The motor car first appeared in Germany in 1885 when Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, each working independently of the other, produced self-propelled vehicles powered by rear-mounted, petrol-fuelled single-cylinder engines. These were based on the stationary gas engine that used the four-stroke principle.
The replicas of the originals that each engineer produced gave birth to the world’s motor industry, although in 1896, France and not Germany became the world’s largest manufacturer of motor vehicles. In 1891 a French engineer, Emile Levassor, transferred the engine of the Panhard et Levassor car from its established rear location to the front of the vehicle, from where it drove the rear wheels via a clutch and in-line gearbox. Named Systeme Panhard, it rapidly overtook the original layout in popularity and survives, in essence, on large-capacity cars.
The progressive Gottlieb Daimler soon produced, in 1893, a vertical two-cylinder in-line engine and Benz followed, in 1897, with a horizontally opposed twin in which the cylinders were in the same plane as the crankshaft. Panhard had introduced the in-line four in 1896 and this configuration soon outstripped all other types in popularity, most notably in the Henry Ford Model T, built between 1908 and 1927.
Over 15 million of these Fords were produced and their success helped America to consolidate its position, attained in 1906, as the world’s largest manufacturer of motor cars. The United States dominated the industry until 1980, when it was overtaken by Japan.
Britain had lagged behind France and Germany in introducing the motor car, as its industry was stifled by the presence of the Locomotive Act of 1865. This required self-propelled vehicles to be limited to a speed of 3.2 km/h (2 mph) in towns and 6.2 km/h (4 mph) elsewhere. Originally, motor cars were required to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag but this stipulation was usually set aside following an amendment to the act in 1878.
As early cars were capable of at least 32 km/h (20 mph), Continental imports could not be practically or legally run on Britain’s roads until 1896, when the Locomotive Act was modified. The speed limit was raised to a blanket 19 km/h (12 mph) and increased again, in 1904, to 32 km/h (20 mph).
Britain’s motor industry therefore dates from 1896, although most manufacturers were initially only responsible for their vehicles’ mechanical components. Bodywork, usually of the open type with only rudimentary weather protection in the form of a canvas hood, was the responsibility of coachbuilders, who had hitherto manufactured horse-drawn vehicles.
In 1904 the English Napier company had built the world’s first usable six-cylinder car, although the costly straight-eight engine did not make any impact until after World War I. The more compact V8, in which four in-line cylinders were positioned in a V-shaped configuration, was popularized by the American Cadillac company in 1915. Its Lincoln rival was responsible for the world’s first successful V12-engined car that dates from 1915. However, the V6 unit, pioneered by Lancia, did not arrive until 1950.
Q Saloon Bodies
Most cars were fitted with open, wooden-framed, hand-crafted steel or aluminium bodywork that was mounted on a separate chassis frame. Saloons were more expensive because they used more materials. It was not until 1925 that the American Essex company risked all by offering a closed car that sold for less than a touring vehicle. The gamble paid off and the rest of the motoring world soon followed suit.
Machine-made pressed steel body panels had been used by Dodge in America from 1916; this led to the all-steel saloon and, finally, the unitary body, which dispensed with the chassis and transferred stresses to the hull. Citroën’s advanced front-wheel drive Traction Avant model of 1934 was the first mass-produced car to feature the concept and was followed by General Motors’ German Opel subsidiary in 1935. General Motors was also responsible for introducing silent gear changes to motoring in 1928, and in 1940 an American car, the Oldsmobile, was the first vehicle to have automatic transmission.
Cars used leaf springs inherited from horse-drawn carriages until the 1930s, when independent front suspension was developed. However, its rear equivalent was rarer and usually confined to more expensive vehicles. An exception was provided by Volkswagen AG in Germany. The Beetle was the Volkswagen which was designed by Ferdinand Porsche in 1934 and entered series production in 1945. Featuring all-independent suspension, it was powered by a rear-mounted, horizontally opposed, four-cylinder engine that was cheap to run, and which also defied convention by being air- rather than water-cooled. The Beetle became the most popular car in the history of motoring; it is still in production and a record 21 million have been built.
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