam phaeton. Also in 1838, Scotsman Robert Davidson built an electric locomotive that attained a speed of four miles (6 km) an hour. In England a patent was granted in 1840 for the use of rails as conductors of electric current, and similar American patents were issued to Lilley and Colten in 1847. Between 1832 and 1839 (the exact year is uncertain), Robert Anderson of Scotland invented the first crude electric carriage, powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.

Such vehicles were in vogue for a time, and over the next decades such innovations as hand brakes, multi-speed transmissions, improved speed, and steering were developed. Some were commercially successful in providing mass transit, until a backlash against these large speedy vehicles resulted in passing a law, the Locomotive Act in 1865. It stated that self-propelled vehicles on public roads in the United Kingdom must be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn. This effectively killed road auto development in the UK for most of the rest of the 19th century, as inventors and engineers shifted their efforts to improvements in railway locomotives. The law was not finally repealed until 1896 although the need for the red flag was removed in 1878.

The first automobile patent in the United States was granted to Oliver Evans in 1789. In 1805. Evans demonstrated his first successful self-propelled vehicle, which not only was the first automobile in the USA but was also the first amphibious vehicle, as his steam-powered vehicle was able to travel on wheels on land and via a paddle wheel in the water.

There were also European efforts. In 1815, a professor at Prague Polytechnich, Josef Bozek, built an oil-fired steam car. Belgian born Etienne Lenoir made a car with an internal combustion engine around 1860, though it was driven by coal-gas. His experiment lasted for 7 miles (11 km), but it took him 3 hours. Lenoir never tried experimenting with cars again. The French claim a Deboutteville-Delamare was successful, and celebrated the 100th birthday of the car in 1984.

About 1870, in Vienna, capital of Austria (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire), inventor Siegfried Marcus put a liquid-fuelled internal combustion engine on a simple handcart which made him the first man propelling a vehicle by means of gasoline. Today, this car is known as the “First Marcus Car”. In 1883, Marcus got a German patent for a low voltage ignition of the magneto type; this was his only automotive patent. This design was used for all further engines, and the four-seat “Second Marcus Car” of 1888 / 89. This ignition in conjunction with the rotating brush carburettor made the second cars design very innovative.

It is generally acknowledged the first automobiles with gasoline powered internal combustion engines were completed almost simultaneously by several German inventors working independently: Karl Benz built his first automobile in 1885 in Mannheim. Benz was granted a patent for his automobile on January 29,1886 and began the first production of automobiles in 1888. Soon after, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Stuttgart in 1889 designed a vehicle from scratch to be an automobile rather than a horse carriage fitted with an engine. They also were inventors of the first motor bike in 1886. One of the first four wheel petrol-driven automobiles built in Britain came in Birmingham in 1895 by Frederick William Lanchester who also patented the disc brake.

Veteran Era (1888 – 1904)
The first production of automobiles was by Karl Benz in 1888 in Germany and under license to Benz, in France by Emile Roger. By 1900 mass production of automobiles had begun in France and the United States. The first company to form exclusively to build automobiles was Panhard et Levassor in France. Formed in 1889, they were quickly followed by Peugeot two years later. In the United States, brothers Charles and Frank Duryea founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1893, becoming the first American automobile manufacturing company. However, it was Ransom E. Olds, and his Olds Motor Vehicle Company (later known as Oldsmobile) who would dominate this era of automobile production. Its large scale production line was running in 1902. Within a year, Cadillac, Winton, and Ford were producing cars in the thousands (formed from the Henry Ford Company).

Within a few years, dizzying assortments of technologies were being produced by hundreds of producers all over the western world. Steam, electricity, and gasoline-powered autos competed for decades, with gasoline internal combustion engines achieving dominance in the 1910s. Dual and even quad-engine cars were designed, and engine displacement ranged to more than a dozen liters. Many modern advances, including gas / electric hybrids, multi-valve engines, overhead camshafts, and four-wheel drive, were attempted and discarded at this time.

Innovation was rapid and rampant, with no clear standards for basic vehicle architectures, body styles, construction materials, or controls. Many veteran cars use a tiller rather than a wheel for steering for example, and most operated at a single speed. Chain drive was dominant over the modern driveshaft, and closed bodies were extremely rare.

On November 5th 1895, George B. Selden was granted a United States patent for a two-stroke automobile engine (U.S. Patent 549,160 ). This patent did more to hinder than encourage development of autos in the USA. Selden licensed his patent to most major American auto makers, collecting a fee on every car they produced.

Throughout the veteran car era, however, automobiles were seen as more of a novelty than a genuinely useful device. Breakdowns were frequent, fuel was difficult to obtain, roads suitable for travelling were scarce, and rapid innovation meant that a year-old car was nearly worthless. Major breakthroughs in proving the usefulness of the automobile came with the historic long-distance drive of Bertha Benz in 1888 when she traveled more than fifty miles (80 km) from Mannheim to Pforzheim to make people aware of the potential of the vehicles her husband, Karl Benz, manufactured, and after Horatio Nelson Jackson's successful trans-continental drive across the United States in 1903.

Of course with vehicles of this age they can present their own unique challenges for today’s collectors. Parts for repair and restoration of these early cars are notoriously hard to find and in a lot of cases have to be handmade. Estimations have been made that there were well over a thousand manufacturers in the US at this time further complicating the restoration process. Of course nearly all of these have now since gone out of business taking with them such secrets as the specification sheets, wiring diagrams etc. But despite all these challenges, there is both an active collector and restorer community of these early cars, which when completed can be extremely valuable.

Antique or Brass Era (1905 – 1914)
The antique or brass era lasted from roughly 1905 through to the beginning of World War I in 1914. It was in this era that first mass produced vehicles with gasoline engines, immortalized by Henry Ford's model T. The brass era was named for the widespread use of the fancy brass fittings and brass lanterns that were a natural addition to the new 'horseless carriage'.1905 was a signal year in the development of the automobile, marking the point when the majority of sales shifted from the hobbyist and enthusiast to the average user. Brass began to be phased out about 1914 in favor of nickel, which was eventually abandoned in favor of chrome.

Within the 15 years that make up this era, the various experimental designs and alternate power systems would be marginalized. Steam power proved too cumbersome and electric motors were limited by battery technology (as they still are today), but gasoline was cheap and plentiful, encouraging both two-stroke and four-stroke development.

Although the modern touring car had been invented earlier, it was not until the “Panhard et Levassor's Système” was widely licensed and adopted that recognizable and standardized automobiles were created. This system specified front-engined, rear-wheel drive internal combustion cars with a sliding gear transmission. Traditional coach-style vehicles were rapidly abandoned, and buckboard runabouts lost favor with the introduction of tonneaus and other less-expensive touring bodies.

The vehicles of this time were a considerable investment that only the wealthy could afford but they were far from luxurious. There were no doors, heaters or windshield wipers and when headlights were finally added they had to be lit with a match. The engines had to be started with a crank that would often kick back sometimes resulting in a broken arm. In many cases it took two people to turn the steering wheel and gasoline was not always easy to find. A lack of roads coupled with tire technology that was in its infancy resulted in all too frequent flat tires.

Throughout this era, development of automotive technology was rapid, due in part to hundreds of small manufacturers all competing to gain the world's attention. Key developments included electric ignition (by Robert Bosch, 1903) and the electric self-starter (by Charles Kettering, for the Cadillac Motor Company in 1910-1911), independent suspension, and four-wheel brakes (by the Arrol-Johnson Company in 1909). Leaf springs were widely used for suspension, though many other systems were still in use, with angle steel taking over from armored wood as the frame material of choice. Transmissions and throttle controls were widely adopted, allowing a variety of cruising speeds, though vehicles generally still had discrete speed settings rather than the infinitely variable system familiar in cars of later eras. Between 1907 and 1912, the high-wheel motor buggy resembling the horse buggy of before the turn of the century was in its heyday, with over seventy-five makers including Holsman and IHC both originating from Chicago and Sears which sold via catalog. Soon the high-wheeler would be killed by the Model T from Ford..

The early Model T Ford revolutionized the automotive industry with the introduction of assembly-line production, which in turn made it possible for Ford to offer their car for sale at a much more affordable price. Prior to the introduction of the Model T, automobiles were built by hand, one at a time, and usually sold for anywhere from twice the average worker's salary to several times that amount. Although Henry Ford sold millions of black Model T’s, it was men like Alfred P. Sloan of Chevrolet who saw the value of enticing people with new and exciting options. Annual offerings of extras such as the electric starter, headlights, synchromesh transmissions etc kept the industry very much alive. However by using assembly-line production and pre-manufactured parts, it was Henry Ford who was able to bring automobiles to the masses. With a selling price of $300 a Model T was now 1/5 of an average worker’s annual salary.

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