The Early Days of Motoring
A reflection on the beginnings of the motor car industry by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.
It would be a mistake to consider 1886 as a year of little importance. Upper Burma was annexed by Britain and Coca-Cola first bubbled into life: 1886 was also the year when the first petrol motor car appeared which can justly be claimed as one of the most revolutionary inventions of the past century.
The dream of a self propelled vehicle had occupied the minds of inspired engineers for centuries; it will come as no great surprise to learn that Leonardo da Vinci produced some designs for one. However most ideas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were merely flights of fancy, with wind power by sails or strings of kites and clockwork springs all being considered. The advent of the steam engine however offered the first real possibilities. In 1769 a French army engineer called Cugnot built the first self propelled vehicle. It was driven by an enormous steam boiler that proved so difficult to steer that it crashed into a wall. In 1801 Richard Trevithick ran, quite successfully, a steam vehicle around Camborne, Cornwall. Unfortunately success seems to have gone to his head. Trevithick left the car in a shed while he retired to a local hostelry for 'a roast goose and proper drinks'. The boiler ran dry and the vehicle and shed went up in flames.
By the 1820s and 1830s steam coaches became a familiar sight in and around London. Gurney, James and Hancock were all leading pioneers. Yet steam power technology was not advanced enough to provide a personal self propelled road vehicle. The engines were too large, heavy and slow ever to be a practicable possibility.