250-year Quest for the Ideal Drive

250-year Quest for the Ideal Drive

The first patented motor vehicle saw the light of day in 1886. However, attempts to design an automobile – literally a vehicle capable of self-movement – go back much further. All accompanied by a highly diverse range of powertrains. Let’s take a look at their history.

30. 7. 2019 Škoda World Innovation & technology

The automotive industry is on the cusp of the Electrical Age. The powering of cars with electricity is nothing new, having previously cropped up elsewhere in history. Much like other alternative drives. This is because designers have been grappling with the question of what makes for the best form of drive for at least 250 years now.

Steam, or electricity? Petrol!

Carl Benz was granted a patent for his motorised vehicle in 1886. Since then, we have been writing the history of what we might call the “modern” automobile, a type of vehicle predominantly fitted with an internal combustion engine. In point of fact, his vehicle was really a tricycle and its design, no matter how groundbreaking at the time, was actually just another step in more than a hundred years’ efforts to provide humankind with a horseless vehicle.

Curiously, the first automobile was powered by a four-stroke petrol engine that had evolved from the first commercially successful combustion engine designed by Étienne Lenoir, who had fuelled his two-stroke unit with natural gas. This was a full 24 years before Benz built it into what was evidently the very first automobile to feature a single-cylinder internal combustion engine.


The steam engine: though a lot of work still needed to be done to downsize and hone the steam engine so that it could be used to propel vehicles, steam power proved to be the first way of setting automobiles in motion.

From the off, the petrol – or positive-ignition – engine had to compete with the much more common steam engines and electric vehicles, especially in the United States. Around 4,000 cars were made in the US in 1900. Only one in four ran on petrol, with the remainder evenly split between steam and electric power. Contemporary combustion units were highly intricate, noisy and unreliable. The first car to break through 100 km/h (60 mph) was not powered by a clattering four-cylinder engine, but by electricity. This milestone was achieved in 1899 by the cigar-shaped “racer” La Jamais Contente (“The Never Satisfied”).

In the end though, it was petrol that easily triumphed on the back of technological advancements. Even so, designers were toying with the idea of combining different types of drive a whole century ago. The hybrid model Semper Vivus, featuring electric motors in the wheels, for example, is well known.

Česká stopa: Ferdinand Porsche

The hybrid model Semper Vivus: this model was on display at Porsche’s reconstructed childhood home in Vratislavice nad Nisou.

This article is based on a lecture from the series “Unusual Stories from ŠKODA History”, organised by the ŠKODA Museum. The lecture on the history of vehicle drives was written by ŠKODA archive coordinator Lukáš Nachtmann.

Lukáš Nachtmann
Archive Coordinator

The tough beginnings of the steam era

As far as we know, the first automobile worthy of the name got going 250 years ago, in 1796. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot (1725-1804), a French military engineer, built a giant steam-powered wagon – not, it must be said, to motorise the world, but in order to move heavy weaponry around. This vehicle, also a three-wheeler, guaranteed that Cugnot would go down in history not only as the first creator of an automobile, but also – according to a highly dubious legend – as the first person to be in a traffic accident, when he lost control of his steam engine and crashed into a wall.

Though a lot of work still needed to be done to downsize and hone the steam engine so that it could be used to propel vehicles, steam power proved to be the first way of setting automobiles in motion. However, even contemporary cartoons noted how much unbreathable smoke would be generated in cities by these steam-powered self-moving machines.


And yet contemporary environmental discussions, if we might call them that, revolved around another problem. The main concern faced by growing cities and the transportation systems in them was horse excrement. The inhabitants of London, New York and other large conurbations were plagued by streets full of manure, urine, awful smells, insects and sources of numerous diseases, with not even the corpses of animals being cleared away.


Which all meant that automobiles, despite the steam and smoke they emitted, soon came to the fore not only as intriguing technical inventions, but also as a solution of sorts to the reeking streets of the rapidly expanding cities. To get an idea of how efficient – or not – the first cars in the 19th century were, they consumed around 20 litres of petrol per hundred kilometres and, more significantly, eight times more water for the loss cooling system, which had to be constantly replenished.

Alternative drives in historical ŠKODAs

Even though no one was in any doubt, in the first decade of the 20th century, that the petrol internal combustion engine was the future, designers still worked on other solutions. In the early 1930s, these endeavours spawned the first automobiles with diesel units. High taxes and fuel shortages during the economic crisis and the war years steered engineers towards experiments with natural gas.


LAURIN & KLEMENT test vehicle from 1919, featuring a gas generator that ran on charcoal

Czech designers also proved to be resourceful. As early as 1919, a LAURIN & KLEMENT freight vehicle with a gas generator was produced. Then there was the 256 G van boasting a 2.5-tonne payload, with a six-cylinder engine to deliver ample power of 60 PS. Both superstructures and integrated solutions were thought up, and not only for freight vehicles. Alternative drives were also found in ŠKODA tractors.


The ŠKODA 256 G, factory-converted to run on wood gas, had a generator discreetly incorporated behind the cab and offered more-than-ample power of 60 PS.

During the fuel crisis in the 1930s and 1940s, gas generators using either cheap and widely available wood or coal gas (a coking plant by-product) as a source were even mounted in passenger vehicles. ŠKODA made prototypes of the RAPID with a generator either at the front or at the back. Initially, these auxiliary units were clunky and obvious, but subsequent prototypes concealed gas-drive components within the bodywork, resulting in a stylistically elegant car fit for everyday use.


The scarcity of fuel during the crisis and, subsequently, the war prompted the design of several RAPIDs fitted with a gas generator.

L&K electric vehicles and hybrid

The electrically powered LAURIN & KLEMENT type E was introduced in 1908 thanks to the renowned Czech designer and inventor František Křižík, the man behind the arc lamp and the innovator of electrically propelled trams. Using a car from Mladá Boleslav, he built a vehicle with a system that we might describe as hybrid: a petrol engine produced electric power, which subsequently drove the car.

A compact ŠKODA truck used in Plzeň to deliver beer to local restaurants was another attempt at introducing electricity into vehicles. At the end of the 1930s, this vehicle with a payload of between 1.5 and 3 tonnes featured a modern, comfortable and broad cab over the engine, i.e. in front of the front axle, with an aerodynamic front section and an arrowhead-shaped split windscreen.

nakladni automobil

The ŠKODA electric truck from the late 1930s was distinguished by its modern design and payload of up to 3 tonnes.

The ŠKODA Puck, a children’s car produced in 1941, was a unique electric vehicle available in two sizes – for smaller and bigger children. Interestingly, the design was very faithful to actual automobiles. This mini-car had an ignition switch, a working speedometer, headlamps that lit up, and suspension on all wheels. The Scintilla electric motor could generate speeds of up to 12 km/h, with energy sourced from Varta-Ferak batteries under the bonnet and behind the seats.


The ŠKODA Puck, a children’s car produced in 1941, was a unique electric vehicle.


ŠKODA Puck: The Scintilla electric motor could generate speeds of up to 12 km/h, with energy sourced from Varta-Ferak batteries under the bonnet and behind the seats.

Of ŠKODA’s other prototypes and experiments with electric propulsion, it is worth mentioning the trial series of second-generation OCTAVIAs called Green e-Line. Though a latecomer in the brand’s electric history, this model stands out as a modern design that, built on the technical base we are familiar with today, paved the way to a new era. These cars were an opportunity for ŠKODA to explore, in practice, what electricity could offer in the future. They were fitted with an 85 kW electric motor and batteries delivering a practical range of around 150 km.


ŠKODA’s other prototype and experiment: the trial series of second-generation OCTAVIAs called Green e-Line

Nine years down the line, ŠKODA unveiled its first mass-produced models with electric motors: the all-electric CITIGOe iV and the SUPERB iV plug-in hybrid.

Elektrifikovaný SUPERB iV a CITIGO<sup>e</sup> iV se představily

The flagship SUPERB – electrified version and the brand’s first mass-produced electric car CITIGOe iV