The World's First Car Journey Took Place In London, In 1803

By M@ Last edited 32 months ago

Last Updated 04 November 2021

The World's First Car Journey Took Place In London, In 1803
A plaque showing the early steam carriage with lots of red writing around it.

Did you know that the first car was rumbling round London more than 200 years ago, and long before the Victorian era?

We think of the 19th century as a time of horse-drawn vehicles — and largely it was. But in among the broughams, carts and cabriolets was the occasional horseless vehicle.

The first electric and motor cars toured the streets towards the end of the century, but steam-powered vehicles were grinding up the dirt long before that.

The first of all* was an iron behemoth designed by the great engineer Richard Trevithick. It was assembled as early as 1803 — more than a third of a century before Queen Victoria would mount her era-defining throne.

It was the world's first self-powered road vehicle, and it toured the streets of central London to the awe of the populace.

It all began on Leather Lane

The common ancestor of all today's cars was constructed on Leather Lane near Clerkenwell. Today, the area is famed for its street food market, but 200 years ago it was a noted centre as the home of William Fenton's carriage works.

Fenton was commissioned by Trevithick to put together the steam carriage from parts shipped in from Cornwall. The resulting machine was unlike anything built before. With a billowing steam engine at the back, wheels that would tower over the loftiest person, and no horses up front, this must have been an astonishing sight to all who witnessed it.

Trevithick had made earlier experiments in Cornwall, but this would be the first time a powered vehicle had travelled along public roads. And these were to be very public roads in the heart of the metropolis.

Illustration of a steam carriage with a man sat in the driver's seat and another at the rear, looking like he's licking the rear wheel, which would obviously be a terrible idea.

The first car journey across London

The route details of the vehicle's first trial runs are a little sketchy. A plaque on Leather Lane (see top image) records the known locations on the route. The steam car set off from the Leather Lane works and headed up Grey's Inn Lane (Road). It reportedly travelled as far as Paddington, taking in Dorset Square, which was then home to Lord's Cricket Ground (and today is beside Marylebone station). It returned with its seven or eight passengers to Leather Lane via Islington on a round trip of 10 miles.

The world's first car accident

The London Steam Carriage seems to have been tested on a number of occasions in the summer of 1803, and was particularly noted in the Oxford Street area. Press reports are surprisingly rare. Historians have often raised eyebrows at the lack of evidence for what would surely have been a jaw-dropping spectacle.

One exception, recorded in later biographies of Trevithick, was a fateful journey along Tottenham Court Road, during which the driver John Vivian (with Trevithick stoking the engine) lost control of the steering. A section of garden railing was destroyed and the steam carriage was badly damaged. According to Vivian's  first-hand account, a householder poked his head out of the window and yelled: "What the devil are you doing there! What is that thing!".

It is the world's first recorded (horseless) carriage accident. It means that Trevithick joins Karl Marx in the list of super-famous people who have trashed part of Tottenham Court Road.

The episode seems to have put an end to the steam carriage for the time being. Trevithick's engine was reportedly taken off its carriage and sold on to a maker of beer barrels. The engineer instead turned his attention to running steam engines on rails, which offered more reliable control. His 'Catch Me Who Can' of 1808, for example, sent an engine around a circular track near Euston Square, just around the corner from the earlier street crash.

It would be almost three decades before horseless vehicles were seriously tested again on the streets of London. The impressive name this time was Galsworthy Gurney, whose remarkable steam buses we covered in an earlier article.

*Update: It's been brought to our attention that (as is often the case in the history of invention) a rival claim may have got there first. Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot had a working prototype of a steam car as early as 1769. It was designed for carrying weapons but was nevertheless capable of transporting people. There are even claims that the vehicle was involved in the first car accident. Our thanks to Eric Guichard for the information.