The First Car?

Austria - Scott #906 (1971)
Austria – Scott #906 (1971)

Perhaps the single element of stamp collecting that I enjoy the most is that I am constantly learning new and interesting things with the stamps as my teachers. My knowledge of geography, history, personages both obscure and well-known, and technology have all been enhanced if not outright derived from my love of philately. All it takes is some design element printed on these tiny bits of paper to cause a “What’s that?” reaction and I’m off and running to my Scott catalogue and then to Wikipedia.

Other than enjoying the appearance of certain early and classic automobiles, I’ve never given the development of the earliest motorized road transport much thought. I guess I’d always assumed that cars pretty much began with the efforts of Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. Before coming across the Austrian stamp featured today, I’d never heard of Siegfried Marcus nor of his construction of what is debatably the world’s first automobile as much as fifteen years before Benz or Daimler build their inventions.

Siegfried Samuel Marcus was born of Jewish descent on September 18, 1831, in Malchin, in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. He made several petrol-powered vehicles, the first one in 1864, while living in Vienna, Austria. He began work at age 12 as an apprentice mechanic. At 17, he joined Siemens and Halske, an engineering company that built telegraph lines. He moved to Vienna, the capital of the Austrian Empire, in 1852, working first as a technician in the Physical Institute of the Medical School. He then worked as an assistant to Professor Carl Ludwig, a physiologist. In 1860, Marcus opened his own workshop which made mechanical and electrical equipment. The first was located at Mariahilferstrasse 107 and the second at Mondscheingasse 4.

His chief improvements include telegraph relay system and ignition devices such as the “Wiener Zünder”, a blasting machine. Marcus died on July 1, 1898, and was buried at the Protestant Cemetery at Hütteldorf, Vienna. Later, his remains were transferred to an “Honorary Tomb” of Vienna’s Central Cemetery.

Monument at Vienna Technical Museum
Monument at Vienna Technical Museum

Because of Marcus’ Jewish ancestry, his name and all memorabilia, particularly in Austria, vanished under the Nazis. In 1937, the Austrian Harand Movement Against Racial Hatred had issued a series of stamps featuring prominent Jews, including Marcus, who had contributed to mankind in response to the Ewige Jew (eternal Jew) exhibition by Julius Streicher in Munich. Marcus was credited as having invented the petrol driven motor car. With the German occupation of Austria in March 1938, the memorial in front of the Vienna Technical University was removed. After World War II, the monument was rebuilt and his car, which had been hidden, was returned to display.

Marcus was removed from German encyclopedias as the inventor of the modern car, under a directive from the German Ministry for Propaganda during World War II. His name was replaced with the names of Daimler and Benz.

Current Austrian thinking is that Marcus’ first car ran in the late 1880s. However, early publications suggest that he may have had a petrol powered vehicle running earlier than 1870. The deliberate destruction of evidence of Marcus’ inventions by the Nazi regime has left these dates open to debate and speculation. Britannica cites 1864 for Marcus’ first car with a 10-year gap to the second, which is consistent with other sources.

“First Marcus Car”; experimental self propelled vehicle by Siegfried Samuel Marcus.

Based on the information from existing sources, Marcus’ first machine was built on a simple handcart in 1870. but had to be started by lifting the drive wheels off the ground and spinning them. The internal combustion engine was designed for liquid combustibles and made him the first to propel a vehicle by means of petrol. Marcus was not satisfied with this cart and dismantled it.

In 1883 a patent for a low-voltage ignition magneto was given to Marcus in Germany and a new petrol engine built.

This design was used for all further engines, including that of the only existing Marcus car from 1888–1889. It was this ignition, in conjunction with the “rotating brush carburettor”, that made the engine’s design very innovative. By 1886, the German navy was using the engine in its torpedo boats.

In 1887, Marcus started a co-operation with the Moravian company Märky, Bromovsky & Schulz. They offered two stroke and — after the fall of the Otto-Patent in 1886 — four stroke engines of the Marcus type.

Marcus Car of 1888

in 1888-1889, Märky, Bromovsky & Schulz built the car which can still be seen in Vienna’s Technical Museum. This car made Marcus well-known all over the world. There is no proof for an origin prior to 1889 for this car. The car was named a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The heavy vehicle made of wood and iron was unsuited to uneven tracks or even inclines. The patented magneto-electric ignition used on the four-cycle, gasoline-powered engine was extremely convenient and advanced for the day. Another sophisticated invention by Siegfried Marcus was the spray brush carburetor, in which brushes dispersed the fuel through abrasion. By contrast the belt drive posed a number of problems. The car was said to reach a top speed of 10 miles per hour.

John Nixon of the London Times in 1938 considered Marcus’ development of the motor car to have been experimental, as opposed to Benz who took the concept from experimental to production. Nixon described Marcus’ cars as impractical. Twelve years later, in 1950, the Times described the car at the Vienna Technical Museum as being built in 1875 and the first petrol-powered road vehicle. A description of its first journey of 7.5 miles from Vienna to Klosterneuberg was included in the article.

Undercarriage of the second Marcus Car, circa 1888
Second Marcus Car at Vienna Museum of Technology. Photo taken on December 21, 2011.

His later models were refined with steering, brakes, a clutch, and other features that simply hadn’t been conceived of when Marcus first hitched his engine to a buggy. Marcus’ second car, still operable, is now owned by the Austrian Automobile, Motorcycle and Touring Club in Vienna and now on display at the Vienna Technical Museum. The first car was not considered road-worthy and he dismantled it. A third and possibly a fourth car did not survive, making the second his only survivor. Described as “experimental,” it never went into production, but it reportedly made a conspicuous appearance the streets of Vienna during its demonstration run.

Scott #906 was issued by Austria on October 1, 1971, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Austrian Automobile, Motorcycle and Touring Club. The 4-schilling pale green and black stamp was printed by engraving and photogravure, perforated 14.

State ensign of Austria
Logo of the Austrian Automobile, Motorcycle and Touring Club



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