1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen
Let’s start at the start, shall we. Benz’s patent no. 37435 for a vehicle with ‘gas-engine drive’ was the very first production vehicle, the very first using horsepower instead of horses. It had to be tested at night until Benz was ready to show his final product to the masses, on Sunday 3 July 1886, Benz took his 3-4 hp creation for a drive around Mannheim with his son running alongside with spare fuel to keep the 945 cc engine going. While it may have been genesis for the motor car, it was a nightmare to operate, and the modern controls we understand nowadays on a car only appeared in 1922 from a competitor.
1922 Austin Seven
The first mass-produced car in question, with a conventional layout you and I would recognise today – gearbox in the middle, clutch, brake and throttle pedals and steering wheel – was the British Austin Seven. Smaller, lighter and far less complicated to operate than Ford’s Model T of the time, the four-cylinder 747 cc engine produced a healthy 10 hp. It was licensed and sold worldwide as the BMW Dixi, American Austin, Rosengarts in France and Nissan tried to quietly jippo the design, too, later agreeing to a licensing deal.
1901 Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus
We bet you think the first hybrid car ever was the Toyota Prius. Yah no, the first hybrid-electric vehicle was built almost a century before in fact, in 1901, by none other than Ferdinand Porsche. A joint project with Joseph Lohner, the Semper Vivus had an electric motor mounted on each front wheel hub, and two small petrol engines powering a generator which produced electricity to drive the motors. Unfortunately, much like today, the weight of all this dual-energy accoutrement meant it weighed a colossal 1 200 kg. It debuted at the 1901 Paris Motor Salon where the reception was fantastic, although the high cost eventually put the brakes on the world’s first hybrid.
Lunar Rover (aka moon buggy)
We bet Benz never imagined man reaching the moon, never mind a car. The first vehicle on the moon touched down on 31 July 1971 as part of the Apollo 15 mission. The moon buggy weighed 210 kg and carried a payload of 490 kg. It was electrically-powered – because no atmosphere, dah – by two 36-volt silver-zinc potassium hydroxide non-rechargeable batteries with a capacity of 121 AH, each returning a range of 92 km. The 2219 aluminum-alloy tubing frame was hinged allowing it to be folded and stored in the Lunar Module for transportation. Today it lives on the Moon with the other US and Soviet vehicles left behind. We don’t suppose anyone’s gonna knick it anytime soon.
2006 Audi R10 TDI
The first ever diesel-powered race car to compete at Le Mans took to the track in 2006, and promptly won the world’s toughest endurance race on its first go round. Diesel torque and economy, we wonder what took manufacturers so long to put these two together for endurance racing. The R10 boasted a 5.5-litre V12 TDI twin-turbo engine producing 576 kW at 5 000rpm, ideal for getting down the Mulsanne straight at 350 km/h. It also set a Le Man’s record at the time by completing 5 187 km in 380 laps in 24 hours. That’s an average speed, average, of 216 km/h! The R10 was the most expensive project Audi Sport has ever undertaken, costing $15 million a year to run. It was apparently so quiet that at the reveal of the car, the CEO of Audi asked if the engine even running. The R10 changed the game in endurance racing, prompting rule changes that allowed for more power, different drivetrain configurations and brought new manufacturers to the sport.
1997 Thrust SSC
Benz’s original single-cylinder car had a top speed of 16 km/h. On October 15, 1997, the Thrust SCC became the first car to break the sound barrier and set a new land speed record of 1 228 km/h. It’s a record that still stands to this day, despite Bloodhound SSC’s protracted efforts to break the 1 000 miles per hour barrier (1 609 km/h). Weighing 10.6 tons and powered by two afterburning Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines it produced 76 MW. That’s Mega Watt, not Kilo Watt. Piloted by fighter pilot Wing Commander Andy Green it achieved its fait accompli in Black Rock Desert, Nevada.
1941 Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen
There’s more to life than going really, really fast. How about going into the water? Based on the rugged Volkswagen Kubelwagen, the 1941 Schwimmwagen was the first and most successful amphibious car in history. A four-wheel drive off-roader with ZF locking-differentials on the front and rear axles, and driven by a screw propeller from an extension off the crankshaft, it could reach 9 km/h in water and 80 km/h on land, the front wheels doubled-up as rudders so the steering wheel was used both on land and in water. Genius! Another popular amphibious car, the Amphicar 770 of the ’60s, merely borrowed the Schwimmwagen’s layout.
1945 Willys-Overland CJ-2A
Going on the water is one thing, but the best car for going overland was always the ‘Jeep’. With the working name of civilian Jeep (CJ), this was the first off-roader for sale commercially anywhere in the world. It started life with its famed flush-mounted, seven-slot grille that is still a design feature in modern Jeeps today. Powered by the Willys Go Devil engine, a 2.1-litre unit that produced 45 kW mated to a three-speed manual, over 214 000 CJ-2A were produced, intended for industrial use and agriculture, it came standard with driver seat and side mirror, the rest was optional. The extras made the CJ-2A a popular vehicle amongst the masses, you could add a passenger seat, centered rear-view mirror, canvas top, winch, rear hydraulic lift, snow plow, welder and generator to name a few. The birthplace of accessorising your car then.
1966 Lamborghini Miura
With the awe-inspiring Miura of ’66, Ferrucio Lamborghini had unknowingly set the template for the mid-engined dream machine that would spawn hundreds of supercar tropes. Like any Italian car, it was flawed. The carb-fed V12 engine used to catch fire and because it was styled to look like an airplane wing (in profile), it did suffer from terrifying front-end lift at high speed. Not ideal when it was capable of 273 km/h in 1966! But still, the genesis of the supercar.
2007 Google Streetview Car
It’s a car notable for being the first to map the globe and revolutionise navigation for us regular Joes. Before Auntie Google came along telling us to turn left in 300 m, navigation was a trial and error affair, armed with a paper map (most often outdated) and a vague sense of direction, one was left to their own wits. Google launched the Streetview Car in 2007 in the US, equipped with photographic devices capturing images as it drives along, in the last 12 years Streetview Cars have mapped almost all large cities and developed areas of the world, adding a wealth of information to the technology landscape.
The nearly-there list
Toyota Prius – Thank Cameron Diaz and Leo Di Caprio for making them the must-have hybrid, even though it wasn’t particularly good.
Bugatti Veyron/Chiron – It did the impossible, by being the first production car to break 400 km/h. Makes you forget what a financial disaster it was.
Little Tykes Cozy Coupe – The best-selling ‘car’ and it was the first kids’ car. This is where we all got a taste for driving at a young age.
Citroen Traction-Avant – We can’t leave the French out entirely. So here’s the first car to use fully independent suspension and monocoque construction.