When Was the First Car Invented?

Explore the invention of the first car, the history of Australia’s automotive industry and rise of the electric car with Savvy.
Published on August 9th, 2023
  Written by 
Thomas Perrotta
Thomas Perrotta is the managing editor of Savvy. Throughout his time at the company, Thomas has specialised in personal finance, namely car, personal and small loans, although he has also written on topics ranging from mortgages to business loans to banking and more. Thomas graduated from the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Media, majoring in journalism, and has previously had his work published in The Advertiser.
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   Reviewed by 
Bill Tsouvalas


Bill Tsouvalas
Bill Tsouvalas is the managing director and a key company spokesperson at Savvy. As a personal finance expert, he often shares his insights on a range of topics, being featured on leading news outlets including News Corp publications such as the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun, Fairfax Media publications such as the Australian Financial Review, the Seven Network and more. Bill has over 15 years of experience working in the finance industry and founded Savvy in 2010 with a vision to provide affordable and accessible finance options to all Australians. He has built Savvy from a small asset finance brokerage into a financial comparison website which now attracts close to 2 million Aussies per year and was included in the BRW’s Fast 100 in 2015 as one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. He’s passionate about helping Australians make financially savvy decisions and reviews content across the brand to ensure its accuracy. You can follow Bill on LinkedIn.
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The invention of the first car marked a revolutionary moment in human history. This groundbreaking creation not only changed the way people travelled but also laid the foundation for the modern automotive industry.

The story of the first car's invention is a fascinating journey that goes as far back as the 15th century. Delve into the origins of the automobile, the inventors who played pivotal roles and the subsequent advancements that shaped the automotive landscape in Australia and around the world right here with Savvy.

When was the world’s first car invented?

The first automobile is widely attributed to Karl Benz, a German engineer and inventor (and subsequent co-founder of what is today known as Mercedes-Benz). In 1885, Benz unveiled his three-wheeled Motorwagen, which was powered by an internal combustion engine fuelled by petrol.

This iconic vehicle featured several groundbreaking innovations, including a tubular steel frame, differential gears and an electrical ignition system. On January 29, 1886, Benz was granted a patent for his invention, which went into production two years later.

However, while Benz is often credited with inventing the first practical automobile designed specifically to be propelled by an internal combustion engine, there are many others who can claim to have had a hand in its creation long before the late 19th century. Leonardo da Vinci drew up a design for a self-propelled cart way back in 1495 which, although likely he never crafted it himself, was found to have been functional following a recreation in 2004. Rather than having any kind of engine, though, this vehicle was spring-powered.

In 1769, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built a self-propelled road vehicle, preceding Benz’s automobile by more than a century. However, this was designed for use in the military and ran on steam, rather than petrol, lacking the internal combustion engine that many use to define the modern automobile.

What was the first car in Australia?

Australia's automotive journey began in 1896 in Melbourne when Herbert Thomson and Edward Holmes introduced Australia's first steam car, nicknamed ‘The Phaeton’. This pioneering vehicle covered approximately 790 kilometres at an average speed of 14 kilometres per hour, showcasing the potential for motor vehicle technology in the country.

Building upon this early success, businessman Harley Tarrant produced what is widely recognised as Australia's first petrol-driven car in 1901, featuring a Benz imported motor. Tarrant's prototype marked a significant milestone in Australian automotive history, laying the foundation for local car manufacturing.

The fledgling Australian car industry faced challenges. Imported luxury cars were expensive and not ideal for the rough terrain. This fuelled a spirit of innovation, with manufacturers focusing on building cars specifically designed for Australian needs – durable, reliable and capable of handling anything the outback could throw at them.

The 1920s witnessed the arrival of major players like Ford Motors Australia (1925) and General Motors Holden (1926). These companies established local assembly plants, marking a significant step towards large-scale domestic car production. By 1937, Australia’s motor industry was the second largest in the Commonwealth and 1 in 12 Australians had a car.

What was the first electric car?

The seeds of the electric car were sown in the 19th century with the invention of electric motors. Pioneering inventors like Robert Davidson in Scotland (1832) and Thomas Parker in the United States (1837) built crude electric carriages, demonstrating the potential for electric propulsion. However, these were primarily experimental models, not commercially available to the public.

In 1888, the London Electric Cab Company began production of commercially available electric taxis. These vehicles offered several advantages over their petrol counterparts – they were quiet, smooth-riding and didn't emit harmful fumes. However, electric cars went into decline in the early 20th century due to battery limitations and the growing dominance of mass-produced, petrol-powered vehicles.

The 21st century has witnessed a remarkable resurgence of electric and eco-friendly vehicles. Key factors driving this change include:

  • Environmental concerns: growing awareness of climate change and the need for sustainable transportation has fuelled interest in electric vehicles.
  • Battery breakthroughs: significant advancements in battery technology have increased the range and efficiency of electric cars, addressing a major historical hurdle.
  • Government incentives: many governments around the world offer tax breaks and other incentives to promote electric car adoption.
  • Charging infrastructure: the development of a robust charging infrastructure is making electric car ownership more convenient and practical.

What future automotive firsts can we expect?

As we look to the future, the automotive industry shows no sign of slowing down. Car manufacturers are actively exploring new frontiers and expanding into other areas of innovation.  

One of the most eagerly anticipated developments is the widespread adoption of self-driving cars. While autonomous vehicles have long captured the imagination of science fiction writers and filmmakers, recent advancements in technology have brought them closer to reality than ever before. With sophisticated sensors, cameras, radar systems, and artificial intelligence algorithms, self-driving cars have the ability to perceive and navigate their surroundings with remarkable accuracy.

As research and development in the field of autonomous driving continue to progress, we can expect to see further advancements in self-driving technology. From improved safety features to enhanced navigation capabilities, the future of automotive innovation promises to be both exciting and transformative. While there are challenges to overcome, including regulatory hurdles and public acceptance, the trajectory of self-driving cars suggests that they will play a central role in shaping the future of transportation.

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