What was the first car company? What do we mean by car?

What was the first car company? We’ve used cars for quite some time now, and they’ve become a very accessible commodity. Brands like BMW, Jeep, Mercedez, and many more produce high-quality vehicles with unique features, not to mention electric and hybrid rides that are said to be the future transportation of choice.

However, just some 200 years back, such things were unimaginable to a regular person, and the early prototypes, though impressive for that time, didn’t manage to find their niche. It’s amusing to think that horse carriages were still more cost-effective in those days.

What was the first car company?

The first company formed exclusively to build automobiles was Panhard et Levassor in France, which also introduced the first four-cylinder engine.  Formed in 1889, Panhard was quickly followed by Peugeot two years later.

What was the first car company

By the start of the 20th century, the automobile industry was beginning to take off in Western Europe, especially in France, where 30,204 were produced in 1903, representing 48.8 percent of world automobile production that year.’

What do we mean by car company?

There are a surprising number of surviving car companies that can trace their roots back centuries; notably, Peugeot was founded in 1810 and spent the mid-19th century cranking out coffee mills before moving into bicycles and, eventually, cars.

The company that became Pierce-Arrow was established circa 1872 to make birdcages, among other sundry goods. Obviously, none of these would qualify as the oldest company founded to make cars—they happened into automobiles many years after going into business.

Even Mercedes-Benz is a dubious choice. Benz& Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabric was founded in 1883, and producing internal combustion engines was among its primary objectives. However—and importantly for the purpose of this exploration—these were initially intended for industrial equipment.

The famed Benz Patent-Motorwagen arrived just a few years later, in 1885, and despite its delicate look and tricycle configuration, it is a remarkably sophisticated, surprisingly fully realized machine.

It might well be considered the first serious internal combustion-powered automobile, and its successor, the four-wheeled Velo, is certainly one of the first successful production internal combustion-powered automobiles.

Yet however natural the move into car production was for Karl Benz, whether it was always part of the plan when he founded Benz & Cie. is pure conjecture. Here, we’re trying to determine who was the first to go into business with the primary goal of building automobiles.

What do we mean by car?

This can be a trite tactic, but to set the ground rules here, I’m going to turn to the dictionary: Merriam-Webster defines an “automobile” as “a usually four-wheeled automotive”—that is to say, self-propelled—“vehicle defined for passenger transportation.”

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The power source isn’t particularly important here; it could be internal combustion, electricity, steam or even (if you want to get really fanciful) clockwork or something. But that last component of the definition, the intention of passenger transportation, is a complicating factor when we’re trying to determine who built the first car—let alone who started the first car company.

For example, a popular left-field choice for the first automobile is Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, whose 1769 steam wagon at first glance meets—however nominally—almost all of the basic criteria for something we’d classify as an automobile: It was self-propelled, derived its propulsion from some mechanical means (weird contraptions like the horse-powered Cyclopede means this is an important distinction to make), was at least theoretically steerable and operated independently of rails. Here’s a replica in action:

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to this argument, but Cugnot’s wagon was designed to drag artillery, not haul people; that its operators could ride on it as it crept along at a snail’s pace was incidental.

It was not, then, intended to be a personal mobility device. By this criteria, we can also ignore land locomotives and any similar vehicles the purpose of which was traction, rather than transportation.

It’s usually assumed that America lagged far behind Europe when it came to 18th-century automotive development. But Oliver Evans’ curious, little-knownOruktor Amphibolos

—an amphibious steam-powered digger/dredger that, on July 13, 1805, reportedly crawled down the streets of Philadelphia to the Schuylkill River—proves that New World inventors were as captivated by the idea of mechanical mobility as those across the Atlantic.

In fact, as the Automobile Quarterly publication The American Car Since 1775 discusses, Evans built the Oruktor because he could get funding for it; passenger-carrying steam carriages were his eventual goal. Yet like Cugnot, the machine he did manage to build wasn’t a passenger vehicle, per se, so no dice for Mr. Evans here.

What about tinkerers and inventors?

Further, I’m going to distinguish between a tinkerer who happened to build something vaguely car-like and the founding of the first car company. To qualify, this needs to be a person or persons, ideally operating as some sort of legal entity, with commercial ambition.

What was the first car company

And while they don’t necessarily need to have been successful in the long or even medium term, they do need to have at least produced something other than debt and paperwork for it to count for the purposes of this research.

This is at least partly out of convenience; we need some sort of surviving record of the effort for it to even show up on the modern radar, and that’s a lot more likely to exist for an actual company than for some independent, self-funded futurist/crackpot working in a shed.

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Further, there were a number of visionary attempts on both sides of the Atlantic to raise money for automotive projects that were simply too far ahead of their time to go anywhere.

As early as 1804, Oliver Evans attempted to establish what he called the Experiment Company to raise funds for steam wagon construction but failed to obtain the capital (again, this is detailed in The American Car Since 1775). So, they don’t count here.

Who, then, was first?

That the very first automobile company (as we are defining it here, at least) was born in the United Kingdom seems like a safe bet; Englishman Thomas Savery patented the first commercial steam engine, a crude device used to pump water, in 1698.

Patents for steam wagons or steam carriages started emerging there in the early part of the 19th century, and a number of operators were running surprisingly advanced steam carriages on public roadways by the 1830s.

One promising contender is Summers and Ogle, a partnership formed by William Alltoft Summers and Nathaniel Ogle to build these steam carriages. In 1831, the pair purchased an old iron foundry in Southampton, England, to go into production.

These carriages were somewhat successful, with a number of documented routes in service throughout 1831 and 1832. Incredibly, their first contraption could manage speeds of 32 to 35 mph—that’s Model T territory, in the 1830s!

However, it looks like English inventor Goldsworthy Gurney (1793-1875, no known relation to Dan) beat them to the punch. In addition to work on stoves, lighting devices and the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, Gurney took an interest in steam propulsion and sought to popularize steam-powered road vehicles.

And under the auspices of the Gurney Steam Carriage Company, established 1825, he set about to do just that—and almost succeeded.

Lyman Horace Weeks writes of Gurney in the fascinating Automobile Biographies (which you can read online as a free e-book):

“In 1826 he constructed a coach about twenty feet long, which would accommodate six inside and fifteen outside passengers, besides the engineer. The driving wheels were five feet diameter, and the leading wheels three feet nine inches diameter.

Two propellers were used, which could be put in motion when the carriage was climbing hills. Gurney’s patent boiler was used for supplying steam to the twelve horse power engine. The total weight of the carriage was about a ton and a half.

“In front of the coach was a capacious boot, while behind that which had the appearance of a boot, was the case for the boiler and the furnace, from which it was calculated that no inconvenience would be experienced by the outside passenger, although in cold weather a certain degree of heat might be obtained, if required.

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“In descending a hill, there was a brake fixed on the hind wheel, to increase the friction; but independently of this, the guide had the power of lessening the force of the steam to any extent by means of the lever at his right hand, which operated upon the throttle valve, and by which he could stop the action of the steam altogether and effect a counter vacuum in the cylinders.

By this means also he regulated the rate of progress on the road. There was another lever by which he could stop the vehicle instantly and in a moment reverse the motion of the wheels.”

What was the first car company

Save for the somewhat odd-sounding “propellers”—deployable leg-like appendages intended to boost traction when climbing hills, which were later deemed unnecessary and discarded—this sounds a lot like a primitive van.

It has brakes, a reverse gear and even, if I’m reading that description correctly, heat for those cold-weather commutes. It even weighed about as much as a modern car, with a similar footprint.

Gurney improved upon the design to the point where he was able to sell vehicles to Charles Dance, a sort of pioneering automotive investor/transit visionary. Weeks writes:

“Gurney’s carriage so fully established its practicability, that in 1830, Sir Charles Dance contracted for several, and ran them successfully from London to Holyhead and from Birmingham to Bristol. In the following year he ran over the turnpike road between Gloucester and Cheltenham for four months in succession, four times a day, without an accident or delay of consequence.

The distance of nine miles was regularly covered in from forty-five to fifty-five minutes. Nearly three thousand persons were carried, and nearly four thousand miles traveled.”

All of this would point to Gurney being the first individual to operate a car company, albeit one with Dance as its only recorded customer.

FAQs

What was the first car brand ever made?

According to the data, the first car brand in the world was Peugeot, which was established in 1842. However, during the first 40 years when Peugeot was established, we have been producing decorative household items such as salt and pepper shakers.

What were the first 3 car companies?

The term originated in the United States, where General Motors was the first to form a large, multi-brand, motor-vehicle corporation (in the 1910s), followed by Ford Motor Company, and the Chrysler Corporation, all before World War II.

What was the first American car?

In 1893, the first running, petrol-driven American car was built and road-tested by the Duryea brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts. The first public run of the Duryea Motor Wagon took place on 21 September 1893, on Taylor Street in Metro Center Springfield.

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