Driving the World’s First Car

Posted on March 10th, 2009 in classics,Driving Emotion by Julian Edgar

The other day I was reading a very interesting book. ‘Behind the Wheel’ is a social history of motoring (as opposed to a history of cars). It was first published in 1977 and was authored by Maurice Michael and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Here is one section I found fascinating:

Imagine the modern motorist’s reactions to being placed in the driving seat of, say, an 1898 Benz.

”It’s very comfortable sitting up here and the visibility is splendid, but there isn’t any instrument panel. Where do I find the starter switch?”

”There is no starter switch; the electric starter has not yet been invented.”

”I suppose we start by hand, then. Where’s the starting handle?”

“There’s no starting handle either. You simply turn the engine over by pulling on the rim of the flywheel, and hope for better luck than the famous Mr. Koosen who wrote that he had done so ‘… until darkness overtook me. The only result was a pair of worn-out gloves.’ Oh and do retard the ignition first with that push-pull knob behind your legs. There isn’t any crankcase, and if the engine should back-fire you don’t want to catch your hand in the flywheel. Where is the engine, did you say? It’s underneath your seat.”

”I see, behind these little doors. And there’s the crankshaft – oh, and the connecting rod and the piston as well. You know, that’s the first time I’ve seen a piston actually working.”

”I shouldn’t stop to admire it now that you’ve got the engine running. Yes, I thought so – you’ve got oil all down your shirt front. Let’s close the doors and get back to our seat.”

”Hello, there’s only one pedal. Is that the accelerator?”

”No, the engine speed is partly controlled by that lever on the left, behind your legs, and partly by the ignition advance-and-retard knob, and partly by the mixture control lever beside it – the technique is a little tricky. That pedal operates the foot brake, but go carefully with it because it only works on the back wheels, and if you use it when cornering you may spin round. Or you may not – it’s only an external contracting brake, so it doesn’t work very well. If the final-drive chains have been lubricated recently it probably won’t work at all; the oil gets on the brake bands, you see.”

”Surely I’ll get much more leverage if I just pull on this side-brake lever on the left here?”

”The first thing to remember about that lever is that you push it to apply the brakes and pull it to release them again. It actuates the spoon brakes – wooden blocks which rub on the tyres – so they’re not much good either, especially when it’s raining and the tyres are wet.”

”It seems very odd to have the steering column sticking straight up from the floor like this, and such a tiny brass wheel on the end of it.”

”That isn’t a steering wheel at all; it’s a sort of guard ring which is fixed below the steering lever. You see, this gadget here with the pointer at one end and the knob at the other? You steer by holding the knob, and the pointer shows you where you are going. It’s not difficult when you get used to it.”

”And these two levers lower down? I suppose one is the gear lever, so what is the other – the clutch?”

”There isn’t any clutch. Those are both gear levers. Or rather, they’re both change-speed levers, one for high speed and one for low (and don’t forget to disengage one before engaging the other). The primary drive is by flat belt, you see – that’s why there’s no clutch. As for gears, there’s an epicyclic gear if you really want it; just turn up that handle facing forward. But that’s for starting on a steep hill, and it’s such a low gear that you can’t do more than about 2 mph in it.”

”I suppose there are all sorts of things to check before we set off. Do we go over the tyre pressures, the radiator level, the sump oil and so forth?”

”The tyres are solid, so there’s nothing to check there. There isn’t any radiator, just a condenser, which isn’t very efficient, so it’s as well to pull up and check the level in the water tank from time to time. And there isn’t any sump – remember? But we have to stop every five miles to lubricate the big-end bearing in any case. You won’t forget, will you? It is rather important.”

These were the controls of the world’s first successful production car…

One Response to 'Driving the World’s First Car'

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  1. Rick said,

    on March 19th, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    So to look at it in a different way…. The world’s first production car did have ‘run-flat’ tyres and a ‘dry-sump’ standard! Impressive…. 😉

    Plus rim diameters and tyre profiles many modern boy racers would be very jealous of!