When Leonardo Da Vinci Tried To Design An Automobile

Images: Alamy & Gautam Sen

Although the very first automobile had been invented by a Frenchman, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, in the year 1770, it would not be amiss to also point out that the idea of an automobile, a self-propelled vehicle, was under consideration for centuries before that. Many may have dreamt of such a device, a vehicle, but it needed a Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) to conceptualise one. Around 1478, the redoubtable genius gave expression to that dream in the form of a series of rough sketches in his Codex Atlanticus.

Leonardo da Vinci design automobile self-propelled cart car invention
The first self-propelled vehicle that Leonardo da Vinci conceived, but replicated into a working model only in 2004; this model at Italy's national automobile museum was constructed by Matart from da Vinci's drawings

Leonardo da Vinci may have sketched this as an idea (though the sketches are uncommented and thus presumed incomplete) for one of his many wealthy patrons, who regularly employed him to create complex showpieces. It is possible that one of his patrons had commissioned this “concept” for the famous artist from Anchiano, Italy, to execute, as a way for them to show their wealth to their guests. The device may not be considered a car though, as it had no provision for seats, but it could be steered and, in theory, was able to move on its own power for up to about forty metres, or so.

Leonardo da Vinci design automobile self-propelled cart car invention
The drawings that Da Vinci made circa 1478

Da Vinci’s three-wheeler was spring driven so it had to be wound-up before it could move. Inspired by the first clocks and the study of perpetual motion, he conceptualised a vehicle, driven by two independent wheels, with a rudimentary differential, and a mechanical gear assembly, rack, gear wheel, and pinion. A complex clockwork and escapement system—inspired by watchmaking—based on two symmetrical leaf springs, “powered” the vehicle, and regulated the speed. A third tricycle wheel at the rear, provided for steering, acting as a “rudder.”

A machine with perpetual motion would, in theory, self-power energy from nothing, or very little, but da Vinci eventually concluded from his experiments, the dynamic impossibility of this principle. This was around 1490.

Leonardo da Vinci design automobile self-propelled cart car invention
As per the experiments by the scientists who made this model, the vehicle needs to be rewound every 40 metres - not all that practical

In 2004, a team of scientists from the Museo Galileo in Florence produced a model of this incomplete vehicle concept. The prototype works, thanks to the addition (which was not in the original diagram) of a double motor spring (invented around the same period, the beginning of the 15th century, with the first spring-actuated clocks) based on two spiral springs, placed under the two large gears, capable of driving the wheels independently. The images on display here is of another replica made by Matart for the Museo Nazionale dell'Automobile di Torino (MAUTO).

Gautam Sen

Serial concours judge, author, founder-editor of several Indian auto mags, as well as co-conspirator with design greats Marcello Gandini, Tom Tjaarda, and Gérard Godfroy on a few vehicle projects


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