Steaming and Dreaming: A Light-Hearted Look at Early Automobiles

Giant tarantula from the film, "The Wild Wild West."

Giant tarantula from the film, “The Wild Wild West.”

Artemus Gordon: We have the element of surprise. What does Loveless have?

[They look down into a canyon]

Artemus Gordon: He has his own city.  

[Loveless’ mechanical spider walks up over the edge of the cliff on which they are standing]

Capt. James West: He has an 80-foot tarantula.

Artemus Gordon: I was just coming to that.

The above passage is from 1999’s forgettable Wild Wild West remake that featured Will Smith as Captain James West and Kevin Kline as Artemus Gordon. Despite the sheer impossibility of agent Jim West being an African-American at such a point in history, the film actually did justice to some of the steam-powered technology that existed in the 1800s. With that said, and for the benefit of the persnickety trivialists out there (and you know who you are), the film’s steam-powered, 80 foot tall metal tarantula (above) was a major stretch, as was the steam-powered Penny Farthing “flyer” used to attack the spider from above, but the film was spot-on in several other respects.

Cugnot Steam Dray (Fardier a vapeur)

Cugnot Steam Dray (Fardier a vapeur).

Arguably, the first working automobile was created in 1769 by a Frenchman named Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot (1725-1804).  As seen to the left, Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur or (“steam dray”) was a steam-powered tractor meant for the transport of heavy military equipment by the French Army. Pictured to the left is a recreation of Cugnot’s creation, a steam-propelled tricycle purportedly capable of transporting nearly 4 tons with a maximum speed of about 2½ mph. At best, Cugnot’s machine was but a short-lived experiment, but it does have one dubious distinction: In 1771, a vehicle of this design allegedly rammed into a wall, possibly creating history’s first automobile accident. While it’s extremely doubtful that the vehicle was covered by what we would consider being automobile insurance in the modern sense, there is at least one report that the wall it damaged belonged to the oxymoron that is the “French military”, so absolutely nothing of value was damaged other than the vehicle itself.

Gurney Steam Carriage

Gurney Steam Carriage.

The decades following Cugnot’s effort were filled with steam-powered vehicles that appeared exactly as the guided locomotives that they were. That is, imagine a steam locomotive in your mind. Now replace the main drive wheels and shafts with stagecoach wheels. I kid you not, so keep building the image in your mind. Next, move the engine’s cab to the horizontal center of the locomotive, effectively bisecting the body of the vehicle. Now put benches on top of the whole contraption. Finally, move the smokestack to the extreme rear, add a second one, then extend them both upwards to a height just above that of the roof of the center cab. If you followed along, you’re likely in the same position that average citizens around the world probably found themselves in when trying to visualize the verbal descriptions of the creation of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney (1793-1875), the Gurney Steam Carriage (as seen to the right).

The Obedient, early automobile.

The Obedient, an early automobile.

French inventor Amédée-Ernest Bollée (1844-1917) followed in the steam-powered footsteps of Cugnot, Gurney, and other early automakers, and in doing so he created the passenger van of the 1870s, L’Obeissante (The Obedient), as seen to the left. This stagecoach-like metal brute weighed in around 5 tons, seated 12 passengers, and could easily exceed 25 mph with a top speed of 40 mph frequently alleged.

La Mancelle, early automobile.

La Mancelle, an early automobile.

In 1878, Bollée literally rolled out La Mancelle, as seen in the image to the right, a vehicle that, at first glance, looks like a throwback to Cugnot’s wall-bashing juggernaut. Despite its somewhat retro styling, La Mancelle holds a place in history as being the first automobile put into mass production, with 50 or so finally produced, and it was one of the first vehicles (if not the first) to have independent suspension on all four wheels (from the above image, it appears that L’Obeissante possibly had some form of suspension only on two of its wheels).

As a Frenchman possessed of great intelligence and a history of successful innovation, it should come as no surprise that neither Amédée-Ernest Bollée nor his creations were—as far as this writer was able to determine—ever employed by the mighty French military. In their defense, however, it must be noted that the French military was probably engaged in such vital and strategic operations as finding places to store the numerous white flags of surrender that were employed during the nation’s resounding defeat in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871). It’s good that they had such foresight since the flags would again come in handy during World Wars I and II.

Kenneth Branagh as Doctor Arliss Loveless

Kenneth Branagh as Doctor Arliss Loveless.

Léon Bollée's "Voiturette"

Léon Bollée’s “Voiturette.”

Returning to “Wild Wild West”, the nitpickers among us (and you still know who you are) may point out that the fictional Dr. Loveless’ steam-powered three-wheeled wheelchair (pictured left) didn’t exist in the time of President Ulysses Grant. True enough, but when you consider that Loveless was a mad genius who created devices that were ahead of their time (except for the impossible giant tarantula and the flying bicycle), then suspend your disbelief just long enough to look at the year 1896 and the invention of the three-wheeled, gasoline-powered “wheelchair” by the son of Amédée-Ernest Bollée, automaker Léon Bollée (1870-1913), as seen to the above right.

In closing, and with all kidding aside, the above are but a few examples of early automobiles. Men of great inventive and innovative spirit pushed the boundaries of the technologies of their day to create self-propelled vehicles of various shapes and sizes that ranged from the practical to the insanely dangerous. Some are remembered in word only, while others are recalled through drawings or photographs. Unfortunately, there are any number of early automobiles of which there are either no images or the scantest of descriptions. To all of them—to the successes and the failures, to the inventors and innovators—we owe a debt of thanks for paving the way for the means of personal transportation most of us now take for granted.


  • “1898 Leon Bollee Tri-Car.”Welcome to the Owls Head Transportation Museum, Celebrating Transportation History for over 34 Years. The Owls Head Transportation Museum, n.d. Web. 13 Aug. 2011. <;.
-Keith V.

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