Free Shipping on Orders of $40 or More
The Life of the Automobile: The Complete History of the Motor Car

The Life of the Automobile: The Complete History of the Motor Car

by Steven Parissien
The Life of the Automobile: The Complete History of the Motor Car

The Life of the Automobile: The Complete History of the Motor Car

by Steven Parissien



Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now


The Life of the Automobile is the first comprehensive world history of the car.

The automobile has arguably shaped the modern era more profoundly than any other human invention, and author Steven Parissien examines the impact, development, and significance of the automobile over its turbulent and colorful 130-year history. Readers learn the grand and turbulent history of the motor car, from its earliest appearance in the 1880s—as little more than a powered quadricycle—and the innovations of the early pioneer carmakers. The author examines the advances of the interwar era, the Golden Age of the 1950s, and the iconic years of the 1960s to the decades of doubt and uncertainty following the oil crisis of 1973, the global mergers of the 1990s, the bailouts of the early twenty-first century, and the emergence of the electric car.

This is not just a story of horsepower and performance but a tale of extraordinary people: of intuitive carmakers such as Karl Benz, Sir Henry Royce, Giovanni Agnelli (Fiat), André Citroën, and Louis Renault; of exceptionally gifted designers such as the eccentric, Ohio-born Chris Bangle (BMW); and of visionary industrialists such as Henry Ford, Ferdinand Porsche (the Volkswagen Beetle), and Gene Bordinat (the Ford Mustang), among numerous other game changers.

Above all, this comprehensive history demonstrates how the epic story of the car mirrors the history of the modern era, from the brave hopes and soaring ambitions of the early twentieth century to the cynicism and ecological concerns of a century later. Bringing to life the flamboyant entrepreneurs, shrewd businessmen, and gifted engineers that worked behind the scenes to bring us horsepower and performance, The Life of the Automobile is a globe-spanning account of the auto industry that is sure to rev the engines of entrepreneurs and gearheads alike.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466836235
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/13/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: eBook
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 323,057
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

DR. STEVEN PARISSIEN is an internationally renowned author who has written extensively on cultural and architectural history. He is the director of the Compton Verney museum and gallery in Warwickshire and a visiting fellow at the universities of Oxford and Warwick. He lives in Oxford, England, and has one daughter.

DR. STEVEN PARISSIEN is an internationally-renowned author who has written extensively on architectural and cultural history including Assassinated!, Interiors, George IV, among others. He is the director of Compton Verney museum and gallery in Warwickshire and a Visiting Fellow at the Universities of Oxford and Warwick. He lives in Oxford, England, and has one daughter.

Read an Excerpt

The Life of the Automobile

The Complete History of the Motor Car

By Steven Parissien

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Steven Parissien
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-3623-5



Henry Ford died, with exquisite irony, during a power failure on the dark and stormy night of 6–7 April 1947, whilst sleeping fitfully at his vast Dearborn, Michigan, estate. On the 9th, his body lay in state in his mansion's cavernous ballroom while almost one hundred thousand people filed by to pay their last respects. The next day, twenty thousand spectators gathered in silence, and in the pouring rain, outside St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Detroit's Woodward Avenue. Inside the cathedral were assembled not only every leading figure from the global automobile industry but also key members of Harry S. Truman's administration. It was as if a great international statesman had passed away. Outside, the whole of the city of Detroit came to a halt. Detroit City Hall hung a thirty-foot portrait of Ford outside its doors, and thousands of citizens lined the route of Ford's funeral cortège as it made its way to Dearborn's Ford Cemetery, stoically ignoring the rain. The only jarring note, aside from the disappointing weather, was the car chosen to act as the hearse: it was, for some inexplicable reason, not a Ford but a Packard. Someone had clearly blundered.

Sadly, few of the mourners who came to Ford Cemetery that day had much personal affection for the late magnate. His obituaries were generally polite and kind; only New York's P.M. dared to describe Ford's philosophy as 'a jungle of fear and ignorance and prejudice in social affairs'. In truth, even most of Henry's family were relieved that he had finally passed. Nevertheless, the motor mogul had become the most famous man in the world. In Russia, the word for 'Americanize' was, literally translated, 'Fordize', while in Hitler's Third Reich, so recently laid waste by the allied bombers that Ford's plants had helped manufacture, Henry Ford had been revered almost as a god.

Henry Ford left his vast automotive empire to be administered by the Ford Motor Company's board, then still dominated by the Ford family. Notoriously frugal and miserly, Henry also left his heirs a cash windfall of $26.5 million, which he had kept hidden for decades in a private bank account. Yet in his pockets on the day he died were found not the prized possessions of the world's most famous industrial magnate but, as historian Robert Lacey has observed, 'the paraphernalia of a little boy': a comb, a penknife and a simple Jew's harp.

Despite much subsequent American mythology, Ford did not actually invent the car; that honour properly goes to the German engineers Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. Indeed, Ford did not even create the first American gasoline-powered vehicle. Three years before Ford's first car appeared, Charles and Frank Duryea were demonstrating their gasoline-powered 'motor wagon' around the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts, and it was not until 1896 that the young Henry Ford launched his revolutionary, if fragile, Quadricycle. But Henry Ford is rightly lauded as the man who created and developed the key to modern mass production, the assembly line. Ford's early years of struggle saw the transformation of the car's curious but prescient Victorian forebears into the most important mass-marketed phenomenon of the twentieth century. In many ways, the inherent contradictions of Ford's character mirror the history of the car itself: daringly innovative, yet at the same time intrinsically conservative; brashly aggressive, yet apprehensive and hesitant; socially progressive, yet politically reactionary.

* * *

The men who were responsible for the creation and development of the global car industry were, for the most part, enthusiastic experts or fast-talking salesmen – or, like Henry Ford, a bit of both. Many of the first auto pioneers were larger-than-life characters, perpetual chancers who drove their cars as fast as they could and took vast risks with other people's money. It was only in the 1930s, when the automotive industry reached its respectable maturity and the weaker firms had gone to the wall, that the salesmen were edged out (or went bankrupt) and the money men took over.

The father of the modern car was Karl Benz, an engineer from the province of Baden in south-western Germany. In 1885, at the back of a Mannheim bicycle shop, he created the first petrol-powered motor vehicle. Equipped with three bicycle-like wire wheels (not carriage-like wooden ones), a revolutionary four-stroke engine, an equally advanced electric coil ignition, and a transmission comprising two chains connecting the engine to the rear axle, Benz's invention was patented on 29 January 1886 and was known thereafter as the Benz Patent Motorwagen. Subsequent road tests proved very successful. Indeed, in 1888 his wife, Bertha, took their two sons (supposedly without Karl's knowledge) on the first long-distance car trip, a 65 mile journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim. Bertha Benz dealt adeptly with minor breakdowns on the way, bought more gasoline fuel at pharmacies she passed, and calmly telegraphed Karl to announce her arrival at Pforzheim in the evening. Benz's Model 3 impressed visitors at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle – an event that also showcased the brand-new Eiffel Tower – and over twenty-five Motorwagens were built between 1886 and 1893. In 1894 sales soared and Benz sold 136 Model 3s. The age of the car had arrived.

Benz was not the first man to invent a horseless carriage. All previous experiments had, however, been steam-powered and distinctly uncommercial. In 1704 the French physicist Denis Papin – a refugee from Louis XIV's persecution of the Protestant Huguenots, who had moved to Kassel in Germany – invented a rudimentary steam piston engine which he used to power a small boat, thus creating the first mechanically powered vehicle. Sadly, Papin's achievement was never recognized and he died destitute in London in about 1712. Over fifty years later, his fellow Frenchman, army engineer Captain Nicolas Cugnot, used the motion of a steam piston engine to power a ratchet-operated driving mechanism which in turn drove a small but heavy three-wheeled car, which Cugnot called a fardier à vapeur. (A fardier was a sturdy, two-wheeled, horse-drawn cart for transporting bulky equipment; Cugnot's nomenclature thus became the first example of the automotive industry borrowing equine etymology.) Cugnot's two-ton vehicle of 1769, which was allegedly capable of just over 2 mph, was the first mechanically powered automobile. It may also have been responsible for the first mechanized road accident: in 1771, it was reported to have gone out of control and demolished a wall. This accident did not help convince the French army of its usefulness, and development of the fardier was discontinued. Cugnot survived on a royal pension, but this evaporated with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Cugnot would have emulated Papin's fate, dying penniless and forgotten, had he not been invited back to Paris by a sympathetic Napoleon, shortly before his death in 1804.

Cugnot's breakthrough encouraged Regency innovators to experiment with steam cars. The talented and underrated Scottish engineer William Murdoch built two 'road locomotives' in Redruth, Cornwall, in 1784 and 1786 – inventions that his friend Richard Trevithick exploited to create the world's first steam-powered railway locomotive in 1804. Trevithick's steam locomotive, alas, proved too heavy to use on roads. And frequent boiler explosions, together with conservative health and safety legislation, made steam power seem unviable. Britain's notorious Locomotive Acts of 1861 and 1865 stipulated that all steam cars should be occupied by at least three people, should be able to stop in an instant, and should be preceded by 'a person walking at least twenty yards ahead, who in case of need shall assist horses ... and who will carry and display a red flag'. Steam cars were thus condemned to a speed slower than walking pace and were regarded as inherently dangerous modes of transport, liable to explode at any moment and kill or maim both driver and passers-by.

The quest for a safer, and faster, mechanically powered road vehicle gained enormous impetus after 1859 when the Belgian engineer Étienne Lenoir (surely one of the world's most famous Belgians) patented the first petrol-driven internal combustion engine. Over the next thirty years, French and German engineers perfected Lenoir's breakthrough. In 1880, Karl Benz himself patented a reliable, two-stroke, gasoline-powered engine, and five years later installed his petrol engine in the world's first true motor car. While the vehicle was only able to travel marginally faster than walking pace – Benz's 1885 machine would actually have gone quicker if it had been pulled by a pony rather than powered by its tiny engine – it was a landmark achievement.

Benz was not the only German to be working on petrol-powered vehicles in 1885. In the same year the engineer Gottlieb Daimler – who lived in Schorndorf, in Württemberg, only sixty miles away from Benz in Mannheim, although the two men never met – harnessed a four-stroke petrol engine designed by his partner Wilhelm Maybach to a bicycle, thus creating the world's first motorcycle. Daimler's engine was far better than Benz's – as the journalist L. J. K. Setright has noted: '800 rpm was very fast by the standards of 1884'. Daimler, however, used an antiquated incandescent tube to start the ignition, whereas Benz's car had an electric ignition.

In 1886 Daimler and Maybach fitted an even larger engine to a stagecoach, thus inventing the world's first motor coach. Three years later, they exhibited their engines at the Paris Exposition. Then, in 1890, having obtained sufficient finance from a group of bankers and munitions makers, they formed a public company, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG), to build and sell gasoline engines, with Maybach installed as its chief designer. That same year, Daimler licensed the French firms of Panhard et Levassor and Peugeot to build DMG engines. The following year the company sold a similar licence to the US-German piano makers Steinway and Sons (who soon found that building cars was a little more difficult than building pianos), and in 1892 DMG sold its first four-wheeled car. In 1898 a Daimler car used the first-ever four-cylinder petrol engine, and two years later Maybach invented the first modern-style 'honeycomb' radiator, again for use in a Daimler car.

DMG was soon helping to create the British car industry, too. Britain was not in the forefront of car manufacture in the early years, relying solely on French and German imports. In 1889, the Englishman Frederick Simms, British-born but brought up in Hamburg, met Daimler and was sufficiently inspired to import one of Daimler's cars into England – probably the first car ever seen in Britain. Four years later Simms created a subsidiary of the Daimler firm in England, which sold German Daimlers and French Panhards. Simms then started producing the cars in Coventry, and successfully advertised them by running one from Land's End to John o'Groats in seventeen days, with no mishaps. While the first British-built car was also made in Coventry, it was not one of Simms's Daimlers or Panhards but a Bollée manufactured under licence by a subsidiary of the British Motor Syndicate, through which the crooked entrepreneur Harry Lawson hoped to control the embryonic British motor industry. Simms and his fellow automotive pioneers eventually managed to wriggle free of the strangling embrace of Lawson, who was trying to exercise legal ownership over all cars built in Britain. Lawson was eventually tried for fraud and served twelve months' hard labour.

Frederick Simms died in 1944, a successful and wealthy man. Daimler and Maybach, however, never enjoyed the riches their pioneer labours deserved. Maybach was forced out of DMG by the firm's powerful banking trustees, although Daimler continued to use him as a consultant for a while. Daimler himself suffered a heart attack in 1892 and the following year was bought out by his fellow directors. It was only thanks to pressure from Simms, whose association with DMG provided them with badly needed financial stability, that Daimler and Maybach were reinstated to the board in 1895. Daimler, who never fully recovered from his heart problems, died prematurely in 1900, while Maybach left DMG after being demoted by the firm's ruthless and short-sighted directors (in what today would be a straightforward case of constructive dismissal) in 1907. Maybach was replaced on the DMG board by Paul Daimler, his former colleague's son, who proved far more amenable to the directors' whims than Maybach had been. (It was Paul Daimler who commissioned, and perhaps designed, the firm's three-pointed star logo in 1908.) Maybach, meanwhile, founded his own engineering company, which made engines for Zeppelin airships during the First World War and, after 1919, created large, luxury cars.

Wilhelm Maybach died in 1929, having never personally owned a car. After 1940, his eponymous firm made tank engines for the German army. Only just surviving the lean post-war years, the firm struggled on until 1960 when it was bought, predictably, by Daimler-Benz. In 2002, the successors of DMG finally, if belatedly, made amends for a shameful episode in their company's history by reviving the Maybach name as a brand for super-luxury limousines. Without Maybach, there may never have been a Mercedes.

Karl Benz suffered a similar fate to his rival, Daimler. Although he had improved his cars by inventing the radical horizontal 'boxer' engine in 1896, Benz was forced into retirement by his fellow directors in 1903, although he was allowed to remain notionally on the board until his death in 1929. Once again, the careful money men had triumphed over the visionary engineers.

Benz did at least live long enough to witness his company evolve into of one of the world's automotive giants, created by the 1926 merger of the Daimler and Benz operations. He also presided over the first Mercedes brand car. One of Benz's most important early customers was the Jewish entrepreneur Emil Jellinek, the Austro-Hungarian consul in Nice. Jellinek had been happy to help Benz market his cars in the 1890s, but found the Teutonic badge a handicap in a country still smarting from its comprehensive defeat by the Prussians twenty years earlier. Accordingly, he persuaded Benz to adopt a brand name for marketing purposes. Jellinek had recently met and married a vivacious new wife, the exotic Rachel Goggmann Cenrobert, in Morocco. Their daughter, born in 1889, was christened Adrienne but nicknamed 'Mercédès', a Spanish word meaning 'mercy' – the adoption of which, in hindsight, seems highly appropriate. By 1900, Jellinek was already using the name Mercedes for his private racing team, as well as for his yacht. He now persuaded Maybach to build him a new sports car using the same name. Rather presciently, Jellinek asserted that the Mercedes automobile should not be 'a car for today or tomorrow [but] the car of the day after tomorrow'.

The 35 hp Mercedes that Maybach built, which was first sold to the public in 1902, was revolutionary: it featured the first-ever gate gear-change, a honeycomb radiator, and a steel (not wooden) chassis. It was, as design historian Stephen Bayley has noted, the model in which 'the fundamental architecture of the car [was] established'. The prototype Mercedes dominated Nice Speed Week in March 1901 and was enthusiastically backed by prominent patrons such as Baron Henri de Rothschild. The director of the French Automobile Club announced that: 'We have entered the Mercedes era.'

At the time of the Daimler-Benz merger in 1926, the Mercedes name was extended to the whole of the company's output, thus preventing any bitterness at the seeming triumph of either the Benz or the Daimler brand. Sadly, Mercédès herself died of cancer, aged only thirty-nine, in 1929, the same year that Benz died. She was thus spared witnessing the grotesque incongruity of cars named after a young Jewish girl being used to haul the anti-Semitic hierarchs of Nazi Germany around the Third Reich.

While the automobile was invented and perfected in Germany by Benz and Daimler, it was in France that it was developed into the vehicle we know today. One of the first French automotive pioneers was Armand Peugeot. Born into a family of Franche-Comté metalworkers, Armand was inspired by a visit to the factories of Leeds in 1881 and the following year not only set up a bicycle manufacturing business but also began experimenting with Benz-type gasoline engines. In 1889 he exhibited a steam-powered tricycle – in truth, more of a motorbike than a fully fledged car – at the Paris Exposition, and in 1896 he built a factory at Audincourt to make petrol-powered cars. By the time Armand retired in 1913, two years before his death, Peugeot was the largest car manufacturer in France, producing over ten thousand vehicles per year.


Excerpted from The Life of the Automobile by Steven Parissien. Copyright © 2013 Steven Parissien. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
List of illustrations,
1. Pioneers,
2. Snakes and Ladders: Europe between the Wars,
3. The Big Three,
4. The Age of Gasoline,
5. The People's War,
6. Austerity Britain,
7. Flight of the Phoenix,
8. The Golden Age,
9. Zenith,
10. The Swinging Sixties,
11. Heroes and Villains,
12. Crisis? What Crisis?,
13. Eastern Promise,
14. Big Beasts,
15. Merge In Turn,
16. Futureworld,
Further Reading,
A Note on the Author,

Customer Reviews