This Car Was The Very First To Be Sold, Advertised, And Road Tripped

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

One of my personal automotive missions is to bring more attention to the very early period of automobiles. As in the hundred or so years before the usual assumed "invention" of the car by Karl Benz. For real automotive firsts, let's talk about Rickett's Steam Carriage.

From what I can tell, there's at least three very significants "firsts" that can be applied to the steam carriages built by Thomas Rickett, foundry manager:

• The first automobile to actually be sold to a private individual

• The first automobile to complete a significant (100+ mile) journey

• The first car to be advertised in a publication


Any of those would be a pretty big deal — the fact that one car maker — hell, one person — was responsible for all three is incredible.

The car itself is interesting, and is quite clearly a product of the state of the art of the era. Rickett worked for Castle Foundry, which made farm equipment, expanding by 1857 to building stationary steam engines to power various pieces of farm machinery.


It's not hard to see how the combination of wheeled farm implements and steam engines would have made sense to Rickett, and by 1858 he had combined components to produce a self-propelled steam plough.

Somehow, the Marquess of Stafford encountered the steam plough, and that gave him the idea that he'd like to own a self-propelled steam carriage of his own. In 1860, he contacted Rickett, and ordered one. This act, I believe, makes the Marquess the very first private citizen to order and purchase an automobile from a manufacturer.


The car itself was something like a small locomotive with a bench seat up front. It was three-wheeled, with one wheel for steering up front, and a 110 psi boiler at the rear, providing steam for two pistons, displacing about 3402cc each. Transmission was by chain to the right rear wheel, and the steam car was said to be capable of about 19 MPH. Not bad!

It was steered by tiller, with a regulator to control the speed, along with a brake and reversing lever. It did require one other person at the rear, to stoke the boiler and manage the engine.


Apparently, titled royalty are as easily influenced as any of us, because before long he had an order for a second car later that year, this one from James Sinclair, the 14th Earl of Caithness. The Earl was a scientist and member of the Royal Society, so it's easy to see why he may have been so interested and open to try out something so new and novel. His carriage also had some significant improvements, including a two-speed gearbox.


This car was used on a 146-mile road trip from Inverness, Scotland to Barrogill Castle in Scotland. The trip was taken by the Earl and his wife, with Thomas Rickett himself acting as boiler man. That's service. Good luck trying to get Mary Barra to even ride along with you in your new Suburban down to Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

This road trip was about 25 years earlier and over twice as long as Bertha Benz' famous surprise trip in the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, which I had previously always thought of as the first automobile road trip.


Likely encouraged from the success of selling his cars to blue-blood clientele, Rickett did his last major automotive first, placing what I believe to be the first-ever advertisement to sell cars. The ad was placed in the British literal gearhead journal, The Engineer, and advertised his steam carriages available for £180 to £200. That price seems pretty good, considering he had pretty much no competition at all.


It doesn't seem like the ad was successful, because no more Rickett Steam Carriages were sold. That's too bad, but when you consider that this is still the early 1860s — Abraham Lincoln was alive then, after all — it's not really shocking. Rickett was ahead of his time by at least 40 or so years. It'd be like someone selling crude, Arpanet-capable portable cellular phone with a little CRT on it in the 1980s: no one would really be ready to know what to do with it. But, 40 years later, as we all walk around with our iPhones and Androids, we can look back and see how progressive that one guy was.