Automobile is a generic term to describe a wheeled vehicle that carries its own engine. Often the term is used specifically to refer to a car, though it is broad enough to cover cars, trucks, vans, station wagons, SUVs and crossovers. Significant numbers of automobiles first began appearing in the late 1800s.
The earliest ancestor of the modern automobile is often identified as the military carriage created by Nicolas Joseph Cugnot in 1771 for the French minister of war. The vehicle had a steam-powered engine and rode on three wheels, achieving a maximum speed of 2-3 miles per hour. It was known as the Fardier and was never put into production as it was less practical than a horse-drawn vehicle. This was a self-propelled wheeled vehicle, but as it was intended to haul artillery overland it is more appropriate to identify this vehicle as the progenitor of military tractors than of automobiles. Several other steam-powered, self-propelled vehicles were created over the following hundred years.
Belgian-born Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir, who settled in Paris and became a naturalized French citizen, invented a 2-stroke illumination-gas engine in 1858 and patented it in 1860. He used electric spark ignition, but the engine ran on stove gas and had no compression. It was shown to the press in a three-wheeled cart in 1860. A liquid-fuel version (4-stroke, based on the cycle of Beau de Rochas), with a primitive carburetor, was built in 1862 and installed in a three-wheeled wagon early in 1863. It is on record that it successfully covered the 18 kilometres from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont and back, securing its place in history as the first spark-ignition petroleum-fuel car to demonstrate its road-worthiness. Lenoir didn't continue his work on cars.
Gotlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach developed a 4-stroke gasoline powered internal combustion engine in 1889. The automobile they built had four wheels, powered by a 2-cylinder 1.5 liter engine, with a four speed transmission. It traveled as fast as 10 miles per hour. The same year, another German, Karl Benz, also created a gasoline-powered automobile. However, not until automobiles were able to be produced in quantity did they become accepted as a serious alternative to horse-drawn conveyances. The first automobile produced in a considerable quantity was the Curved Dash Oldsmobile in 1901 by Ransom E. Olds.
There are several hundred manufacturers of automobiles today. Manufacturers are not to be confused with makes or brands, as many manufacturers have multiple brands. The largest manufacturers in the world today are:
Larger manufacturers will often hold shares in the smaller ones, and it is not uncommon for shares as well as entire brands to be bought and sold to other manufactures or investors. Throughout the initial years of the 21st century, General Motors has been losing world-wide market share, while Toyota has been steadily closing the gap between the two companies. Profitability issues in the second half of 2006 caused DaimlerChrysler to sell the Chrysler group (including Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep) to a private investment firm, and rebrand itself as Daimler AG.
List of major manufacturers and brands
The following is a list of the major automobile manufacturers and the brands they own and manufacture.
Ford Motor Company
Fuji Heavy Industries (Toyota owns 20% of Fuji Heavy Industries)
Honda Motor Company
Hyundai Kia Automotive Group
Nissan Motor Company (Renault owns ~44% of Nissan)
PSA Peugeot Citroën
Toyota Motor Corporation
Volkswagen AG (Porsche owns ~30% of VAG)
Registration of automobiles
Manufacturers identify the vehicles they make by use of a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Most nations require vehicles to be uniquely identified by a VIN number; the current 17-digit numbering system has been in use since 1978.
- James J. Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1988), 1-2.
- James J. Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1988), 32.