Antique Cars 1880 Through 1916

Learn Interesting Facts About the Advent of Motorized Travel

Gottlieb Daimler Riding in First Automobile
Gottlieb Daimler enjoys a ride in his 'horseless carriage' in 1885, while his his son, Wilhelm, drives proudly through the streets of Berlin. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The definition of a classic car is quite different than the one applied to an antique automobile. When it comes to the category of classic, interpretation is often in the eye of the beholder. With that said, many car clubs apply a rule of thumb using the vehicle's age. Cars between 25 and 50 years old are allowed to wear the classic car badge.

However, the classification of antique applies to those wonderful automobiles manufactured at the conception of motorized travel. This includes units built until the U.S. involvement in the First World War in 1916. At that time, most car production stalled in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and eventually the United States. Just as they did in WWII, patriotic automotive companies manufactured military equipment to support the war effort. 

It Started With Steam Power

In the beginning, they called the first self-powered vehicles the "horseless carriage" -- used to get from one place to another without using animal power. At first, they propelled these rolling wagons with steam. In 1765, Swiss engineer Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot was credited with building the first full-scale steam vehicle, which could carry four passengers at 3 mph.

In 1801 Cornish engineer, Richard Trevithick produced a steam carriage that could produce a top speed of 12 mph. The carriage achieved these results using gears that provided high ratios for level roads and low ratios for going up hills. Steam-powered vehicles continued to develop until the arrival of the internal combustion engine. A Belgian engineer named Etienne Lenoir patented one of the first internal combustion engine designs in 1860.

The Arrival of the Four-Stroke Engine

Karl Benz designed the first two-stroke engines in 1879. These engines burned a gas and oil mixture that lubricated the cylinders as it ran. Benz pushed his creation ahead and developed a reliable four stroke engine in 1885. This engine produced less smoke and more power than the 2 stroke. In fact, the motor developed .75 HP.

In 1886 he installed it on a three-wheeled tubular framed chassis. And this is how we got the first limited-run production automobile, called the motor wagon. Panhard and Levassor were two French engineers who began manufacturing the Benz four-stroke engines. The shortsighted Frenchmen sold the rights to an industrial manufacturing firm called Peugeot because they saw no future in horseless motor powered cars.

How the Mercedes Got Its Name

As the demand for the motor car rose, so did production. Karl Benz produced 2,000 cars by the end of 1890. His customer base composed of mainly of rich buyers often bought more than one. In 1901, the company received an order for 30 cars from the wealthy Austro-Hungarian Consul, Emil Jellinek, on the condition that they were named “Mercedes” after his daughter. Following that, they called all German built cars Mercedes-Benz.

Ford Delivers the Model T

In 1903 Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company and produced the unmistakable and very practical Model T. He decided to use the engine design of Etienne Lenoir. The Model T's instant popularity changed the demand for motorcars overnight. In fact, to keep up with the country’s insatiable desire for motoring, Henry Ford created the first moving production line. Things went quite well until the advent of WWI ended the antique car era by halting any further big advances in design and engineering.

Antique Cars Paved the Way

Today, we owe the development of the automobile industry to these early designs with all their strengths and weaknesses. For example, these antique designs didn't have the luxury of thinking about the weather they operated in. Therefore, they didn't have a windshield or roof to protect travelers. Exterior styling was also not important. The early automobile featured square-sided body panels and bicycle-inspired fenders. They mounted these body parts on wooden frames. At the same time, antique cars developed technologies still seen in many automobiles today. 

Edited by Mark Gittelman