If there is one thing I took away from my 4 (ish) years getting a History degree, it is that it doesn’t take long for Humans to get riled up: we like to fight. From achieving flight, it took us only a year or so before we began militarizing planes, and the only reason we began seriously developing submersible vehicles is for the art of war. This got me thinking: how long did it take to militarize the automobile?
The automobile has been around longer than most people imagine, with self-propelled, passenger-carrying contraptions possibly existing as far back as the 17th century. For the purposes of this article, we will consider the ‘first car’ to be Karl Benz’s Motorwagen, which he built in 1885 after patenting the engine in 1879. So, if this is the ‘start’ of the car as we know it, how long did it take to militarize the creation?
Less than 15 years. While that may sound like a long time, cars before this simply were not able to perform war, as they were hardly able to perform as cars. A British engineer and car enthusiast, F.R. Simms, was the one to overcome this hurdle, with the invention of his Motor Scout and the slightly later Motor War Car.
The Motor Scout, created in 1899, was as simple as armed vehicles could be. Not technically a car, the Motor Scout was a simple combination of ‘off-the-shelf’ technology, consisting of a Mark IV Maxim Machine gun attached to a De Dion quadricycle powered by a 1 ½ horsepower powerplant. This machine gun took the place of a passenger, and was fitted with a small square of armor, but as it couldn’t traverse rough ground, and wasn’t very fast, this vehicle was more of a proof of concept more than anything else.
As the vehicle did prove the concept of plopping guns on vehicles, F.R. Simms got approval, also in 1899, from the British Army and British arms supplier Vickers to construct a larger, more capable prototype. The British Army was at this point embroiled in the Boer Conflicts in South Africa, and an armored car was of keen interest to them. The vehicle that was created was called the Motor War Car, and as the name suggests, is a car rather than a quadricycle.
Constructed on an English-built Daimler chassis with a German-built 14hp Daimler engine, the War Car was equipped with a number of implements designed specifically for the act of war. For protection, the vehicle was clad in 6mm of armor extending 6ft above the axle, providing decent protection for occupants. Armament consisted of 2 Maxim guns, each in their own 360° traversable turrets. The April 1898 issue of The Horseless Age goes into further detail on the militaristic nature of the design:
“The front and rear points of the frame are strengthened so as to form rams, and be utilized in cutting a way through crowds. On the top of the armor half-embedded rollers of steel are placed, which revolve freely on their spindles, so as to make it difficult for an opponent to board the car.
The bottom of the steel armor plates are provided with a belt projecting about 1 inch, sharpened in case of war. so that the mere passage of the car would inflict heavy wounds on the assailants. This belt may also be insulated and connected to the electric current supplied by the main engine, and thus transmit shocks to those endeavoring to mount the car.”
Ramming through crowds? Electric current shocking assailants? Doesn’t the ‘mere passage of the car would inflict heavy wounds’ sound like THE most dangerous thing for maintenance crew?
Regardless, all of these design features resulted in a more complicated vehicle than originally envisioned, with the final product having a length of 28 feet overall, with a beam of 8 feet. It was a big vehicle, and the large size also led to a high weigh, and the poor, underpowered 14hp engine could only muster a snails-pace 9mph at full-tilt.
The Simms Motor War Car, as it was known at this point, was presented at the Crystal Palace, in London, in April 1902, but by this point the conflict the Army needed it for was over. As technology was increasing at an extraordinary rate, it was unlikely the War Car would remain modern for long, and as such, no orders were received.
Despite never entering production, the Simms War Car was the first armored, fighting vehicle on wheels, and as such, paved the way for our modern conveyances, such as the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), better known as the Humvee.
For that, I suppose we can either thank (or curse) Mr. Simms.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.