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A history of motoring

Vintage cars

Life without our cars is difficult to imagine - but what's the story of motoring? Rebecca Lees takes a look at the history...

Did you know...?

  • 1884 is celebrated as the year of the birth of the car, although this French claim is disputed by Germany

With over 31 million cars owned in Britain,[1] many of us can't imagine life without our trusty motor.

Yet little more than a century ago, cars were a startling sight on Britain's roads - and were definitely only the preserve of the fabulously rich.

Steam power

The origins of the automobile were long in the making. Steam-powered vehicles capable of carrying goods had been in existence since the late 18th century, French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot producing a steam-powered tractor for transporting artillery in 1769.

In 1801 Richard Trevithick - the guy behind the world's first steam-powered railway journey in Merthyr Tydfil in 1804 - ran a full-sized locomotive engine on the road in Cornwall.Car

Nicknamed the Puffing Devil, the vehicle carried several passengers and travelled from Camborne to a nearby village.

Throughout the Victorian age, however, it was all about the railway. George Stephenson's Rocket proved in 1829 that steam locomotive haulage was the future and Britain was transformed in the following decades by tracks, viaducts and bridges cutting across the countryside.

Patent's for the first cars

By the end of the 19th century several European engineers were working on automobile designs.

The Red Flag Act... required a man to walk ahead of every road locomotive waving a red flag

It appears to have been an unwitting race; German manufacturers Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were only about 60 miles apart when they were working on their inventions, but they seem to have been unaware of each other's efforts.

Benz is widely credited as being the inventor of the modern automobile, receiving a patent in 1886, but you'll find plenty of people in France ready to dispute his claim.

In 1884 a Frenchman named Edouard Delamare-Deboutteville had driven a petrol-fuelled vehicle on the road.

The engine proved too heavy for the vehicle's body, which collapsed under the weight, but in France Delamare-Deboutteville is claimed as the rightful inventor of the automobile and 1884 is celebrated as the year of the car's birth.

Did you know...?

  • In August 1896 Mrs Bridget Driscoll of Croydon became the first person known to have been killed by a car (which was travelling at 4mph)

Britain's first cars

There are several competing claims for the title of the first motor car in Britain.

Brothers Charles and Walter Santler of Malvern built a steam-powered car in 1889 and followed it up in 1894 with a petrol-fuelled version.

In 1895 Frederick Lanchester also produced a petrol engine car, although it was an under-powered disappointment.

The first production cars in Britain were made from the 1890s by the Daimler Motor Company, which had bought the rights to Daimler engines.

A factory was established in Coventry and Daimler quickly established a reputation amongst royalty and the upper classes, with the young Prince of Wales - the future King Edward VII - said to have taken his first car journey in one.Jump leads

A landmark in the fledgling automotive age came in 1896, when the Red Flag Act was repealed.

The act, formally called the Locomotives on Highways Act, had been introduced in 1865 and required a man to walk ahead of every road locomotive waving a red flag in order to warn other road users.

Early motoring accdents

The dropping of this requirement made driving easier, but there were dangers to the exciting new pursuit.

The first person to be killed by a car was the unfortunate Mrs Bridget Driscoll of Croydon, who was run over by a Roger-Benz car being driven in Crystal Palace at 4mph in August 1896.

Ford quipped that customers could choose any colour they wanted 'so long as it is black'

And the first driver to die following a road accident was Henry Lindfield of Brighton, who overturned his electric carriage in February 1898 whilst driving at the considerable speed of 16mph.

His leg had to be amputated and he died of shock the next day.

But, despite these tragedies, motoring was on an unstoppable trajectory.

In 1905 Herbert Austin established the Austin Motor Company in a disused printing works in Longbridge and achieved incredible success, with a workforce of 22,000 employed at the plant by the time of World War I.

Mass production in the USA

Meanwhile, in America, Henry Ford was creating his own phenomenon. He launched the Model T in 1908 and, by time of the outbreak of the war, was using moving assembly belts for mass production.

He believed in mass-consumerism and made cars affordable for many Americans - not only by bringing down the price of the Model T, but by paying his factory workers high wages.

By 1918 half of the cars sold in America were Fords and a whole generation was learning to drive in the Model T.

In the early days, when the cars were handmade, they had been available in a range of colours, but later black was the only paint capable of drying fast enough to keep up with the assembly lines.

This led to Ford's famous quip that customers could choose any colour they wanted 'so long as it is black'.

Back in Britain, there were a million private cars on the road by 1930, rising to 10 million by 1967.

The driving test became a legal requirement in 1935 and the sheer volume of vehicles meant that an improved network of A roads was needed.

In 1958 Britain's first section of motorway - now part of the M6 - opened at Preston.

It was followed a year later by the first long-distance motorway, the M1 between London and Birmingham. At the time this had no speed limit, no lights and no safety barriers!

The first motorway service station opened on the same day as the M1, at Watford Gap. Fuel cost calculator

Motoring today

More than 50 years on from the advent of the motorway, Ford's vision of accessible ownership certainly applies.

Vehicle ownership has passed the 30 million mark in the UK and the Automobile Association attended its hundred-millionth call-out in 2007.

But mass motoring is not without its problems, such as congestion and pollution, the cost of fuel, maintenance and car insurance.

By Rebecca Lees