The credit for the first petrol engined car is usually attributed to Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler who had each, quite independently, produced their own vehicles in Mannheim and Stuttgart respectively in 1885 and 1886. That they could do so rested on their simultaneous invention of a petrol engine. The oldest motor car shown in this group of prints was built in 1894, 9 years later.
On 14 November 1896 the Locomotives on Highways Act came into operation in Britain which removed the strict rules and UK speed limits that had been included in earlier Locomotive Acts. Encouraged by the railways and horse drawn conveyancers, these had greatly restricted the adoption of motorised vehicles in the United Kingdom.
The first London to Brighton veteran car run (also called the Emancipation Run) was organised as a celebration of the passing of that Act. It was organised by Harry Lawson, among other things, the inventor of the Lawson Lever bicycle in 1876 (we have a print of that bicycle here).
Although the motor car was born in Germany it was in France that its early potential was first realised. ‘La systeme Panhard’ consisted of four wheels, a front-mounted engine with rear wheel drive, and a crude sliding-gear transmission. This layout rationalised the main mechanical components of the motor-car and was followed by most of the manufacturers from the mid-eighteen nineties for the next 80 years. The ‘Mercedes pattern‘, embodied in their 1901 Mercedes 40 PS (HP) was based mechanically on ‘la systeme Panhard’, but it is recognised as the first modern car because its shape no longer remotely resembled a carriage but a new form that would endure in general outline to this day.
Italy was a later starter (F.I.A.T. was founded in 1899) but for the succeeding 120 years has been a major influence, not least in the way cars manufactured in all countries look. The United States was also a comparatively late starter but once the manufacture of motor-cars got going there nothing could hold back its expansion and progress. (As early as 1909 trouble threatened when a sudden shortage of skilled brush-painters caused delays in delivery of cars but it was the timely discovery of the spray-gun that gave finishing-shops the ability to keep up with chassis production).
To cope with the great variety of road conditions and climate American cars had to combine lightness with strength, clear the ground by a generous margin, possess flexible, comfortable suspension, and have an adequate reserve of power. These features made them suitable for use in other countries where operational conditions were difficult.
From the earliest days there was valuable interchange of ideas and information in the nascent industry. The 1894 Peugeot was assembled near Milan under licence with a rear-mounted engine supplied by Panhard et Levassor who made the Daimler designed engine under licence in France. The De Dietrich was built to a design by Turcat-Mery, and even the Rolls-Royce was to some extent French inspired. The only original designs were those of the Benz and the Lanchester, simplicity being the principal feature of the former (along with a high level of reliability) and advanced thinking that of the latter.