Cugnot’s steam tractor – Fardier a Vapeur

Posted by jerry on June 25th, 2006 — Posted in History, Journal, Steam, Technology

One of the little-known museum gems in Paris is the Musee des Arts et Metiers – the museum of technology. Among the amazing objects there is Nicolas Cugnot’s steam tractor – the Fardier a vapeur. This is the first steam propelled vehicle – from which the development of the modern automobile began.

Back in 1769, when Captain Cook was preparing for his voyage to Australia, a French military engineer was considering the merits of using steam to propel a vehicle. With the backing of the Minister for War, the Duke of Choiseul, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot (1725-1804) developed a prototype steam tractor for towing artillery without horses. The prototype was built under Cugnot’s direction by Army mechanic Brezin at the Paris Arsenal. The first protoype showed some limited promise, and he went on to build a second vehicle in 1770. His idea was to use a three-wheeled cart, with a high-pressure boiler placed in front of the driving wheel, and a two-cylinder piston engine to push on a notched disc each side of the wheel. The whole driving assembly was mounted so it could pivot on a vertical axis for steering – with a steering lock of about 15-20 degrees in either direction. It seems very front-heavy, but it was designed to tow a heavy artillery piece.

The machine has a reverse gear and could move its five-tonne load at up to 4 km/h. It was only partially successful, however. The fire-box was small, and the machine could sustain steam for only about 15 minutes before it ran out of steam pressure. And the lack of brakes and and slow steering (by geared rack and pinion) made the machine unwieldy. On an early test run it failed to make a sufficiently sharp turn and crashed into a stone wall, and the project was scrapped – after the first motor vehicle accident in history – in 1771.

The test vehicle was long thought to have been destroyed during the French Revolution, until it was discovered in Napoleon’s time. It has been preserved in the Musee des Arts et Metiers since 1800.

I am happy to report that the machine is still in an excellent state of preservation, and the workmanship of the mechanic, Brezin, was very professional in its approach. The two single-acting cylinders are 13 inches in diameter, and the structure is robustly constructed on massive timber beams. Cugnot himself received a pension of 600 francs, which was revoked in 1789, forcing Cugnot into exile in Brussels. He was brought back to France and his pension reinstated by Napoleon shortly before he died in 1804 at the age of 79 years.

The museum website has an excellent video presentation on how the engine worked

The vehicle’s scale is impressive as you can see in the following photos I took 2 weeks ago.

Cugnot's steam carriage
Cugnot’s steam carriage – the Fardier a Vapeur 1770

Cugnot's boiler assembly
Cugnot’s boiler assembly

Cugnot's steam tractor
Cugnot’s steam wagon – left view

Cugnot's drive gear
Drive gear on Cugnot’s steam carriage

Cugnot's engine valve gear - detail
Cugnot’s engine valve gear – detail

Cugnot's drive train
Cugnot’s drive train

Cugnot's 1770 Fardier a Vapeur
This picture is included just to provide a sense of scale to Cugnot’s steam wagon



Comment by Jenny Baker

Hi Jerry
I enjoyed your website very much. Came across it when I was researching Cugnot’s tricycle. I used the story as intro to an article on new brake technology. Is there any possibility I may use your photo in the magazine, please?

Posted on June 17, 2008 at 7:46 pm

Comment by jerry

Jenny, you may use photos with attribution. For print, if you email me and identify the photo I may have a higher resolution one available for you.


Posted on June 17, 2008 at 7:58 pm

Comment by Jacques P.J. Deckers

Dear Mr. Everard,

With reference to the information on your website, which I appreciated: Do you have any information concerning the influence of a Mr. Brézin on the Cugnot steam vehicle?
Thank you in advance for your comments.
The Sagitta Beneluxe Vehicles Database, Geertruidenberg, The Netherlands.

Posted on January 10, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Comment by jerry

Thank you for your comment Mr Deckers. I’m sorry, the only information I have is that M. Brezin was an engineer at the Paris arsenal, and that Nicolas Cugnot commissioned him to build the steam gun carriage, but if any other readers have more information please leave a comment here and I shall pass it on.


Posted on January 11, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Comment by Gerry Acerno

This contraption has held my fascination ever since I saw pictures of it as a child, forty years ago. Has anyone tried to re-create a “Working” replica of it? I would love to see this machine in operation. It boggles my mind that it could even move, based on it’s construction.

Posted on March 25, 2009 at 11:05 am

Comment by jerry

Actually a replica has been built – currently running on compressed air pending boiler certification


Posted on March 25, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Comment by Chun Kay

It’s a really noble invention and change our world and everyone life. Nice post.

Posted on April 13, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Comment by russell

yes it did change our world and everyones world but i wouldnt say for the better im a enviromentalist and i say its contibuted to over 50% of our problems with green house gas today.

Posted on November 15, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Comment by jerry

Actually – the external combustion (steam) engine is green – with almost zero emissions due to the complete combustion of the fuel.

Posted on November 15, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Comment by Carlos E. Kretz

As a hobbyist I am looking to make a working replica (tentative scale 1:20) of Cugnot’s Fardier. I collected much information from Internet and books, but I still lack many details to make a more realistic model, specially concerning steering mechanism, and mechanical disposition. Can you help me to complete this info?. If you are interested I may send you fotos of my models.
Thank you in advance for your help

Posted on January 21, 2012 at 6:49 am

Comment by jerry

I may have some details of the steering mechanism and of the transmission. There is also an excellent animation of the mechanism on the Musee des Arts et metiers web site. Happy to help to the extent I can – and yes I’d love to see photos of your model


Posted on January 22, 2012 at 9:49 pm

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