Evolution of auto propulsion

The steam engine revolutionised transportation but the railway lines were often inconveniently far from places that people wanted to go so ingenious inventors tried to replace the horses of standard coaches with small steam engines. Though they were quite spacious, economical and reliable they were too noisy, heavy and fast for most roads but many were built between 1769 and 1890.

The first real car was a small 2-seater 3-wheeled vehicle with a single cylinder gasoline engine built by Karl Benz in 1875. Soon after this two other Germans Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach built a 4-stroke diesel engine but an improved tricycle made by Karl Benz in 1885 made him the best contender for the title of the inventor of the car. Many enterprising engineers followed their example and in 1894 Panhard of France produced the first car with a front mounted engine driving the rear wheels.

The progress of early cars is evident from the history of Rolls-Royce that entered their  new cars in several races and in 1905 a Rolls-Royce ‘20’ came second in a field of 42 cars in its first outing at the 208-mile Isle of Man Tourist Trophy clocking a dazzling speed of 33.7-mph. Other models fared well in Monte Carlo and other races in the following years. To demonstrate its smooth and effortless pulling power, a 4,000-cc 20hp Rolls Royce, with nine people aboard, was started in top (third) gear and taken up a steep slope with a gradient of one in six. In 1907 the new 6-cylinder 40/50 hp Silver Ghost beat the world long distance record of 7,089 miles with a run of 14,371 miles without a single involuntary stop. It used to be said that a Rolls-Royce never breaks down. It sometimes just fails to proceed.

It should be noted that this 4000-cc petrol engine could deliver just 20 HP or roughly five per cent of the power that a standard modern engine would deliver today. As these cars were quite fast they needed new wheels and suspensions and Andre Michelin of France invented the pneumatic tire that paved the way for the huge modern tire industry.

Despite huge improvements in auto technologies with high compression, angled cylinder blocks, multi valves, turbo chargers and electronic fuel injection, et cetera, none of the petrol or diesel engines could overcome the main handicap of a reciprocating engine that has to waste more than half its energy in compressing the fuel gasses for the power stroke. People therefore wanted a more efficient and less polluting source of power.

Electric engines that were more than twice as efficient were an obvious answer and had been around for a long time but they suffered from a problem that their batteries were heavy, expensive and provided limited driving range. All the auto companies have invested heavily in research for electric engines as well as for hydrogen and fuel cell propulsion but all these options were expensive and difficult.

Today electric propulsion seems to be the best answer despite the fact that the ion lithium battery packs are very heavy and expensive and have a limited range of not more than 150-km. Though good electric cars are on sale from Tesla, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Ford GM and many others also offer hybrids where cars run with a combination of electric and fossil fuel power they are not yet popular. Some countries are offering big tax breaks to try to make electric cars more popular but it will take time before petrol and diesel engines become obsolete.

The author is the region’s most celebrated automobile columnist