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The First Armored Car Was This Terrifying War-Making Machine

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For someone who accomplished so many firsts, it's strange most of us don't know Frederick Richard Simm's name. Not only did he found the Automobile Club of Great Britain and started the first UK car show, he also coined the terms motorcar and petrol. Oh, and he was the first guy to literally stick a gun on a car.

Of course, if you look at that car with a gun stuck on it, you may be a bit underwhelmed, because that is pretty much exactly what the 1899 Simms Motor Scout is: a De Dion-Bouton quadracycle with a big maxim gun mounted up front, and a single iron plate to keep bullets from the people who aren't that crazy about being shot at by a gun on a car from shooting you in the face.


And, even car is a pretty generous term here. The Motor Scout's basis really was more of a four-wheeled motorized cycle, with all of 3¾ horses and no body to speak of. It was a decent proof of concept for the fundamental idea that you could drive and murder at the same time with the right equipment, but it was far too vulnerable for any serious use.


Which may be why Simms went so far on his next attempt.

Simms was the first person to build what we would now call an armored car. In fact, depending on how strict you want to be, I think an argument could be made that Simms made the first tank as well, even though his Motor War Car had wheels instead of caterpillar tracks. I personally think the Motor War Car can be considered the genesis of non-rail based armored motorized vehicles that includes both armored cars and tanks, but I'm sure many will disagree.

It doesn't really matter in the end. The Motor War Car was a remarkable and somewhat terrifying vehicle in its own right. It was built on a Coventry-built Diamler chassis, with a German Diamler 4-cylinder engine making all of 16 HP (some say 14) from it's 3.3L. More fascinating details can be found in this April 1898 issue of The Horseless Age:

We glean from the Autocar that Frederick R. Simms, the well-known engineer, is constructing for Vickers Sons & Maxim, Ltd., of London, a number of motor war cars, designed to run on ordinary roads. It is propelled by a 14 HP. Daimler motor, and has four different speeds, the maximum being about 16 miles per hour in either direction. Two 8 mm. caliber Maxim guns are mounted in revolving turrets in such a manner that any angle of fire can be obtained.

The armor is carried to a height of 6 feet above the axles, and completely encircles the vehicle, like a petticoat. and is suspended from the main framing by independent springs, thus avoiding any tendency to jar, and is connected with the undercarriage by means of lateral stays designed to adjust themselves to the swing of the armor. The front and rear points of the frame are strengthened so as to form rams, and be utilized in cutting a way through crowds. On the top of the armor half-embedded rollers of steel are placed, which revolve freely on their spindles, so as to make it difficult for an opponent to board the car.

The bottom of the steel armor plates are provided with a belt projecting about 1 inch, sharpened in case of war. so that the mere passage of the car would inflict heavy wounds on the assailants. This belt may also be insulated and connected to the electric current supplied by the main engine, and thus transmit shocks to those endeavoring to mount the car.

These war cars will be introduced under the name of "Simms' Motor War Car." The car will carry, in addition, a military searchlight. The extreme dimensions are: length 26 feet; beam, 8 feet; total weight, 3 tons. Large space for ammunition, stores. etc., is provided. and accommodation for three to six men. The car is also arranged to serve as a tractor, if necessary, for hauling ammunition, war stores. or guns, or for the laying of field wires or for ambulance service.


There's an awful lot in there worth noting, not the least of which is the fact that this may be the first and only time in history a vehicle of war was compared to a petticoat. What's also notable is how far beyond just armoring a car chassis this went, and how close to outright cruelty the vehicle came. I mean, rams that could be "utilized in cutting a way through crowds?" A steel belt at the bottom so sharpened that "mere passage of the car would inflict heavy wounds," and if those lacerations weren't enough, that belt could be electrified, too?


Simms clearly gave a lot of thought to how much damage this machine could cause. Perhaps fortunately for the Boer settlers, the War Car wasn't finished in time to see action in the Boer Wars, but instead was finished and presented in 1902 at the Salon de l'Automobile et du cycle in Brussels.


Armored cars really came into their own during WWI, and, of course, are still very much in use today, both in wartime use and their civilian cousins that ferry big grey bags of cash with "$" signs on them to banks, and keeping our celebrities and politicians safe. And all these high-tech vehicles owe a huge debt to something that looked like a rolling doorstop that was capable of plowing into crowds and causing some real carnage.

Thanks, Mr.Simms!