Europe, to the US, Japan, and onto China: The evolution of the automobile
Even though the railways existed in Britain, Europe, and America by the
late 1880s, most road transport was still undertaken by house and
carriage. There were over three million horses in Britain and ten times
that many in America which had to be breed, fed, cared for, and housed.
A large amount of farmland was devoted to producing hay and oats for
horse feed and it was becoming an expensive exercise to maintain a house
and carriage. The industry was reaching the limits to its potential
growth by 1900.
The automobile was not invented by any one individual and was developed
from a combination of other inventions and incremental innovations over
time to create what we know as the automobile today.
One of the first forms of self-propelled automobiles was Cugnot’s steam
wagon in 1771 discussed earlier in the steam engine section. This was
followed in Britain by William Murdoch’s steam carriage in 1784 and
Richard Trevithick’s full size steam vehicle in 1801. However the
British Parliament passed the Locomotive Act (1865)
that required any self-propelled vehicles on roads to be
preceded by a man on foot with a red flag and blowing a horn,
effectively discouraging much more development of the automobile in
Britain, where attention was shifted back to the steam engine.
The automobile evolved through incremental
Outside Britain there were a number of various vehicles built, some
having useful features that would be incorporated into later versions of
the automobile. For example Ivan Kulibin in Russia developed a steam
carriage in 1791 that incorporated a flywheel, brake, gearbox, and
bearings. In 1805 Oliver Evens, an American developed a self-propelled
vehicle that was also an amphibious vehicle. In 1815 Josef Buzek from
Prague, from what is now known as the Czech Republic built an oil fired
steam car that could run further than other steam vehicles developed
until that date due to its more efficient fuel. In 1830s there were also
a number of electric cars developed including Anyos Jedlik’s model car
powered by his electric motor in 1928, Thomas Davenport’s model electric
car in 1834, Stratingh and Becker’s small electric car in 1835, Robert
Davidson’s electric car in 1838 that ran on tracks, a forerunner to an
electric tram, and Robert Anderson’s electric carriage in 1839.
However steam and electricity were not practical power sources for an
automobile, and the absence of a suitable power source hindered
commercial development. Likewise the ride on these early vehicles was
very rough due to the wheels being fabricated out of wood or iron. A
softer material that could take some shock out of the road was
necessary. These problems had to be solved before any commercial vehicle
could be invented.
One of the very early concepts of a combustion engine was a water pump
driven by gunpowder in the 17th
Century to pump water for the Versailles Palace gardens
developed by Christiaan Huygens. Shortly after, a number of piston
engines utilizing gas were developed. In 1807 a Swiss engineer François
Isaac de Rivaz developed an internal combustion engine driven by a
hydrogen and oxygen mixture, ignited by an induced spark based on
Alessandro Volta’s concept of propulsion using air and hydrogen in a
pistol to propel a cork from the end of the barrel from 1790s.
Over the years a number of improvements to the combustion engine were
made by Sadi Carnot, Samuel Morey, William Bernett, Eugenio Barsanti and
Felice Matteucci, and Pietro Benini. The development of an efficient
combustion engine was hindered by the absence of petroleum as a fuel
which was just appearing in the later part of the 19th
Around 1860 the Belgian Etienne Lenoir developed a gas fueled
electrically ignited internal combustion engine that utilized cylinders,
pistons connected to rods and a flywheel where the gas basically took
the place of steam, as in the Watt steam engines. The engine was
commercially produced and used extensively to drive stationary
machinery. Although the Lenoir engine attracted much publicity, it was
not suitable for a moving vehicle but inspired others to refine and
develop upon the basic design.
One of these people was Nikolaus August Otto who thought that running
the engine on gas was impractical and imagined an engine running on the
vapour of petrol mixed with air. Together with a friend Michael Zons who
had a workshop, they built a small engine that ran on alcohol and
applied for a patent that stipulated an engine that would propel
vehicles serviceably along a country road.
The patent application was turned down on the basis that the engine was
too close to others, so Otto and Zons continued to development until
they created a four-stroke cycle engine. That year Otto formally joined
Zons in his machine shop and went across to London to see if anybody
else was offering any similar types of engines. He found that nobody
else had anything like it.
Otto had a number of ideas to make the engine more efficient but was
starting to run out of money. He eventually met up with a young engineer
Eugene Langen from a wealthy family who became a partner and bankrolled
Otto, forming N.A. Otto & Company, engine builders. After selling a few
engines they found that in their present form the engine was not too
saleable and spent the next three years experimenting until they created
an engine with a vertical cylinder and piston connected to a cog wheel
that went up and down. They presented it at the Great Exhibition in
Paris during 1867. It just so happened that one of Otto’s old
acquaintances Professor Franz Reuleaux of Berlin University was on the
judging committee and insisted Otto’s engine be directly compared to the
Lenoir engines on display. The judges found that the Otto engine used
only one third the fuel used by the Lenoir engine and Otto and Langen
won the gold medal personally presented to them by Napoleon III. After
the exhibition sales increased dramatically and by 1871 they had
licensed production of the engine to Crossley Brothers of Manchester and
were making profits. The company continued to grow and took on some new
partners and was renamed Deutz-AG-Gasmotorenfabrik.
Gottlieb Daimler was interested in building an automobile from an early
age. He showed himself to be a very skilled craftsman during his
apprenticeship at a gunsmith workshop and was awarded a place at the
School for Advanced Training in Stuttgart where he studied at night
while working during the day. Daimler later moved to Strasbourg where he
worked on steam locomotives and built railway cars, becoming foreman at
the age of 22. He was given leave to study at the Stuttgart Polytechnic
Institute and completed the four year course in two years. Daimler then
spent some time in Paris and Britain where he toured and worked at a
number of engineering works. He also attended the 1862 Great Exhibition
in London. Upon his return to Germany Daimler spent a few years working
at the Bruderhaus Factory producing machines for paper mills, farms, and
weighbridges. During his time at Bruderhaus, Daimler met Wilhelm Mayback
with whom he developed a very close relationship. Maybach was a very
creative draughtsman who was later to follow Daimler from job to job.
Daimler was approached by Langen in 1872 to work for Deutz which was
expanding their production of the Otto engine. Daimler persuaded Langen
to also take on Mayback as chief designer for the company. They both
spent about ten years at Deutz, with Daimler leaving to set up his own
company in Cannstatt from the compensation he got from Otto for his work
on the patents. Maybach soon joined him and they set out to produce a
petrol engine that had an efficient and quick starting ignition and a
power-to-weight ratio that would be suited for an automobile. By 1885
they had produced a one horsepower engine with some improvements over
the Otto engine including a carburetor to mix fuel with the air for
better combustion. Daimler fixed an engine to a bicycle and created the
first powered motorcycle. Daimler also bought a carriage he bought from
Stuttgart and mounted the engine onto it as a “present to his wife”.
Quite independently Karl Friedrich Benz was also working on a petrol
engine. Benz was born into a relatively poor family but was able to get
a good education where he studied locomotive engineering at university.
During these years Benz had a dream of building a self-propelled
horseless carriage. Benz started his first business a machine shop and
supplier of construction materials in 1871 with a partner August Ritter.
The company ran into financial trouble and Benz fiancée Bertha Ringer
bought out Ritter with money from her dowry. After further poor business
performance the firm got into further financial trouble where Benz
admitted a new partner and lost control of the company. In 1883 Benz
left the company and bought into a bicycle repair shop in Mannheim with
Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eβlinger.
Benz soon left and went into the engine building business and formed
Benz & Cie Rheinsche Gasmotoren-Fabrik. The business went well producing
engines for a growing market and this gave Benz the opportunity to focus
his attention on building an automobile. Benz developed an automobile
primarily based on bicycle technology. It was powered by a four-stroke
engine Benz had designed, sitting between the rear wheels with the power
being transmitted through chains to the rear axle. Benz patented his
automobile in 1886 calling it the Benz Patented Motorwagen. This first
model had plenty of room for improvement and Benz over successive years
created new versions that ironed out faults in the previous model.
Although his invention had plenty of attention, there was actually
little interest in purchasing the vehicle. Most of the sales were in
France through Benz’s agent Emile Roger, who was already building Benz
engines under license there.
There were still a number of problems. Gasoline at the time was only
sold by pharmacies as a cleaning fluid, and the automobile still lacked
power to climb small hills and the brakes were rough. The automobile
could not go in reverse. An important event in the history of Benz was
the story of Bertha Benz in 1888 using the car to travel from Mannheim
to Pforzheim to visit her mother, a round trip of some 212 km. During
the trip she apparently made some technical improvements to the
automobile which included putting leather brake linings on the brakes to
help with downhill braking and recommended to her husband to add another
gear to the engine so it could go up hills better.
By 1895 the Benz factory had sold more than 135 cars and was known as
one of the most important manufacturer of automobiles.
Now Germany had three manufacturers of petrol engines.
The early bicycles and automobiles used wooden or iron rims for tyres
which had no shock absorbing properties. However for the tyre to be
invented, a pliable material that could be used in its construction was
required. Charles Goodyear heard about the properties of gum elastic
and went to see J. Haskins, the manager of Roxbury Rubber Company in New
York. Goodyear found that the rubber used to make products disintegrated
over time rendering them useless. He started working with Indian rubber
by heating it and adding different materials in attempts to get the
stickiness out of the material. Goodyear thought that he found the
solution using an acidic material to cure the latex and built up a
business manufacturing life preservers, rubber shoes, and other rubber
based products. Due to the crash of 1837, Goodyear became penniless and
it was only the financial support given to him by J. Haskins who he knew
at Roxbury Rubber Company that saved him. Goodyear continued to
experiment to improve the curing process. In 1838 Goodyear met with
Nathaniel Hayward who had been using sulphur to dry rubber. Goodyear
found that when rubber was heated with sulphur, the rubber cured
perfectly–heating sulphur with rubber created vulcanized rubber, named
after the Greek god of fire. It is debated today whether Goodyear found
the solution by pure luck or through careful application and
observation. Goodyear made the discovery in 1839 but only patented it in
1844 after he enhanced and fine tuned the process. Vulcanized rubber
could be utilized to make many products of which automobile tyres was
one of them.
Robert William Thomson was born in Stonehaven, Scotland and moved to
America at the age of 14 where he was apprenticed to a merchant. Two
years later he returned to Scotland teaching himself chemistry,
electricity, and astronomy. Robert’s father built him a workshop where
he improved upon his mother’s washing mangle so wet linen could be
passed through, designed a ribbon saw, made a working model of an
elliptic steam engine, and a number of other inventions. He set up his
own railway consulting company, while he designed and built a pneumatic
tyre for horse carriages. The tyre consisted of a hollow India rubber
and canvas tube inflated with air enclosed in a strong leather casing of
leather and bolted to the wheel. The wheels formed a cushion of air upon
the road or track they ran on which greatly improved the comfort of
travel and reducing the noise. One set of tyres lasted for more than
1,200 miles. Thomson patented the tyre in France in 1846 and in America
Thomson’s invention basically went unnoticed and forty years and
forgotten. A Scottish veterinary surgeon John Boyd Dunlop came up with
the idea again as a way to improve the suspension of carriages. Dunlop
had worked with sheets of rubber at his surgery and first made a
pneumatic tyre for his son’s tricycle from wrapping the sheet into a
hollow lined with linen that he blew up with his son’s football pump.
After finding that bicycles with pneumatic tyres were much faster than
existing tyres at the time, the bicycle fraternity in Ireland switched
over to them and in 1889 Dunlop formed a company with Harvey du Cros,
President of the Irish Cyclists Association. On filing a patent
application, Dunlop’s claim to novelty was invalidated by Thomson’s
prior patent. Other aspects of the tyre were patented and Dunlop
assigned his patent over to Harvey du Cros and du Cros formed the Dunlop
Rubber Company of which Dunlop had no interest. Dunlop had reinvented
the pneumatic tyre, unlike in Thomson’s time, at a crucial time in the
development of road transport.
At about the same time Dunlop was producing tyres in Ireland, Edouard
and André Michelin in France were running a rubber factory in France.
The company produced rubber balls and invented rubber brake pads for
horse-drawn carriages. There are a number of stories about how the
Michelin brothers started making tyres but one story tells of how the
Grand Pierre asked for help at the Michelin workshop to repair one of
his pneumatic tyres on the bicycle.
According to this story the tyre was glued to the wheel rim and it took
hours to remove it and all night for the glue to dry after it was
repaired. Edouard saw the need to have pneumatic tyres that could be
easily removed from wheel rims for repairs. From 1891 the Michelin
brothers began manufacturing tyres where France became the number one
tyre maker in the world until the end of the century.
A number of companies ventured into automobile manufacturing in Europe
and the automobile started replacing the bicycle and horse and carriage.
After lobbying British restrictions on automobiles were lifted and the
industry flourished. Motor buses and trucks began appearing changing
public and goods transport. With the petroleum industry established in
the United States and large distances to travel the automobile very
quickly became popular with the likes of Charles and Frank Duryea
forming the Duryea Motor Company, Ransom E Olds forming the Olds Motor
Vehicle Company, and the eventual formation of the Ford Motor Company
that was going to take automobiles onto a new plain in the new
The transition to Chinese dominance
The decade saw the rise of the fourth generation of modern automobile
manufacturers, the first being the US automakers, then the Japanese
emergence in the 1960s and 70s, and then the Korean emergence during the
1990s. The fourth Generation consists of Indian manufacturers like Tata
Motors and a number of newly created Chinese manufacturers which include
BYD, Lifan, Chang’an (Chana), Geely, Cheri, Hafei, Great Wall, Jianghuai
(JAC), Roewe, Martin and a number of others.
Tata Motors is part of the Tata Group, the largest privately owned
conglomerate in India. Tata began operations in 1945 building
locomotives and then in 1954 commenced manufacturing commercial vehicles
as a joint venture with Daimler-Benz. Tata entered the passenger car
market in 1991 launching the Tata Sierra and a number of other models.
In 1998 Tata launched the Indica, the first fully indigenous car built
in India which was a great success and now exported to South Africa, the
United Kingdom, and Italy. The company acquired Daewoo truck
manufacturing operation in 2004, a controlling interest in Aragonese
(within Spain) Hispano Carrocera in 2005, formed a joint venture with
Marcopolo in Brazil in 2007, acquired British Jaguar land Rover in 2008
and took an 80% stake in Trilix of Italy in 2010. In 2008 Tata launched
the Nano, a car priced around USD $2,000 so that more people could
afford to purchase an automobile in India. Tata is experimenting with
electric cars and compressed air engines. Today Tata has an extremely
strong customer based on the Sub-continent and exports to 26 countries
with manufacturing plants in the UK, Korea, Spain, Thailand, South
Africa, and Argentina. Under franchise Tata cars are also assembled in
Russia, Ukraine, Kenya, Bangladesh, and Senegal.
China’s auto industry began in the 1950s under the guidance of the
Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, with technical assistance
from the Soviet Union. From the 1980s to 2000 all of the China’s leading
automakers were joint ventures with foreign automobile companies. Output
was tightly controlled with most production focused on commercial
vehicles. As China prospered, vehicle ownership has increased
dramatically, where production increased from one million automobiles in
2000 to almost 14 million vehicles in 2009,
making China the largest automobile manufacturer in the world.
Many of the local companies that commenced operations after the 1990s
were owned by the Defense Ministry, Chang’an Motors, Changhe, Hufei
Motors, or provincial authorities, Brilliance China Auto, Cherry
Auto, and Chang Feng Automotive. A few private companies
BYD Auto, Greely Automotive and
Great Wall Motors also started up. On the whole Chinese automakers
lack the efficiency and quality, but still produce cars much cheaper
than manufacturers in other countries. R&D is still low at present with
some companies taking inspiration from international models. The state
owned Cherry Automobile Co. Ltd. is the largest independent domestic
vehicle manufacturer and will be privatized soon. Some of the other
major domestic manufacturers First Automobile Works Group Corporation
(FAW), Greely, SAIC, and Dong Feng have
built their cars upon platforms provided from international automakers
while the rest have been the result been built from knowledge gained
through reengineering or just outright copying.
Some firms like SAIC and Nanjing Automobile Group acquired MC Rover to
access technology and there is a tendency for domestic companies to
acquire international brands rather than build them.
The Chinese Government is encouraging domestic automakers to merge so
that three or four main domestic players exist in the industry.
Due to the economic downturn of 2008 Chinese Automakers had been able to
acquire struggling part manufacturers such as the Greely purchase of the
Australian Drivetrain Systems International (DSI).
Chinese companies are working on developing electric cars. However costs
are still too high for the average Chinese consumer, and there are still
many practical problems as most Chinese live in apartments and access to
power supplies may be difficult. Nevertheless China is the largest
producer of electric cars in the world. One company committed to the
development of electric cars is BYD, a Shenzhen based company founded by
entrepreneur Wang Chuanfu in 1995 when he was 29 years old.
By 2005 BYD was the largest manufacturer of batteries in the world for
mobile phones, iPods, digital cameras, and other electronic goods. While
he still eats in the company canteen and lives in the company housing
block, Wang Chuanfu is now considered one of the richest people in China.
Warren Buffet is an investor in BYD.
As we can see the invention of the automobile was built upon a number of
foregoing pieces of new knowledge and inventions in various domains that
filled in the missing links that make the invention possible. Until
every aspect of knowledge and sub-component exists that is required for
the invention to take form, it cannot take form. For example an
automobile is a compilation of numerous previous inventions that enable
the form of an automobile to exist. Without the ideas of steel, rubber,
fuel, concepts of compression and combustion, electronics, tires,
braking systems, new alloys, hydraulic systems, road rules and
carriageways, the automobile cannot exist (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The hierarchy of inventions that make the invention of the
The creation of inventions that become incorporated into what we call
the automobile was and still is a continuous process, making incremental
improvements to the whole idea and concept. New composite polymer
materials and plastics make lighter frames without sacrificing strength,
new engine power enhancing systems like turbochargers and fuel injection
systems contribute to the enhancement of car performance. The automobile
is a system of ideas and also forms part of other idea systems like
transport and city planning, etc.
Any new technology like the automobile brings with it a number of new
opportunities in addition to the original intended purpose of the
technology. The advent of the automobile industry enabled the formation
and development of many specialized service businesses, and satellite
suppliers of car parts for production. The automobile has led to
automobile service stations, parts manufacturers, paint manufacturers,
steel suppliers, logistic transport providers, and automobile dealers,
as well as the invention of seat beats and other safety equipment. The
development of cities like Detroit in the 1950s was driven by the auto
The automobile also radically changed the way societies existed. Auto
manufacturing clusters are also a feature in the development of a
nation, as we have seen in Britain, Europe, the US, Australia, Japan,
Korea, Malaysia, and of late India and China - rising, stagnating, and
eventually declining. Some of these early industries may grow out of
factor advantages such as low cost labour, as did the Japanese consumer
product manufacturing during the 1950s and 1960s. However to maintain
any industry in the long term, a new basis of competitive advantage
should be developed on the production and/or market sides, i.e., new
technologies, design superiority, the development of enhanced logistical
chains, or the targeting of special market segments like the Japanese
did with small automobiles, etc.
Now we are again witnessing a change in the guard of this industry
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rubber derived from latex.
H.R. (2003). The Michelin Men Driving and Empire, London, I.B.
Motoring Ahead: More Cars are Sold in China than in America, The
Economist, 23rd October 2009,
(accessed 16th February 2011).
 Marr, K.
(2009). As Detroit Crumbles, China Emerges as Auto Epicenter, The
Washington Post, 18th
 Tang, R.
(2009). The Rise of China’s Auto Industry and its Impact on the U.S.
Motor Vehicle Industry, Washington D.C., Congressional Research Service,
 Jian, Y.
(2009). Chinese Car Companies Resort to Buying Brands Rather Than
Creating Them, Advertising Age, 15th
http://adage.com/china/article?article_id=137900, (accessed 16th
 Tang, R.
(2009), P. 14.
Chuanfu: Building electric dreams in China, CNN.com/asia, 20th April
(accessed 14th February 2011).
Hunter, M. (2012), Opportunity, Strategy, & Entrepreneurship: A
Meta-Theory, Vol. 1., New York, Nova Science Publishers, P. 53.