The automotive industry has been influencing world development from the onset, contributing to technological inventions, globalisation and progress. Today even, with the challenges posed by the environment and the climate crisis, we cannot disregard the contribution of automotive manufacturers to changing our future. Since the 19th Century, entire cities and nations have been revolutionised in terms of urban planning, the economy and society by the advent of cars and their development. We have chosen five symbolic places to return to, to observe the birth of the modern car closely.
On 3rd July 1886, the engineer and entrepreneur Karl Benz had not chosen a very original or lavish scenario to present his Patent Motorwagen to the public: the presentation of this three-wheeled car consisted of a short ride on the Ringstraße in Mannheim, near Stuttgart. Indeed, it was quite a comic scene since, in the absence of a proper tank, his son Eugene Benz had had to chase after the car on foot to top up the fuel continuously.
Nevertheless, that car, filed under patent number 37,345, was the first in history to have an internal combustion engine, and so it can be considered in all respects the first ever modern car. It is said that Mr. Benz (whose company, after several mergers, today forms Mercedes-Benz) got the idea of creating a means of transport on wheels that would provide an alternative to horses when he was riding a velocipede, the precursor to the bicycle.
The first of these, the Draisina, was patented by Karl Christian Ludwig Drais von Sauerbronn (an aristocrat) in the same city of Mannheim. The inhabitants of this city, now the beating heart of Baden-Wurttemberg, a university and cultural centre with a key financial role, can therefore boast having seen the birth of both the bicycle and the car. All these inventions, including the Patent Motorwagen, can be seen at the Techno Museum. The parks and the night-life are two other good reasons to stop off in Mannheim.
The Topolino, the Torpedo and the 1100 R are just some of the iconic Fiat models that have been tested on the roof of the Lingotto, home to the revolutionary motor racing circuit since 1923, defined as a genuine track in the clouds. Turin and Fiat are the setting and the lead player of Italian motoring history and the Lingotto represents the propensity for progress and change of the capital of Piedmont.
Where there were once workshops and workers, today, following the conversion of the complex and the refurbishment project led by Renzo Piano, there are now the tomes of the Book Show, an auditorium, an art gallery and many other services. Turin remains one of the main industrial centres and the number one automotive centre in Italy, but today it has a lot to offer, from films to art, as well as a truly enviable choice of food and wine, sports and culture.
There is nowhere else in the world where the car and its innovations are inextricably linked to its fate like Detroit, Michigan, unsurprisingly nicknamed Motor City. Of course, Detroit also means Art Deco, graffiti, music (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five recorded their successes with the Motown record company) as well as the many inducements of a place capable in recent years of reinventing itself after the automotive crisis.
This is the home town of the three American giants (Ford, General Motors and FCA) and it is here that the real automotive industry originated, since Henry Ford founded the Ford motor company in Mack Avenue in 1903, and five years later launched the Ford Model T, the first mass-produced car, produced in mass series thanks to the assembly chain.
To experience that climate of fervent progress, there are two must-see places to visit: Greenfield village, the district where Ford collected buildings like the Edison laboratory (Edison was a friend of the entrepreneur and the author of the Model T ignition system) and the warehouse where the Wright brothers designed the first plane; and the Detroit institute of arts, where Mexican artist Diego Rivera, also Frida Kahlo's partner, painted the Detroit industry murals, a series of frescoes on the Ford motor company's industry and the city in general, in the early Thirties.
Coventry, Great Britain
In 1896, while Walter Arnold got the first fine in history for speeding (he was travelling at 6 miles an hour and the limit was two) in Bretton Wood, South England, Henry John Lawson, who had also trained in the bicycle world, founded the first British car manufacturer in Coventry, the Daimler Motor company. Almost all UK cars were born in this area, in the heart of England: from the Daimler and the Jaguar of the Royal Windsor family, to the traditional black cabs (now hybrid) of London, and even James Bond's luxurious and super-fast Aston Martin.
Coventry was for Great Britain what Detroit was for the United States (it is no surprise that Coventry was referred to by some as British Detroit). One car in particular binds these two cities in two ways, and this is not just any model, but the legendary DeLorean Dmc-12, in which Doc and Marty McFly went back to the future. Manufactured by the DeLorean Motor company in Detroit, it was built in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but the company's European headquarters, in addition to the company's purchasing department, were in fact located in Coventry.
Many know Puteaux for its futuristic architecture, particularly the Grande Arche, symbol of the famous office complex built in the 50s on the banks of the river Seine, a stone's throw from Paris. But this French town had been at the forefront since the previous century, since 1883, when Jules-Albert De Dion, George Bouton and Charles Trepardoux had founded De Dion, Bouton et Trepardoux in Paris (which went on to be called only De Dion-Bouton, when the third partner left).
It is one of the first European car manufacturers, a veritable industry, that produced steam cars for the first ten years, including the Marquise, probably the oldest car in the world that's still working (it still starts, and was sold at auction for almost $5 million a few years ago). After competing in the Paris-Versailles with the Marquise, in 1907 two De Dion-Bouton cars achieved a much more demanding goal, driven by two factory workers and succeeding in completing the first edition of the Beijing-Paris (although the winner of the race, the Itala 35/45 Hp, had arrived twenty days earlier).