Automobile: From Obscure Invention to War Tool

A touring car attached to an ambulance trailer

Automobile: From Obscure Invention to War Tool

Two men riding in a tricycle automobile in the 19th century
Two men riding in a tricycle automobile in the 19th century

Contrary to popular belief, the automobile has been around for more than a century. The vehicles just didn’t become practical until about 100 years ago.

The first automobile was developed in the 18th century and was steam powered. In the 19th century, the first hydrogen-powered car was invented and the first electric one was developed.

The gasoline-powered car patent was awarded in 1886 to the future co-founder of Mercedes-Benz, Karl Benz.

The first gasoline-powered motor cars were nicknamed “horseless carriages” because the vehicle body was virtually identical to that of a carriage.

Turn of the 20th Century

A woman drives a car with her daughter as the passenger, circa 1910s
A woman drives a car with her daughter as the passenger, circa 1910s

In the early 1900s, electric cars were the most popular cars. Then advances in combustible engine vehicles made gas-powered automobiles more reliable to operate, and they soon overtook their electric cousins.

The first cars were playthings for the rich. There was virtually no infrastructure, and most roads were unpaved. Vehicles could not be driven in bad weather. These factors meant they weren’t practical as a reliable form of transportation.

However, by the turn of the century, car companies were popping up all over Europe, Asia and North America. Many of the brands we recognize today had their start during the 1890s and early 1900s including Ford, Renault, Peugeot, Oldsmobile, Rolls-Royce, Daimler, Fiat and Mitsubishi.

Many smaller companies also were formed. Once such company was Bell Motor Co. It produced 40 Barrie Bell cars at its manufacturing plant in Barrie, Ontario, from 1916 to 1918 when the company went bankrupt.

Most smaller companies either went out of business or were bought out in the late 1910s and the early 1920s.

During the first two decades of the century, automobiles and trucks became increasingly more common and took on their familiar design.  Auto racing was invented.

Motoring became an activity both sexes could enjoy equally. For women, it brought a source of freedom that nothing, other than perhaps the bicycle craze of the 1890s, could bring.

Taxis of the Marne

World War I is the first war where motorized vehicles played a large role.

In September 1914, the French needed a way to transport troops to the front before the Germans could overrun their positions near the Marne River. The railway system was unreliable, so 600 taxis were requisitioned by the army to transport 6,000 troops. These Taxis of the Marne are one the reasons why the French won the First Battle of the Marne.

The convoy — which included not just taxis but race cars, limousines and trucks — was ordered to drive without headlights. This was difficult as it was dusk.

The taxi drivers, each carrying five soldiers, ran their meters the entire trip and were reimbursed by the French government.

After all the troops were delivered, some taxis making a second trip, the drivers were free to go. Some drivers, however, opted to stay to help transport the wounded to safety.

Medical Vehicles

Vehicles also played a large, noncombatant role.

Medical corps relied on both horse-powered and engine-powered ambulances.

Ambulances were often donated to the war effort by wealthy families or by organizations. Many were retrofitted cars. Eventually standards were written for ambulances to ensure they met the medical officers’ needs.

A World War One ambulance on the road outside a bombed out building
A World War One ambulance on the road outside a bombed out building

Ambulance trailers were used in Britain to transport the wounded from the train station to the hospital.

A touring car attached to an ambulance trailer
Innovative solutions like ambulance trailers helped solve the problem of an ambulance shortage


Updated: 23 October 2020
Melina Druga
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Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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