If you were asked to name the oldest car in the world, you’d most likely say it’s the Ford Model T. Well, that’s quite understandable given that car history lessons in the US usually focus on the huge contribution of Henry Ford to the automobile industry. If you delved deeper into the car manufacturing industry, you’d realize that your usual internal combustion engine was actually a late entrant in the automobile industry and that Model T does not even feature in the list of the world’s 10 oldest cars.
A true car history fan will tell you that the first cars in the world were not powered by gasoline but by steam. In fact, the first gasoline powered car entered the automobile scene in 1885 after Karl Benz manufactured the Benz Patent – Motorwagen. With time, gasoline and diesel powered engines became more popular since they were easier to manufacture.
The engines were more reliable and economical in operation than steam varieties. These are some of the top qualities that have made internal combustion engines dominate the auto industry up to date. However, expect to see changes in the near future as alternative fuels become even more popular to a large majority of consumers.
Let’s get back to the world’s oldest cars. There were literally thousands of cars manufactured way before Henry Ford launched his first Model T. To narrow this rather long list of true vintage rides, we chose cars that could actually travel across distant terrains. We’ve opted to use the term terrain because streets were only found in big towns while the highway system was non-existent by the time the first cars were manufactured.
We’ve also restricted our choice to cars that still have an existing example today. Thirdly, only cars that were capable of carrying a passenger have made it to our list. The list doesn’t, therefore, include the earliest electric models that were either too small or simply traveled on a track without a driver. Lastly, we’ve not included in this list trains, steamboats, and motorcycles and focused solely on cars and trucks. Having said that, let’s now look at the 10 oldest vehicles in the world.
Having said that, let’s now look at the 10 oldest vehicles in the world:
10. 1894 Balzer
The Balzer is an American car built in 1894. It was built by Stephen Balzer, a well-known New York inventor. The Balzer was powered by an extremely lightweight 3-cylinder engine mounted on a stationary crankshaft which moved a short shaft connected to the driving gears. The vehicle has been displayed at the Smithsonian Institute a number of times.
9. Duryea Car
The first commercial car powered by gasoline in the US was built by the brothers Charles and Frank Duryea. It was first driven along the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1893. The car was powered by a single-cylinder 4 strokes engine. It was also one of the first cars to have a water-cooled engine. The 1893 Duryea can be seen at the Smithsonian Institute.
8. The De Dion-Bouton Quadricycle
Prompted by the success of the De Dion-Bouton tricycle, the vehicle’s builders moved on to internal combustion engines. Their engines were known for being so durable that most automobile builders of the time bought their engines from the company. The company moved to quadricycles in 1891 with advanced designs that featured an engine cover, or what we know today as the hood or bonnet. It also had passenger cabins, fenders, and running boards. However, none of the earliest models built with the said features still survives today. The model shown was built in 1900 and could do a top speed of 31 mph. You can see it at the Louwman Museum in The Hague, Netherlands.
7. 1889 Daimler-Maybach Stahlradwagen
Gotlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach are recognized as pioneers of cars that ran on internal combustion engines. Daimler focused more on power plants while Maybach was more concerned with the automobile. The difference is quite evident in most Maybach Mercedes-Benz cars sold today. The two close friends worked together on different projects until the death of Daimler. The 1885 Stahlradwagen was run by a single-cylinder engine stuck under the driver’s seat.
The first Denmark-built car, the Hammelvognen, was launched in 1886. It ran on a 2-cylinder engine that delivered 3 horsepower. Judging by the standards that existed back then, the Hammelvognen was a feat of innovation. It is recognized as one of the oldest cars to have brakes and a reverse gear. It could achieve a top speed of 6 mph. You can only imagine how it felt to go at such a speed on unpaved cobblestone without any form of suspension system. The original Hammelvognen can be seen at the Danmarke Tekniske Museum.
5. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen
The Benz Patent-Motorwagen is well known in the motor world as the first gasoline-powered vehicle ever made. Although built in 1885, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen was patented in 1886. The car was powered by a one-cylinder 954 cubic centimeter engine capable of delivering two-thirds of horsepower. Fuel entered the engine via a process of evaporation but later models came with a carburetor. By 1887, the car featured leather brake shoes.
4. La Marquise
La Marquise was built in 1884. It was the brainchild of De Dion-Bouton et Trepardoux made specifically for Count De Dion. It is famous for winning the first car race in 1887. It was well built and is even considered as the oldest running automobile in the world. It was last sold at a car auction in 2011 for $4.6 million.
3. Grenvile Steam Carriage
Robert Neville Grenville, who lived in Butleigh, Somerset in the UK, started building his steam carriage in 1875. This was a period when cars were handbuilt and quite expensive to operate. The Grenvile Carriage resembled a locomotive but could only carry 7 passengers. One passenger was tasked with the job of feeding the steam engine for the carriage to maintain the speed. Passengers also paid a fare to get a ride. Surprisingly, the Grenvile was still operating by 2009.
2. The Hancock Omnibus
The Hancock Omnibus is considered as the first commercially manufactured steam-powered car in the world. It was designed and built by Walter Hancock, the famous English inventor. While the Cugnot Fardier was a huge success in the French military, the Hancock Omnibus was a successful passenger vehicle that ran the route between London and Paddington. From 1832 to 1834, its nine carriages transported approximately 4,000 passengers.
1. Cugnot Fardier
The world’s first self-propelled carriage was built by the French inventor Nicholas Cugnot after being requested to design such a carriage by the French military officials. The first prototype was launched in 1769 and was designed to pull artillery with much ease to the battlefront. It had a speed of 3 miles per hour which ensured that soldiers on foot could keep pace with the self-propelled carriage. It was a strong vehicle that could easily tow a 5-ton load and operate without stopping for one hour and fifteen minutes. You can see an example of the Cugnot Fardier at the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris.
Our list is not quite exhaustive. We had to skip many models and never even made it to 1900. You can read more about the earliest cars and just about everything to do with car history in many books covering the topic. For instance, Albert L. Lewis and Walter A. Musciano’s Automobiles of the World is a good reference book for most of the models covered in this list. You can also learn a lot more from David Lillywhite’s The Encyclopedia of Classic Cars which covers more than 1,000 vehicles from all over the world.