As an Autocar reader, you will be keenly aware of how quickly things develop in the motor industry.
And possibly also of how this process has been going on since the late 19th century.
There is, of course, more to it than that. While cars have gone from being the horse-frightening playthings of the wealthy and adventurous to everyday transport for millions of people, the entire motoring infrastructure has had to evolve in order to keep up: road signs, speed limits, fast motorways and the rest.
Here’s how things have developed in the areas of safety, legality, convenience and sport – and where they all started.
It may no longer be possible to establish the identity of the world’s first car dealership, but such businesses were certainly in operation before 1900. William Metzger (1868-1933) was selling Waverley electric cars in Detroit as early as 1897, and was also involved in creating the Detroit and New York auto shows.
Today, unless you’re dealing with Tesla or a tiny specialist manufacturer, if you buy a new car it will certainly be through a dealership, and in many parts of America it’s forbidden to buy a car directly from its manufacturer.
Since the dawn of motoring it has always been possible to transport a car across water simply by treating it as cargo. Ships designed either partly or specifically for this purposes did not become common until the 1970s, though the Empire Cedric became the first craft used for a commercial roll-on roll-off service (from Tilbury, east of London, to Rotterdam in Holland) as early as September 1946.
Passenger ferries now exist which can carry over 1000 cars. The largest ships designed to transport usually new cars from one continent to another have a capacity of around eight times that.
Car shuttle train
In railway terms, a car shuttle is a train in which owners stay with their vehicles. One of the most famous examples is the Eurotunnel service between France and the UK.
The Great Western Railway offered a similar service – possibly the first ever - under the River Severn as an alternative to a ferry with an erratic timetable from 1924 to 1966. The opening of the Severn Bridge in the latter year made the car shuttle redundant.
Invented by Percy Shaw (1890-1976) of Halifax in West Yorkshire, cat’s eyes – also known, less evocatively, as road studs – were patented in 1934 and became available the following year.
Unlike Botts’ dots, they are reflective, usually showing different colours for depending on which part of the road they are marking, and are extremely common in the UK and Ireland, though less so in other parts of the world.
The cattle grid (stock grid, vehicle pass, stock gap, Texas gate etc.) is designed to prevent farm animals from crossing while allowing vehicles and pedestrians to pass. It has been claimed that the first non-railroad application was used in Archer County, Texas in 1881.
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has for many years encouraged people to place escape ramps in cattle grids so that small mammals – including but not limited to hedgehogs - can get out rather than die of starvation.
Drag racing was invented as a way of persuading young Americans race against each other in controlled conditions rather than on public roads. Its most famous early promoter was Wally Parks (1913-2007), who founded the National Hot Rod Association (now one of the world’s largest motorsport governing bodies) in 1951. To this day, the trophies given to winners of NHRA event are known as Wallies in his honour.
At the time of writing, the NHRA elapsed time record over a 1000-foot course is 3.623 seconds (Brittany Force, September 2019) while the highest finish line speed is 339.87mph (Robert Hight, July 2017).
If any document could be considered the world’s first driving licence, it would be the handwritten note permitting Karl Benz (1844-1929) to drive his Patent Motorwagen on public roads in 1888.
Driving licences as we now understand them took some time to catch on. A Paris police ordinance issued in August 1893 stated that “driving shall not be permitted except by those holding a certificate of aptitude issued by the chief police officer”. Exactly ten years later, the Motor Car Act, 1903 introduced the same requirement for drivers in the UK, though in this case licences were granted by local councils.
As previously mentioned, Parisian drivers were required to demonstrate their driving abilities before being granted a licence in the 1890s. The UK was well behind, introducing driving tests in 1935.
Rhode Island was the first US state to have a driving test in 1908, but it wasn’t until South Dakota joined in 46 years later that the requirement applied across the whole country.
On her 1888 road trip, which we’ll discuss later, Bertha Benz came close to running out of fuel in her husband Karl’s Patent Motorwagen near the German town of Wiesloch. She stopped at the local pharmacy to buy some ligroin, a petroleum product normally used as a solvent, on which the car ran perfectly well. The pharmacy is now accepted as being the world’s first filling station.
The number of small, local filling stations has decreased in recent years as it has become more difficult to make a living selling fuel alone and drivers have become accustomed to travelling long distances in vehicles with large fuel tanks.
Grand Prix racing
The first Grand Prix race was held on a road course near Le Mans in France in June 1906. The French, who built far more race cars than anyone else at the time, were unhappy that the previous Gordon Bennett Cup events allowed only three from each country to compete.
Ferenc Szisz won that 1906 race in a Renault and is, along with Zsolt Baumgartner, one of only two Hungarians to have competed in a Grand Prix.
In a hillclimb, cars are timed on solo runs over a course whose finish line is higher above sea level than the start line. The first hillclimb event was held at Chanteloup, near Paris, in 1898.
Perhaps the world’s most famous hillclimb course is at Pikes Peak in Colorado, where events have been held since 1916. Shelsley Walsh in Worcestershire has been operating since 1905, and is the world’s oldest motorsport venue to have been used every year since its inception (except during wartime).
Land Speed Record
The first official Land Speed Record was established in December 1898 by Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (1866-1903). He and Belgium’s Camille Jenatzy spent the next four months swapping records in their electric cars until Jenatzy raised it to 65.79mph, a speed which remained unbeaten for three years.
From Ernest Eldridge in July 1924 onwards, all the record holders have been either British or American. The current (and first supersonic) record was set in October 1997 by Andy Green. Green is also the driver of the Bloodhound LSR car whose target speed is 1000mph.
For what is now a global sport, motor racing’s early history was surprisingly sketchy. The first organised race was held in Paris in April 1887 but tends not to be taken seriously because only one entrant turned up.
The 1894 Paris-Rouen is more highly regarded, but even then its premier award was shared by a Peugeot and a Panhard et Levassor which equally “came closest to the ideal” of the organisers even though a De Dion-Bouton was faster.
The 1895 Paris-Rouen-Paris was perhaps the first genuine race as we would now understand it, though even here the trophy went to a Peugeot which finished eleven hours behind the winner. The two cars ahead of it were ineligible because they had only two seats rather than the required four.
Also known as an accompanied car train, a motorail service is one in which passengers are transported in carriages while their cars sit on separate wagons, and is distinct from the car shuttle trains mentioned previously.
A service called Car-Sleeper began operations between London and Perth in June 1955, and although no such service now exists in the UK there are still several on the continental mainland. The only US equivalent is the Auto Train, which runs between Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida.
The gradual evolution of the motorway makes it difficult to pin down the earliest true example. The first limited-access highway was the Long Island Parkway (pictured), opened in 1908 and only partially surviving today, while the first dual highway (with vehicles travelling in opposite directions separated from each other) was the A8autostrada between Milan and Varese, opened in 1924.
Despite Nazi attempts to pretend otherwise, the A555 between Cologne and Bonn - opened in 1932 and thus before Hitler came to power - was the first German Autobahn. The UK joined the list of motorway builders when the Preston bypass, now part of the M6, was opened in 1958. America’s first official freeway arrived in 1940 when the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened, which links Los Angeles and Pasadena in California.
Motorway service areas
The rising number of long and wide limited-access roads during the 20th century made lengthy car journeys possible, which in turn led to a demand for those journeys to be broken up for the comfort, refreshment and refuelling of the driver and passengers and their vehicles.
The first of the UK’s many service areas, which still exists, is at Watford Gap on the M1. It opened on the same day the motorway did in November 1959. By that time, similar establishments called plazas were already operating on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Early motorists formed themselves into associations to defend themselves from critics, lobby for rights and give each other support. The first of these was the Automobile Club de France, founded in 1895 (this picture is of their first ever lunch) and quickly followed by the Automobile Club of Great Britain (1897) and the Automobile Club of America (1899).
America’s American Automobile Association ‘Triple-A’ began in 1902, and others followed all over the world, often offering roadside rescue services, useful at a time when cars were not generally reliable.
Multi-storey car parks
While not normally regarded as the last word in architectural beauty, multi-storey car parks (or parking garages, parking structures, parkades and so on) are a very good way of storing a lot of cars in a relatively small area of ground.
By general consensus, the world’s first, opened in May 1901, was created by the City & Suburban Electric Carriage Company at 6 Denman Street, London. Cars were transported between floors by lift, which would be considered a crazy luxury today. Claude Johnson is believed to have worked there before moving to to run the sales and business side of Rolls-Royce.
Number plates, license plates or vehicle registration plates were first demanded by the 1893 Paris police ordinance mentioned previously. They became compulsory in the US (specifically New York state) in 1901, though to begin with drivers had to make their own. Massachusetts was the first state to make its own plates and issue them to car owners; the one pictured is from 1909.
British drivers were first required to have plates in 1904. The best-known and most valuable is A1, which was the earliest issued in London, but it is believed to have come after DY1, issued in Hastings. Fun fact? A1 currently lives on a black 2007 Mini Cooper S.
Parking meters made their first appearance in July 1935 at the suggestion of lawyer and journalist Carl Magee (1872-1946), who hoped they would reduce congestion in Oklahoma City. Similar machines, though to a different design, were installed in London in July 1958. The one pictured is a 1940 example in Long Beach, California.
For a long time, fees were paid by putting coins inside the meter. This is still possible in many cases, but digital payment methods have become more common.
In the early days of motorsport there was far less than there is now to separate races from rallies, though the 1911 Monte Carlo Rally (which seems to have been the first event to use that word) had an unusually relaxed schedule and gave competitors a choice of start venues.
Although the terms are sometimes carelessly interchanged, races and rallies today are no more similar than baseball and tennis. Rallies are always contested on a variety of roads by a driver and navigator in a road-legal (though often very highly modified) car, competing with their rivals against the clock.
Depending on how loosely you define a road map, the first may have been drawn as early as 1160 BC. In the motoring era, Rand McNally was one of the pioneers, publishing its New Automobile Road Map of New York City & Vicinity in 1904.
For many decades, road maps and atlases were the only way of finding your way in an area you did not already know. New ones are still being published every year, but the rapidly increasing popularity of satellite navigation systems means they are no longer the essential part of motoring life they once were.
Nearly every publicly accessible sealed-surface road in the world provides information to its users in the form of painted markings. This seems obvious, but of course there was a time when there was no such thing as a marked road.
That era is generally agreed to have lasted until 1911, when a centre line was painted on a road in Trenton, Michigan (pictured) at the suggestion of Edward Hines, of the Wayne County Board of Roads. The first UK road marking appears to have been made in Ashford, Kent in 1914.
Roads predate the car by many centuries, so it stands to reason that this also applies to road signs, which were used by the Ancient Greeks. The increasing popularity of first cycling and then motoring in the late 1800s made them far more common.
The usual purpose of a road sign was once to show the distance to the nearest town, but now they convey far more information about legal and safety issues, vehicle priority, local facilities and many other things a driver needs to be aware of.
Bertha Benz (1849-1944), previously mentioned in the context of filling stations, undertook the first ever road trip in August 1888. Taking her husband Karl’s Patent Motorwagen without permission, she and her sons travelled to visit her mother 60 miles away, a staggering journey for a car at the time. Bertha was also the first development driver, suggesting that the car should have a lower gear for climbing hills, and invented the concept of brake linings on the same trip.
Modern drivers can follow her lead by driving along the Bertha Benz Memorial Route in south-west Germany. It was approved as an official tourist route in 2008.
Early attempts to measure speed were prone to substantial human error and unsafe convictions. 1953 Monte Carlo Rally winner Maurice Gatsonides (1911-1998) developed a more reliable radar-based speed camera which became increasingly common in Europe from the late 1960s. Their use in the UK began in the early 1990s.
The first such device to be used in the US was installed in Friendswood, Texas in 1986. Both this and another speed camera which operated in nearby La Marque the following year were extremely unpopular.
Motorists in most countries were subject to speed limits right from the start. The first cars in Britain had to comply with the Locomotive Act of 1865 which specified a maximum of 2mph in built-up areas and 4mph in open country. The limit was raised to 14mph in 1896. The first speed limit for motor vehicles in the US (12mph in town, 15mph outside) came into force in Connecticut in 1901.
Germany is very unusual in having no upper speed limit on some of its autobahn motorways. This also applied to all UK roads outside built-up areas from 1930 to 1967. The US state of Montana had no effective daytime speed limit on highways between 1995 and 1999; it was then set at 75mph.
The Englishman John Peake Knight (1828-1886) is credited with inventing the traffic light in 1866, two decades before the accepted birth of the car. His system, used in London in 1868 and 1869, used red and green lights as you might expect, but they were powered by gas and operated manually by a policeman.
Salt Lake City policeman Lester Wire (1887-1958) developed the first electric (but still manual) traffic lights in 1912. The introduction of automated lights in Detroit eight years later brought traffic lights to more or less their current state.
Vehicle inspection tests
Inspection tests for older vehicles vary widely across the world. The UK’s MOT test, named after the now superseded Ministry of Transport, was introduced in 1960 and at first applied to cars of ten or more years old, though this was soon reduced to seven (“There’s even talk of them being tested before they leave the factory,” said comic and actor Michael Flanders drily at the time) and now stands at three.
In the US, inspection procedures are determined at state level. The requirements vary considerably across the country, those in Alabama, Maryland and Nebraska being exceptionally mild, while several states including Michigan and Florida have none at all. Conversely those in Japan are both expensive and strict, leading not- especially old cars being exported to nearby countries.
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