While many people think of cars and automobiles as the product of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, the first horseless carriages were built before the American Revolution!
Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot was an engineer in the French Army when he successfully built one of the world’s first steam engines designed specifically for turning wheels. By 1769 he had constructed a small vehicle around the steam engine, which he called the “fardier à vapeur” or “Steam Dray” It had only three wheels. The next year he had constructed a full-sized Steam Dray for testing. This version had two wheels in the rear and one in the front, capable of steering the 2.5-tonne vehicle. There was a large boiler onboard to produce the necessary steam for the engine.
This monster of a cargo-mover was capable of a stunning 2.5mph, about the same as an easy walking pace. Unfortunately, the fire for the boiler was difficult to maintain and often went out at inconvenient times. When it had to be relit it took up to 15 minutes to generate enough steam to power the engine. It was also a rather unstable vehicle, making it unsuited to the military transport purposes it was originally designed for. The idea was interesting but ultimately shelved in favor of more practical innovations.
One unverified story states that not only was Cugnot responsible for the first “Horseless Carriage”, but also the first car accident. Supposedly while testing the Steam Dray, he had collided with a brick or stone wall, collapsing part of the wall. The truth of this story is in question, however, as there are no written accounts of the said crash.
Several replicas of the Steam Dray can be seen in various museums around France, as well as in Cugnot’s town of birth, Void-Vacon. The original can be seen in the Musée des Arts et Metiers in Paris.