I’m fascinated by the early development of automobiles and I have all kinds of ideas and opinions on the subject. I also have one nagging question: why did things turn out the way they did? Specifically, I’m not sure why or how cars managed to replace the old horse/buggy model so completely. I better explain.

I’m not confused as to why automobiles replaced horses; that makes total sense. Humanity can only take so much of staring at horse rectums while they travel before something has to give. I understand why machines replaced animals for transport. What is harder to understand is why the entire horse/carriage/buggy/wagon model caved so completely to the integrated automobile.

See, it used to be that someone made the buggy, and the horse came from... well, nature. And the earliest cars followed that model, with bodies made by a coach-builder and an engine made by someone else.

If I was some omniscient alien looking in at humanity’s early automotive progress, I think I would have guessed the result would have turned out quite differently. I would have seen that there was already in place a robust economy based around the manufacture of horse-drawn vehicles, of all uses and kinds, from Conestoga wagons to racing sulkys to ornate carriages for wealthy people.

I, as this alien, would also have noted that those people doing the pioneering engineering work on engines were usually not affiliated with the carriage companies. Using my alien logic and some alien version of a VisiCalc spreadsheet, I’d have most likely come to the conclusion that the human automobile industry would be developed with two separate but co-dependent parts: motor units (to replace horses) and carriage makers.


This way, the existing infrastructures could be more readily used and repurposed. Organizations and families that had multiple horse-drawn vehicles (say, a wagon, a passenger coach, etc) could continue to use those assets, and the fundamental and established conceptual distinction of a vehicle being two separable and independently-matchable components could continue.


The thing is, there were some indications early on that the automobile might be like this, in our reality. There were products designed to directly replace horses for existing carriages, machines like the 1899 Kuhlstein-Vollmer Motor Vorspann or the 1899 International Motor Wheel.

Also, the early motor industry often worked by buying an engine/chassis from a car-maker, and having a body fitted by a coach-builder, much like what I’m talking about, except that the resulting vehicle was a single, inseparable unit.

So what I’m wondering is, what if things had gone differently?

What if the benefits of a solitary motorized vehicle were decided to be not enough to justify such a change? What if the auto industry had grown under the idea of separate power units and body vehicles?


There’s some real disadvantages to this method, especially concerning handling, but there’s some pretty big advantages as well, even aside from an easier transition from horse-to-motor: flexibility, efficiency and economy (you could have one motor unit, and three very different kinds of bodies, for example), easier to deal with breakdowns (no need to tow whole cars, normally; just connect a new power unit), cars could have much longer lifespans, be more upgradable or able to switch to other forms of fuel or power, and so on.

I decided, for the hell of it, to pretend that this horse-replacement concept of automobiles had caught on, and tried to imagine what a sample car from each decade of the 20th century might be like – a little peek into an alternative car universe that never happened:


The first generation of these would be the most direct, literal horse replacements, using the exact same carriages as horses used. These really did exist, and this drawing is basically a Motor Vorspann.

Steering is primitive, using the existing system of yokes to turn the whole unit, much as you’d turn a horse. Note that this concept also sets up FWD as the default for motor vehicles.


I think by the teens and ‘20s, carriage makers would start tailoring their offerings to be only for motor use. We’d get metal doors and glass windscreens, needed with the greater possible speeds.

The motor units would still steer by pivoting around a point between the motor unit and the carriage, but that system now would at least have mechanical linkages into the carriage. Lighting and other ancillaries would all be integrated into the carriage, with the motor unit only providing propulsion.


I think a lot of development would be happening between the 1920s and 1930s, and I suspect that the 1930s, much like the 1930s in our universe, would have seen some experimentation with rear-engine designs.

However, in this alternate universe, the ‘pusher’ concept would have happened as a way of improving the handling and steering. By moving the engine to the rear, a real Ackermann geometry steering system could be developed without the complexity of working around the motor unit.

The handling and maneuverability benefits would be obvious, and before long I think manufacturers would soon take the lessons learned by the pusher-motor designs and work them into the more traditional front-mounted motor units.


We’ll say WWII happens in this universe as well, and with it would come the need for rugged, off-road vehicles. The rear-engine experiments of the 1930s would have moved the whole industry to real, integrated steering in the motor units, and rigid mounting systems for motor units and their carriages.

The modular nature of the motor units would have made getting to four-wheel drive (and, six, and more) a relatively simple matter of adding a motor unit to both ends of a central passenger/cargo compartment. Hence, I think this universe’s Jeep would look like the above, with front and rear two-cylinder motor units that would also be employed as modular power units for many other pieces of equipment.


The postwar years would have been like ours, optimistic and bold and prosperous—at least in the US. Auto design would be flamboyant, and while the mechanicals didn’t change much, for the first time an attempt would be made to really style the motor units, with motor unit companies offering different housings and colors and lighting designs, and so on.

Big motors mean more status, and families were now prosperous enough to own an average of three bodies per motor unit — usually a sedan, a convertible, and some sort of either camper or utility truck.


Connecting a body to a motor unit was a simple process, able to be done by one person, with connections becoming more and more standardized and hydraulically-assisted.

For the first time, carriage makers and motor unit companies have started to partner up to provide unified body designs between motor unit and passenger carriage. While federal regulations mandate that all motor units be compatible with all carriages, more and more buyers are seeking to stay with allied companies to have an overall unified look.


Also in this era, people are buying the biggest V8 motor units they can and connecting them to the smallest, lightest carriage models they can find, giving birth to the muscle car.

Quality control took a hit in this universe’s decade as well, with motor units commonly exhibiting issues like ‘nose droop’ as seen above, the result of poor alignment and sloppy manufacturing.


Big motor units and ornate two-door carriages with vinyl roofs and opera windows form the basis of the ‘personal car’ craze, though many buyers soon ditched their big V8 motor units for smaller 4-cylinder ones as gas prices continued to climb.

The gas crisis meant many more small four-cylinder motor units were sold, with light hatchback bodies becoming increasingly popular. Pickup truck bodies had always been available, but for the first time people were pairing them with the small, economy motor units instead of the big utility I-6 or V8 ones, creating lighter-duty but still useful trucks, as seen above.


The first really serious and successful streamlining started here, necessitating greater cooperation between motor unit and carriage makers. Mechanical linkages between motor unit and carriage started to be phased out in favor of drive-by-wire systems, making the first motor units that were no longer compatible with most older carriages, though companies did offer adapter kits.

I bet for racing and real performance applications, one-unit cars as we know them would have been developed, allowing for things like mid-engines, less weight, and much better handling.


Still, for general transportation use, I think the separate propulsion unit/people cargo carrier setup could actually work well, and could have offered some interesting options and opportunities.

That’s not how things went, though, and I can’t say I regret that. Still, I would love to visit that universe, if only to log on to their internet, go to Jelopnic.com, and see what crazy ideas that Tason Jorchinsky has about motor units and carriages that are all one, weird unit.

Contact the author at jason@jalopnik.com.