We tend to look at the automobile as a relatively new invention, a futuristic convenience only recently bestowed upon us pitiful humans. But cars really have been around for quite a while now. Many of the world’s automakers are more than a century old. On Wednesday we posted briefly about the Apperson Jack Rabbit, and though that was a 1915 model, it got us wondering: How many awesome cars were built more than 100 years ago?
As it turns out, many. The early years of land speed records were exciting, with new technologies emerging with each new attempt, and the title flip flopping like a front-running politician. We tracked down ten awesome cars from the late steam punk years, some actually powered by steam.
1897 Olds Pirate
When your first name is Ransom, you can name your car anything you want. Even if it only has one cylinder. That single pot, however, had a displacement of 95 cubic inches, and in 1903, Ransom E. Olds personally coaxed the missile-betanked Pirate up to 54.38 mph.
1899 Jenatzy La Jamais Contente
But gasoline engines had their own bracket back then. The fastest cars were electric. Among them, and holding the land speed record from 1899 to 1902, was the Jenatzy La Jamais Contente, which translates to “The Never Satisfied.” What happened to car names, anyway? Shaped like a bullet and armed with 68 hp, the Jenatzy could travel over 65 mph. Not bad when most of your friends still commute on horses.
1901 Ford Sweepstakes
Henry Ford once said of the early years of the car, “I never thought anything of racing, but the public refused to think about the automobile as anything but a fast toy. Therefore, we had to race.” We’re so glad he caught on. Built as a publicity generator, the Sweepstakes had a two-cylinder, 539 cid boxer engine, an early form of fuel injection, and something resembling coil-over spark plugs. It could reach the maddening speed of 72 mph. Ford raced it personally and won. The next year, he sold it and left The Henry Ford Company, which later became Cadillac.
1902 Serpollet Type H
Despite the Sweepstakes’ highly-publicized victory, in 1902, trains were still the fastest vehicles on the planet. A steam-powered 4-4-0 had already been capable of 100 mph for years. Certainly the solution lay in steam. In April of 1902, Leon Serpollet’s steam car was the first four-wheeled vehicle to reach 75 mph. It held the record until the end of the summer.
1902 Ford 999
When Henry Ford left his first company in 1902, he took with him some plans for a new, faster race car. Named after the a 4-4-0 steam train 999, which held the land speed record of 112 mph, the car had an 18.8 liter straight four, disputably capable of 100 hp. Ford sold his stake in it before it ever raced, but reserved promotional rights. In 1904, Ford himself took the 999 up to 91 mph, a new land speed record. Without a rear suspension or steering wheel. Handlebars were plenty back then.
That same year, Louis Rigolly drove a four-cylinder, eight-piston, hatchet-nosed, Gobron-Brille to 103.56 mph. It was the first time car to reach the epic milestone. It transmitted its 110 hp to the rear wheels via a pair of chains.
1905 Napier 6
The ominously nicknamed “Samson” Napier L48 6 had a 15 liter engine that propelled it to a new land speed record for 1905. It reached 104.65 mph on Daytona Beach, piloted by Scottish driver Arthur McDonald. The memorable duck-billed nose and body-length radiator certainly won it a few fans, and the L48 enjoyed a prosperous racing career.
1905 Mercedes Flying Dutchman II
McDonald’s record was shattered the same day, at the same event, by Herbert Bowden, driving a Mercedes straight six called the Flying Dutchman. The Mercedes packed 120 hp, which, in those days, probably gave the audience a vision of an entirely cavalry battalion strapped to the front axle. Bowden ran the Dutchman up to 109.75 mph, but was later disqualified when it was discovered that it exceeded the weight limit. When he was told, he reportedly said, “Whatever, dude,” and drove home.
1906 Stanley Rocket
But steam wasn’t done. Stanley, a successful steam car company, entered their Rocket in 1906. The mid-engine canoemobile carried daredevil Fred Marriott to 127.7 mph, a record that held for four years. The 3.1 liter engine was capable of 1000 psi, and while we’ll leave you engineering types to sort that into horsepower, it sounds very impressive. It must have been, because the next year, the Rocket was reportedly going 150 mph when it hit a depression in the sand and snapped in half. Marriott was injured, but survived. The initial steam record held until 2009.
1909 Blitzen Benz
Remember, this was before WWII, so it was fine for Germans to use “Blitzen” in names. As it translates to “flash,” no title better described the 200 hp car, built by Benz & Cie of Mannheim. A white bullet with proto-smoothie wheels, the Blitzen ran on a 21.5 liter, four cylinder engine and reached 141.7 mph in 1911. The record held until after the war.
Are we saying these beasts were better than today’s cars? Of course not. They broke down constantly, tended to break in half, and killed many, many of their drivers. But are we saying that a car built 101 years ago had a better top speed than a Toyota Camry built last year? Certainly. Deal with it.
What centennial cars would you add to this list of awesome?