Earliest recorded designs point to wind-driven vehicle creations that were recorded by several Italians. Guido da Vigevano beat everyone to the punch with his windmill-type design in 1335, although it was never built. Around 1478, Leonardo da Vinci designed a clockwork tricycle that had a differential mechanism with tiller steering. Since then, vehicle design has come a long way.
Nicolas Joseph Cugnot
The French military engineer Nicolas Joseph Cugnot gets credit for the first steam-powered vehicle in 1769, although he only designed it. Construction credit goes to M. Brezin. While it was the first documented vehicle developed that moved under its own power, it was not a four-wheeled passenger mobile. Instead, it was a tricycle that was built for the purpose of hauling a canon around Paris.
Its single front wheel handled both driving and steering functions. This contraption only managed 2.25 miles per hour for about 15 minutes when loaded with four passengers. At that point, it needed to recuperate power before it was able to move again.
The steam engine itself that was used as a building block for the development of vehicles was created by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. It used the now familiar components of a cylinder, piston and rod, but was stationary. It did not use pressure but a vacuum principle which was a prior patented invention by Thomas Savery. As such, Newcomen had to pay Savery for the rights to use the patent.
Diehards might argue that the Chinese emperor Chien Lung had a steam-powered vehicle first that was built by Father Ferdinand Verbiest in 1678. Since there is only information about the event, not the actual vehicle, it’s up for debate.
Daimler and Benz
Those who argue that gasoline power denotes a true vehicle will credit two inventors: Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Friedrich Benz. They filed patents in two different German cities on the same day, January 29, 1886 and had never met before. Daimler’s motorized carriage was the first four-wheeled automobile and was invented with the collaboration of Wilhelm Maybach. Karl Friedrich Benz’s, on the other hand, was a three-wheeled contraption that combined an integrated chassis with an internal combustion engine.
All this begets the question: Why don’t the history books credit one particular person with creating the vehicle? That’s because this term means different things to different people. Since vehicles initially moved on tracks, then on straight surfaces before graduating to general road usage, definition is a key factor.