The Evolution of Cars: 1769 to Present

Every single thing that exists on the earth today has a history. Like humans, motor vehicles also carry a vast amount of history behind them. A history that ignited four centuries ago. None of the automobiles (as we know them today) was invented in one day by just a couple of inventors.

We’ve compiled a list that highlights a brief history of the evolution of cars from the very beginning. It is categorized into different sections, which in fact, are the milestones in the development of what we know today as the modern car.

Cugnot’s Fardier a vapeur

self-propelled mechanical vehicle

It was around 1769-1771 when Nicolas–Joseph Cugnot build a self-propelled mechanical vehicle known as Fardier a vapeur. It was a steam-powered tricycle. Though it is a first of its kind, it shared plenty of problems like maintaining steam pressure and water supply.

Although Cugnot was widely credited for his work on the mechanical vehicle, the first-ever known steam engine was designed most probably by a Flemish member named Ferdinand Verbiest in 1672 in China. It was believed to be a toy model for the Chinese emperor. His work is still preserved in a museum in Paris.

Puffing Devil

full sized steam road locomotive

30 years later, after Cugnot, Richard Trevithick successfully built a road locomotive named “Puffing Devil.” Richard Trevithick was a British engineer born in Cornwall, England. In 1801, he built the Puffing devil, a full-sized steam road locomotive, which he later demonstrated by carrying several passengers from Fore Street to Camborne Hill, England.

Internal combustion engine

first Internal combustion engineThe first Internal Combustion Engine

The development of the external combustion engine or steam engine was a major success, but at that time, it was not truly treated as the future of modern cars. In 1807, Nicephore Niepce with his brother Claude created the first-ever internal combustion engine and named it “Pyreolophore.” An internal combustion engine uses two or more elements to produce energy by the combustion process. After the invention, however, both decided to install their engine in a boat.

Read: 15 Most Expensive Classic Cars Ever Sold At Auction

Coincidentally, in the same year, a Swiss inventor named Francois Isaac de Rivaz designed and built his own version of the internal combustion engine. The main difference between Niepce’s and Rivaz’s version of the engine was that the former uses a combination of Lycopodium powder, finely crushed coal dust and resin mixed with oil, while the other used a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen to produce energy.

Both types of engines did not enjoy a long spell of success as both models have longevity issues and power problems in longer runs.

Rise of Karl Benz and DMG


Karl Friedrich Benz, born in 1844, Germany, was considered by many as the inventor of the modern car. In 1883 Karl Benz formed a company under the name of Benz & Cie. He built his first working motorcar, Motorwagen, in 1885-86, for which he was awarded a German patent in January 1886. Motorwagen is regarded as the first automobile which was propelled by an internal combustion engine.

DMG car with Phoenix engineDMG car with Phoenix engine

During the late 1880s, two other German engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach entered into the race and founded the famous Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG) company in Cannstatt, Germany. A few years later, in 1894, DMG produced their first major engine, named Phoenix, with Wilhelm Maybach as the main designer. Following are the main features of the Phoenix engine:

  • Four cylinders vertically and horizontally placed
  • Camshaft- operated exhaust valves
  • Spray –nozzle carburetor

Maybach W3Maybach W3

Ten years later, when Gottlieb Daimler died, his partner Wilhelm Maybach continued and produced the iconic Mercedes engine after Emil Jellinek-Mercedes, in 1902. The Mercedes engine was a great success. For some time, Maybach remained as the chief designer at DMG, but he left the company in 1909 only to found Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH. Here he created the first model of Maybach W3 in 1921. He died at the age of 83 in 1929.

Boxer engineBoxer Engine

Prior to that, in 1896, Karl Benz had already designed the first-ever Flat Engine called Boxermotor. It had a horizontally opposed piston, a design in which the corresponding pistons reach the top center simultaneously, thus balancing each other with momentum. The design is still used by many car manufacturers like Porsche, Subaru, and some high-performance engines, especially in racing cars.

The Henry Ford Era

So far, we know that Karl Benz, Wilhelm Maybach, and Daimler were great inventors; their inventions could be seen as the first big step towards modern cars. But their company only had a limited domain, mostly in Western Europe; their machines were either too expensive or not available to the common citizens.

The founder of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, was born on July 30, 1863, in Michigan, United States. He was a big supporter of mass production and is solely responsible for the transformation of the whole automobile industry. He started his career as an engineer in 1891. After several initial experiments on gasoline engines, he finally succeeded in creating a self-propelled vehicle named Ford Quadricycle.

Ford QuadricycleFord Quadricycle

Over several years, Ford and Harold Wills designed and ultimately built a 26-horsepower vehicle in 1901. As a result of its success, Detroit automobile Company stakeholders financed Henry Ford and created a company with Henry Ford as their chief engineer.

But in the following year, Henry Ford left the company because of some personal disputes. After his departure, the company changed its name to Cadillac Automobile Company. On June 16, 1903, Henry Ford, along with Alexander Y. Malcomson, reincorporated the Ford Motor Company.

Ford Model T

Ford model TWikimedia Commons

The Ford Model T was introduced in October 1908. While the car specifications were highly impressive at that time, which resulted in huge popularity, Ford also introduced a whole new concept of marketing for their products. Henry Ford ensured that every newspaper carried stories and ads about his product. He built a network of local dealers who made the car a known figure in every city in North America.

He even targeted the last level of customers, who were mostly farmers. In 1913 Ford installed an assembly belt into his plants, enabling a huge increase in production. By 1918, half of all cars running on the American roads were Model T’s. As Ford wrote in his autobiography, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

Modern/Post Modern Era

During the World Wars, many automobile companies were out of business; only a few companies were able to sustain their positions in the market. After the success of the Ford Model T, many automobile companies started following closed bodies and standardized controls. Multi-valve and overhead camshaft engines saw a huge increase in popularity. Some of the noticeable cars of 1922-1931 are Austin 7, Lancia Lambda, Bugatti Type 35, and Ford Model A.

Bugatti Typ 35ABugatti Typ 35A

After the Second World War, car design experienced a revolutionary change; a new ponton style was adopted. The first car that adopted this style was Soviet GAZ-M20 Pobeda 1946 and British Standard Vanguard 1949. In the year 1949, General Motors and Cadillac introduce a high-compression V8 engine in America.

Read: 17 Different Car Engine Types | Explained

GAZ-M20 PobedaGAZ-M20 Pobeda

In the 1950s, as car technology rose, design became more complex and artful. American Motors introduce their new concept of compact size Rambler model. As the market mood changed in the 1960s, U.S.-based companies began facing competition from imported cars from Europe and Japan. The success of American Motors forced Ford and GM to produce compact size stylish cars, which created a whole new era. Also, the following trend brought the ‘muscle car’ era to the USA.

In the 1980s, the use of new technologically advanced equipment such as independent suspensions, improved fuel injection systems became common. NSU’s Wankel engine, the gas turbine, and the turbocharger are some of the important innovations.

BMW and Saab were the first to introduce these innovations into their products but later saw mass-market use during the 1980s by Chrysler. Mazda focused on developing its Wankel engine, which had problems with longevity, emissions, and fuel economy.

1966 Pontiac GTO - classic muscle car1966 Pontiac GTO – A classic muscle car

Read: 15 Best American Classic Muscle Cars of All Time

By the end of the 20th century, the U.S.A partially lost its leading position in the automobile industry. Japan became the world leader in car production while cars began to be mass-manufactured in Asia, East Europe, and other countries.

In the 21 century, the auto industry saw many innovative technical changes. Nowadays, there is a huge demand for standardization, platform sharing, and computer-aided design.

Body styles have also passed through a series of changes in the postmodern era. The hatchback, sedan, and sport utility design vehicles dominate today’s world market. Today, there are numerous auto companies selling their products daily: some of them have roots in the past while many are found in the recent past.

Written by
Varun Kumar

I am a professional technology and business research analyst with more than a decade of experience in the field. My main areas of expertise include software technologies, business strategies, competitive analysis, and staying up-to-date with market trends.

I hold a Master's degree in computer science from GGSIPU University. If you'd like to learn more about my latest projects and insights, please don't hesitate to reach out to me via email at [email protected].

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