For a while now, I've been undertaking a long-term research project to find the first car represented in a work of art. Not a technical drawing, but as a subject in a work created for artistic purposes only. I'm still researching, but along the way, I think I've found what may be the first cartoon with cars.
First, I need to dispel a persistent myth: the first practical car was not the 1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen, as Mercedes likes to claim. Not by a long shot. Even if we discount Cugnot's 1769 steam drag as almost unusable, there were a large number of experiments in steam-powered cars happening from the very early 1800s on.
And, just to quell any dissent, I say steam power absolutely counts as a car. And even if it didn't, Siegfried Marcus had an internal-combustion car working in 1879. But let's get specifically to this first car-based cartoon. Here it is, from a 1831 edition of the British satirical magazine, Punch:
Here's the basic context: in the late 1820s to early 1830s, the very first commercial automobile services started, as steam omnibuses. These were cumbersome, highly experimental vehicles, but developed to a commercially viable degree by people like Goldsworthy Gurney and Walter Hancock.
Hancock started regular commercial service between Stratford and London in 1831 in an omnibus named, hilariously, the Infant. Hancock had a really odd gift for naming his buses, which reached a really bizarre peak with his Autopsy omnibus. In an era when death by boiler explosion was still a possibility, this may not have been the best name for his PR purposes.
We'll cover the work of these guys in detail soon — now let's look at this comic in more detail. Being published in 1831 in the British satirical magazine Punch, it's likely it was inspired by Gurney's omnibuses from 1825 on, and Hancock's first regular Omnibus service in 1831. Clearly, the cartoonist took those well-known examples (among others) and extrapolated out a grand, traffic-filled future.
The cartoon is titled A View in Whitechapel Road and was drawn by H.T. Aiken. Working from a very few existing automobiles, all multi-seat large omnibuses, Aiken did a remarkable job of predicting the future. This one cartoon shows a number of vehicles and car-related situations that are now commonplace: private cars, food trucks (that Bread Served Hot truck would probably do pretty well today), more buses (lots with great names like The Infernal Defiance and The Dreadful Vengance — why don't we have buses with such badass names?) and, of course, lots of traffic and air pollution.
He also seems to have predicted distracted driving, and possibly the idea of car licensing (one car is labeled "Licensed by Act of Parliament.")
He was less on the mark about certain technical details — all the cars are rear-engined (and it looks like everyone has the same set of standardized steam exhaust headers), three-wheeled, and lacking pneumatic tires. But I think that's pretty forgivable, considering.
The cartoon is clearly showing what the cartoonist sees as a ridiculous, exaggerated outcome of the coming of steam vehicles, but, interestingly, the reality turned out to be fairly close to this. Traffic, pollution, the eventual success of automobiles — this was a common scene on Whitechapel Road less than a century after this cartoon was drawn.
It may be possible there's an older cartoon involving a motor vehicle that pre-dates this, but I'm a little skeptical. 1831 is pretty damn early in the history of cars, and while there may be newspaper illustrations of one of, say, Gurney's 1820s buses, I so far haven't found any actual cartoons like this, with cars as the main subject, fictitious but based on existing vehicles of the day.