The idea of the gas-powered automobile is the work of Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz. Daimler and Benz both worked with the early 19th century technology of an internal combustion engine – an engine that is designed to use an explosive combustion of fuel (usually gasoline, diesel, or kerosene) to activate a piston that is housed within a cylinder. The movement of the piston activates a crankshaft that moves a chain or drive shaft which, in turn, moves the wheels of a vehicle.

Karl Benz, a German mechanical engineer, used the internal combustion engine to build the first gas-powered, practical automobile in 1885. His first vehicle, which moved on three wheels, was patented in 1886, with his four-wheel vehicle following in 1891. By 1900, Benz’s company was the world’s largest manufacturer of automobiles.

Around the same time, Gottlieb Daimler took the newly invented (by Nicolaus August Otto) four-stroke internal combustion engine and turned it into the first gas engine. This small, fast, and lightweight engine revolutionized the possibilities of automobile design. In 1886, Daimler converted a stagecoach to hold his engine, creating the first four-wheel automobile the world had ever seen.

The work of Benz and Daimler became increasingly popular and by the early 1900’s gasoline powered cars were some of the hottest technologies in the market. However, the cost of an automobile made buying a car somewhat prohibitive for the average American.

Ransome Eli Olds was the first to create a mass produced automobile.  While automobiles up to that point had been mostly individually and uniquely made, in 1899 Olds created a factory in Detroit in an effort to produce a large number of low-priced cars. Olds’ ideas were improved upon by Henry Ford around 1913 when he created the first conveyor belt-based assembly line.  Ford’s new technology meant that he could greatly reduce the time needed to assemble an automobile, which reduced its price.

Since that time, car manufacturers have worked to greatly increase the efficiency, technology, and designs of motor vehicles.  Some of the most important improvements include:

  • the invention of the electric ignition and the starter motor in 1911,
  • introduction of independent suspension and four-wheel brakes (by Charles Kettering for Cadillac),
  • the introduction of emissions regulations (in California in 1965),
  • fuel economy (in 1973 in relation to the Arab oil Embargo),
  • the creation of anti lock brakes (by Bosch for Mercedes-Benz in 1978),
  • and the invention of the hybrid (in 1997 by Toyota and Honda).