The discovery of Steam power for cars

The discovery of steam power at the beginning of the 17th century led to the invention of several machines, including ventilation pumps used in English mines. Many inventors tried to use that steam power to move around.

As far as we know, the first to do so was Père Verbiest, a Belgian Jesuit who lived as a missionary in China at the end of the 17th century. He built a scale model of a steam-powered cart. The Emperor found this extremely amusing, but the project was never carried out. It was not until the end of the 18th century that a full-scale steam-powered utility vehicle was built, the Cugnot tugboat, made in France by an officer from Lorraine. The French Revolution interrupted these experiments. This was followed by the following steam vehicles in England, where they were used with some success by driver-mechanics.

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Unfortunately the high maintenance costs and the numerous accidents caused further experiments to be stopped. At the same time, the use of rail was increasing and steam power seemed to be more efficient there than for road vehicles. Steam continued to attract many inventors throughout the 19th century, but few practical results were achieved. Another source of energy that was the subject of various experiments during the 19th century was carbon dioxide and the Belgian Etienne Lenoir built a stationary engine that ran on this fuel in Paris just before 1860. The Lenoir engines enjoyed some success in competition with small stationary steam engines.

Then Lenoir started to adapt one of his gas engines to a vehicle on the road. He failed to connect his vehicle to a fixed gas reservoir and then replaced carbon gas with paraffin gas. In 1862-3 several tests were carried out but the inventor was not satisfied and abandoned the idea. However, Lenoir succeeded in building the first vehicle on petroleum. Several other inventors experimented with this type of vehicle, including Marcus, Delamarre Deboutteville, Frederic de la Hault, but none of them reached the commercial production stage. The first petroleum-powered car to be sold to the public was Karl Benz’s: it was equipped with a low-speed stationary engine in the chassis of a three-wheeler. The vehicle was both homogeneous and feasible. In 1886, the Benz was the first car ever marketed. At the same time another German, Gottlieb Daimler, assisted by Wilhelm Maybach, was working another type of petroleum engine that was completely different from the heavy and slow stationary engines of the time.

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They wanted a light, high speed engine that could be used in all kinds of machines. Strangely enough, this type of engine was used for the first time in France and not in Germany. Panhard-Levassor built it under license of Daimler. Peugeot also bought these engines from Panhard and installed them in the first Peugeots with the engine in the back.

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Shortly afterwards, Emile Levassor installed an engine from Panhard Daimler in the first Panhard-Levassor car that foreshadowed what the next generations of cars would look like: an engine at the front with a gearbox behind it that drives the gears (via chains at the time). That’s why we consider Daimler to be the developer of the modern engine and Levassor to be the creator of the layout of the vehicle that would be followed by all cars in the following years. These types of cars running on petrol, steam and electricity were now offered to the public in competition with each other.

France was at the forefront in this new sector together with Panhard, Peugeot, De Dion Bouton. Germany was a little slower despite its technical lead, as the country was more divided and there were fewer roads, while England suffered from restrictive legislation such as the law which stipulated that every motor vehicle had to be preceded by a man on foot with a red flag – which did not give rise to rapid industrial expansion. In the United States, the motor industry had a slow start due to a lack of roads and also the Selden patent.

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