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Michelin tyres and a higher speed limit gave new impetus to the first motor cars

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Transport on Monday, 13 January 2014

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This edited article about motor cars first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 507 published on 2 October 1971.

Red Flag Act for controlling cars, picture, image, illustration

A red flag bearer walks ahead of an early motor car, by Peter Jackson

Because of the early restrictions the Government placed on the first “horseless carriages” under the notorious “Red Flag Act,” which compelled motorists to have a man with a red flag walk in front of them, the advance of the motor car in Britain was slowed for a few years.

However, progress was not halted completely, and a few continental cars were imported into the country. Gottlieb Daimler had issued licences for his engines to be built in England, and in 1895, the Daimler Motor Company was formed.

Manufacturers and members of the public now began to bring pressure on the Government to repeal the Red Flag Act, and in 1896 it was replaced by the Locomotives on Highways Act which raised permitted speed limits from 4 mph to 14 mph. In celebration of their victory, motoring enthusiasts organised the first London to Brighton rally. Thirteen out of thirty-three entries finished the now famous course. This first rally was won by a Frenchman, Leon Bollé, who drove his racing tricar to complete the sixty odd miles in less than four hours.

Britain’s first motor show was held in 1895. Those of you who have been lucky enough to visit one of today’s motor shows in London, would have found a great contrast between it and that original exhibition held at Tunbridge Wells, in Kent – it had only about six cars on show!

In May of 1896, a larger show was organised by a Mr. H. J. Lawson. A much greater number of cars was displayed at the Imperial Institute in London, and motoring devotees were delighted when the Prince of Wales paid it a visit.

The last remaining years of the 19th century brought increasing momentum to the progress of the motor car. In France, the Comte de Dion, designed a new and successful piston engine which was to power many makes of car, such as the De Dion-Bouton of 1889. This car had a water-cooled engine at the rear with a single vertical cylinder of 402 cc and an automatic inlet valve. It also had battery and coil ignition, a jet carburettor, two forward speeds and an epicyclic type expanding clutch gearbox.

Another well-known French car of 1899 was the Gorbron-Brillie. Also rear-engined and water-cooled, it had two transverse horizontal cylinders each with two pistons, and was claimed by its makers to be “the first car driven by a petrol engine absolutely free from vibration.” The engine capacity was 1609 cc, and there was a cone clutch and a three-speed gearbox. The final drive to the rear wheels was achieved by means of a chain.

At about this period two famous Frenchmen, the Michelin brothers, had been experimenting with pneumatic tyres, and their success in this field was probably one of the greatest single contributions to motoring comfort.

The emergence of the motor car as an efficient means of road transport had also aroused the enthusiasm of the Italians who soon began to establish themselves as fine motor engineers.

The first car to be produced entirely in Italy was designed by Enrico Bernardi, and built by a company called Miari e Giusti of Padua. It was a three-wheeler with a horizontal 3¬Ω hp single cylinder engine of 624 cc, but perhaps the true pioneers of the Italian car industry were the Ceirano brothers who founded a number of production plants in the early twentieth century. In 1901, their factory in Turin produced the Ceirano 5 hp open tourer with a vertical single cylinder engine.

Other famous Italian car makers were Cesare Isotta and the three Vincenzo brothers who, with Antonio and Areste Fraschini produced the Isotta-Fraschini range of cars. The great Fiat organisation was founded in 1899 by a man called Giovanni Agnelli. The name is formed by the initial letters of the original firm – Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, and by 1901 they were making a front-engined 1.2 litre vertical twin-cylindered phaeton with a central chain drive. This car had a steering wheel, unlike their earlier models which had handlebar steering.

Although the petrol engine was firmly established as the future power unit for cars, it is worth noting that steam-powered cars were still on the roads for an overlapping period. In fact, many of them had reached a stage of high development, and they continued into the early 1900s.

One of the most famous steam cars was the Stanley Steamer produced by the Stanley brothers of America, whose factories were turning out 200 a year in 1899; and it was a Stanley steam car, nicknamed the Flying Teapot, which several times reached speeds of over 100 mph at the Ormond Beach speed trials in California in 1906.

This remarkable little car had a boiler containing 1,476 tubes. It had a 16-foot long wooden body that was only three feet across at its widest point, and during a preliminary run for the finals of the speed trials it reached the incredible speed of 108 mph over a five-mile straight.

The following year, the Stanley brothers and their mechanic Fred Marriott built a “hotted-up” version of the Flying Teapot by raising its boiler pressure to 1,300 lb per square inch! They brought it back to Ormond Beach to find out just how fast it could go. After a nine-mile run up the speedometer clocked a fantastic 197 mph, but unfortunately the car struck a hole in the sand and literally took off! It was smashed beyond repair and Mariott was badly injured, but he recovered to tell the tale until he died in April 1956 at the age of eighty-three.

Needless to say, while the European car manufacturers were pressing ahead with their many designs, the Americans had been far from idle. They had, of course, imported a number of European models, but were soon designing and building their own. The honour of producing the first American car is usually given to the Duryea brothers who built a four-stroke buggy in 1893. By 1896, the American motor industry was beginning to get into its stride and many names which were to become world famous began to come to the fore.

Ransom Eli Olds had built his smaller new car which he called the Oldsmobile, a 5 hp curved-dash runabout. Henry Leland, and David Buick were also on the scene, but the man who was eventually to dominate the American car market and bring the technique of “mass production” to perfection was the great Henry N. Ford.

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