“Aha, I know the first car in the world,” you think, but you are wrong. You are thinking of the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, and while that was the first car to feature an internal combustion engine, it was not the first car ever made. The first car ever built was this hulking, steaming, smoking monster, and it’s from 1769.
We’ve written about Nicholas-Josef Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur before, but you need to see the thing moving to get an understanding of just how ingenious and terrible this beast is.
And it really is just absurd.
The fardier à vapeur (which translates to “steam dray”) is more like a truck, in the modern sense, than a car. Or it’s more like a tricycle than a car. Or more like an explosion in a bathtub than a car.
What I’m saying is, it was barely a car, but it still counts. It used the fires of Prometheus to move under its own wheeled power and transport a person, and that is pretty much the most basic definition of a car right there. Cugnot also probably invented terminal understeer, but we’ll get to that.
Cugnot’s curious invention was designed to solve a very specific problem, even though it never quite worked properly. Killing people with the utmost efficiency was, as it is today, the primary goal of war. And, like it is today, one of the most efficient ways to do so is with a great big cannon. And, like they are today, great big cannons are very heavy.
Getting great big cannons from one place to another isn’t so tough today. Just tow them around on a trailer, or fly them in an airplane, or put them on a boat. Easy peasy. But back in 1769, everyone had to make do with horses. If you were really lucky, you had a wagon attached to the horses, and you would strap a cannon barrel to the wagon, and you’d lug it along until you got to the site of the battle.
That was clearly terrible, but if Cugnot wanted a better solution, he’d basically have to come up with the entire idea of the car, all on his own.
So he did. Almost. “Better” really is the operative word here. Because none of this really sounds better at the end of the day than a horse.
Cugnot’s steam dray has two wheels in the back and one wheel in the front, and hanging in front of that was a huge boiler used to generate the steam to get the whole thing going. That was not the most ideal, as Autoweek noted back in 2001:
The drive mechanism, a ratchet affair operating alternately from each of the twin steam cylinders, works directly on the front wheel, which is fitted with horizontally grooved tread segments. The metal connecting rods, ratchets and the cylinders themselves appear to be of modern fabrication, but the boiler, frame and wheels are certainly original, the former not only wearing a patina but also bearing scars of age and fragility. The “fuel tank,” a wicker basket for holding wood billets burned in the firebox, hangs beneath the seat. Seating is for one only, and the vehicle is steered with a two-handed tiller design, which operates a rack-and-pinion arrangement on the power package, all of which turns with the front wheel. A long rod allows the driver to regulate steam exiting the boiler, thereby controlling the carriage’s speed.
And the end result is a bit of a mess, weighing over two tons and barely going 3 mph, as our own Jason Torchinsky noted back in 2012.
The tiller “steering,” such as it is, seems to be completely ineffectual on the replica. Here’s a guy desperately trying to get it to turn..... somewhere (?), but clearly having a hard time of it as he turns and turns and turns the tiller, and nothing seems to happen:
Just to even get the thing going was more of a task than hooking a feedbag up to a horse’s ears and going off on your merry way, towing a cannon behind you. Hemmings did a great piece on the building of the fardier à vapeur replica back in 2014, and the contraption sounds like a headache and a half just to get it to go anywhere:
Fed a supply of oak, it’ll take about 45 minutes to build up enough steam to reach the 30 to 35 PSI working pressure necessary for about 3 to 4 MPH. “It only needs one person to drive,” Susan Cerf said. “But it’s pretty slow and cumbersome. It’ll go about 100 yards before it needs to be recharged, and the steam and smoke all blow back in the driver’s face.”
Between the incomprehensible steering and the thick cloud of smoke and fog surrounding the person who was actually, you know, trying to drive the thing, it’s a bit unsurprising that Cugnot’s invention was also at the center of the world’s very first car crash. In 1771, Cugnot built a second example, and that one may have driven straight into a wall, according to The Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in World History, by Kenneth E. Hendrickson III:
The main problem with the vehicle was that there was a very bad weight distribution, with the two back wheels taking much of the weight, and if the load should move, such as cannon barrels rolling, there would be even more problems. Movement of the load was more likely on rough terrain, which would make the fardier à vapeur even harder to use.
It’s here where it should probably be pointed out that back in 1771 there weren’t exactly endless stretches of super-smooth autobahn lying around Europe. Even the best roads were quite lumpy. And then there’s the fardier à vapeur’s intended purpose, which was to get cannons over to where the wars were happening. And wars tend not to happen on smooth, modern autobahns, either. They’re in the fields and forests. It was a bad recipe all around. But back to the crash:
Modifying his designs, in 1771 Cugnot made a second full-size vehicle. According to an account from 1801, this second vehicle went out of control and hit the Arsenal wall, destroying it. If this took place – and this is not mentioned in contemporary literature – this would have been the first automobile accident.
Someone even went to the trouble of filming a dramatic re-enactment of the crash:
But the real brilliance of the fardier à vapeur wasn’t that the basic concept, of using heat energy to drive a piston to drive some wheels to propel a vehicle, didn’t work. That basic concept is still, obviously, very much in use today. And the problems that it did have were the sort of things that vex engineers working on cars today as well – suspension, weight distribution, steering, handling. Okay, so the fardier à vapeur’s suspension, weight distribution, steering, and handling problems were many orders of magnitude worse than something like a Toyota Camry, but the brilliance of it is apparent.
Here was somebody that likely had never even heard of a car, and yet they put the two already-existing inventions of the low-pressure steam engine and the wagon together, and it revolutionized the world.
Well, it revolutionized the world, eventually. But Wilbur and Orville Wright didn’t invent the Boeing 747, so cut Cugnot some slack. These things take time.
One of the really neat things about the first car ever built, however, wasn’t that it was a real pain and that it crashed into things. It’s that it still exists.
No, really, Cugnot’s actual machine, the one built in 1769, still exists. And not the replica, either.
The French government held onto Cugnot’s invention until 1800, when it handed it over to the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (or in English, the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts), a university focused on engineering. That school set up a museum, the Musée des Arts et Métiers, where Nicholas-Josef Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur is still on display to this day.
Yep, the first car in the world, just sitting on display in a museum in Paris.
Ready for a drive right now.
But hopefully not into a wall.