5 Facts – Automotive Firsts

When it comes to automotive history, there are a lot of firsts to be acknowledged. Today we’re taking a fast look at five of those first that forever changed the automobile and transportation as a whole. Which of the following ideas or inventions do you think had the most significant impact on the industry?

1. The First Self Powered Road Vehicle

The 1769 Fardier à vapeur

In 1769 French engineer and inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot debuted the first self-propelled road vehicle. It was a steam powered military wagon based off the design of fardier, which was a two wheeled cart attached to horses. In lieu of horses, Cugnot’s design utilized a third wheel and a steam engine, effectively creating the world’s first automobile which was known as the Fardier à vapeur. A larger version built in the following years had a top speed of 2.25 MPH, according to one source.

2. The First Modern Automobile

1885 Benz Patent-Motorwagen

Karl Benz’s Benz Patent-Motorwagen, built in 1885, is generally regarded by historians as the world’s first production automobile under the definition of a vehicle designed to be propelled by an internal combustion engine. The vehicle was awarded the German patent number 37435, for which Benz applied for on January 29, 1886. About 25 Patent-Motorwagen were built between 1886 and 1893. The original cost of one of these vehicles in 1885 was 600 imperial German marks, around 150 US dollars at the time or equivalent to about $4,300 in 2020.

3. The First Rear View Mirror

Ray Harroun checking the rear view mirror on his Marmon Wasp

On May 30, 1911, Ray Harroun pulled onto the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the only driver at the inaugural Indianapolis 500 without a riding mechanic and left a winner. Instead of enlisting the help of a mechanic, who acted as a spotter for cars approaching from behind, Harroun outfitted his Marmon Wasp race car with the mirror, a device he credited to horse drawn carriages. In all reality, Horroun did not invent the rear view mirror, but he was the first person to popularize it. In the years that followed the device would become standard equipment on many production vehicles.

4. The First Self Driving Vehicle

Custom Car by Jim Street as seen on a June 25, 1962 broadcast of I’ve Got a Secret

George Barris’ Golden Sahara II that was commissioned by notorious collector Jim Street offered a glimpse at the future. At a cost of some $75,000 in the mid 1950s, this one of a kind vehicle featured an automatic brake system, electronic steering controls, voice activation, glow in the dark tires, a rear seat cocktail bar, a phone and a television, among many other fascinating features. The car sat idle from the 1960s until it was recently restored by The Klairmont Kollection in Chicago. Watch the video above to see it in action!

5. The First Cars with Airbags

Mercury Monterey dash. The first Mercs with airbags had them on the passenger side only

The idea for automotive airbags has been around for a long time. As far back as 1919 actually, when two dentists patented an idea for a device that surrounded cars (and airplanes?) in the event of an accident. It wasn’t until 1971 that the airbag was put to work in a passenger vehicle, that being the Mercury Monterey, of which a test fleet was produced by Ford Motor Co. Two years later GM offered a number of Chevrolet Impalas to the government that had airbags and availability of the safety device grew in the years that followed. In 1998 the US government mandated airbags in production vehicles.

There is an untold amount of innovation that has occurred from the time the first self-powered vehicle was developed in the 1700s through today. While we celebrate five firsts here, so many others have changed the way we move. What automotive feat do you want to highlight?

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