No. 3, 2006

Vladimir Alexeyev


Russia's first automobile with an internal combustion engine was constructed 110 years ago

The year 1896 occupies a prominent place in the world history of motoring. That year the American industrialist Henry Ford rode his quadricycle for the first time; a motor race along the Paris-Marseilles-Paris route, 1,720 kilometers long, was held in France; and the French manufacturer Edouard Michelin equipped several hundred motorcars with pneumatic tires. Also that year, British Parliament abolished the law according to which a man with a red flag was to walk before any kind of horseless carriage. Furthermore, on July 1, 1896, at the All-Russia Industrial and Fine Arts Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod, Yevgeny Yakovlev, a retired lieutenant of the Navy, and Pyotr Freze, a mining engineer, demonstrated the first Russian-made automobile.

Crossing of fates

The retired lieutenant of the Navy Yevgeny Yakovlev (1857-1898) and the mining engineer Pyotr Freze (1844-1918) first met at the 1893 Chicago World Fair where they demonstrated the products of their enterprises.

Both were well-established businessmen at the time. Having retired from the Russian Navy, Yevgeny Yakovlev started experimenting with internal combustion engines. Later on, in 1891, he opened in Bolshaya Spasskaya Street in St. Petersburg the Yakovlev Factory of Kerosene and Gas Engines. Before long, the factory's products became firmly established on the market. Yakovlev's kerosene engines were displayed at the Chicago World Exhibition. At the 1896 All-Russia Industrial and Fine Arts Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod his factory displayed five different types of engines, including one having a horizontal cylinder and a capacity of one and six HP. Yakovlev's design of similar engines with capacities from 2 to 25 HP was of undoubted technical interest, and for his novel ideas he was awarded Franchise No. 11 and No. 12 for 1892. Also in 1892, the factory was awarded silver medals at the electrical equipment exhibitions in St. Petersburg and Moscow. In 1893, Yakovlev's engines won a bronze medal and an honorary diploma of the World's Columbian Exposition. In 1894, at the agricultural exhibition in Baranovichi his engines were awarded a silver medal. Among other things, they featured electric ignition of the fuel-air mixture, forced-feed lubrication and detachable cylinder heads. Remarkably, Yevgeny Yakovlev was the first to manufacture internal combustion engines with due account of the specifics of the Russian market. In 1891, he wrote: Having tackled the problem of kerosene engines for two years, I have come to the conclusion that all of them have one essential drawback: their design is too complicated. And this drawback is especially important here in Russia because people are poorly prepared to handle mechanisms (particularly people in the provinces).

The life story of Pyotr Freze is equally interesting. A graduate of the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, he got a job at the Karl Nellis Carriage Factory. A few years later he rose to the post of factory manager and became a full partner of the owner, Karl Nellis. Owing to the efforts of the young mining engineer, who introduced new technologies and original design solutions, by the late 1880s their factory had an excellent reputation. Pyotr Freze devised many technical improvements for horse-drawn carriages. One of them is called a new system of mounting carriages on leaf-spring suspensions. This technical innovation was legally formalized by Franchise No. 10 408 issued on December 28, 1883. Soon he became one of the founders of the Carriage-Building Joint-Stock Company Freze & Co.

Pioneers of the motor industry

The news of the appearance in August 1895 in St. Petersburg of a self-propelled mechanical carriage manufactured by the German company Benz and acquired by the architect Zhirgalev, and the excitement around this happening, prompted Yevgeny Yakovlev and Pyotr Freze to consider constructing a Russian automobile.

At the beginning of the following year The Magazine of the Latest Discoveries and Inventions (No. 24 for 1896) informed its readers: The idea is being realized by the well-known St. Petersburg firm Freze & Co which is completing the constructing of a two-seat carriage equipped with a gasoline engine. The vehicle is to be sent to the Nizhni Novgorod exhibition. The firm Freze & Co has constructed only the body part: the engine has been created by the St. Petersburg gas and kerosene engine factory owned by Y.A. Yakovlev.

The same issue of the magazine contained a detailed description of the motor vehicle. It seems that the body part of the first Russian automobile followed the tradition of light horse-drawn carriages: The wheels with wooden rims and solid-rubber tires revolved on bronze bushings instead of ball bearings. The spring suspension of solid axles was of the simplest design used in open carriages (for two or four persons) and it rested on four lengthwise semi-elliptical springs. A large number of leaves with considerable friction between them made it possible to dispense with shock-absorbers. The front and rear beams were linked in an articulated joint by two longitudinal tie-rods. The body had a wooden frame which formed an independent supporting system connected by springs with the tierods. The wheels (120-150 centimeters in diameter) had tires of solid rubber. The vehicle featured an original steering system: the front wheels had the suspension springs placed right next to them as in the case of the rear wheels which did not turn sideways. The front springs turned together with the wheels in relation to the pivots.

Moreover, Pyotr Freze had installed pivots not only in the beam of the front axle but also in the cross piece over it which was rigidly linked with the body frame. Mounted on it was the steering trapezium raised high above the road to protect it against possible jolts. As for the motor group and transmission, Yakovlev's engine had a capacity of two HP and was equipped with an evaporative cooling system. When the engine was working, the water boiled continuously, the steam entered the condenser where it cooled and turned into water again (part of it evaporated, of course). Two side tanks made of brass contained a reserve quantity of water (about 30 liters). The vaporizing-type condenser in the form of an oblong horizontally-placed cylinder was located behind the back of the seat. Yevgeny Yakovlev had modeled his vaporizing carburetor on the Benz design. It was in the form of a vertically-placed cylindrical tank about 20 centimeters in diameter. It was heated by the exhaust fumes, which made the gasoline evaporate, saturating with its vapors the air that passed through the tank. The composition of the fuel-air mixture could be changed in the mixing tank where, if necessary, it could receive an additional portion of air. Under the driver's seat there was a swiveling lever with the help of which the driver could regulate the composition of the fuel-air mixture. But it was impossible to regulate either the amount of the mixture entering the cylinder or the ignition advance. Electrical ignition was effected by a battery and an induction coil with an electromagnetic interrupter (a kind of Ruhmkorff coil).

The above-mentioned peculiarities of the design made it impossible to regulate the engine's frequency of rotation in proportion to the workload. In fact, they predetermined its operation rate on the road. The only way in which the driver could regulate the work of the engine was by either steeply enriching the fuel-air mixture or creating gaps in the electric current conveyance to the spark plug. Such actions were necessary for gear shifting. The automobile of Yakovlev and Freze had a transmission which operated on the pattern borrowed from metal-working machine tools. It consisted of two belts made of a rubberized fabric which were attached to step pulleys. Gears were shifted by the motion of the belts controlled by two levers which moved up and down and were located on both sides of the steering column. The slipping of belts during gear shifting acted as the clutch mechanism. The maximum speed achieved by the first Russian automobile was 20 versts (just over 20 kilometers) per hour. The creative approach of Yakovlev and Freze toward constructing their original horseless carriage was remarkable for its rational combination of their own and borrowed technical solutions.

A tragic finale

On July 2, 1896, the newspaper Nizhegorodsky Listok reported that at the All-Russia Exhibition the first Russian self-propelled carriage would be demonstrated. On July 19 the newspaper briefly reported that the Russian Emperor Nicholas II (1868-1918) had visited the exhibition and that the Royal couple was shown the first Russian automobile with a gasoline engine. The newspaper mentioned that commentary was provided by the engineer Pyotr Freze. A reporter of the Samokat magazine noted that many of the visitors to the exhibition were impressed by the elegance and lightness of the automobile. Its price was estimated at 1,500 rubles, and it could do up to 20 versts an hour on a highway.

For a number of reasons, the automobile of Yakovlev and Freze did not evoke any great interest among the Russian ruling elite most of whom owned foreign-made cars. And so the inventors could rely only on their own resources. The public at large were not interested in the technical innovations and advantages of the first Russian automobile. And so it remained unclaimed by the Russian customer. In 1897 the newspaper Novoye Vremya carried the following advertisement: Y.A. Yakovlev's factory offers self-propelled carriages at moderate prices. Orders will be promptly fulfilled. Regrettably, today it is impossible to establish how many automobiles of that make were manufactured.

The untimely death of Yevgeny Yakovlev interrupted all further efforts to produce the first Russian automobile. His heirs had no desire to continue his business, while Pyotr Freze could not go on with automobile manufacturing single-handed. Yet, it should be admitted today that, in creating their automobile, Yakovlev and Freze employed original designs and technical solutions which, to a certain extent, were later used by other Russian motor works.

All articles
Oil of Russia, No. 3, 2006
© 1998-2020, "OIL OF RUSSIA".
"OIL OF RUSSIA" magazine welcomes comments and ideas from its readers.
Letters should be sent by regular mail, fax or e-mail.
All right reserved, including right of reproduction in whole or in parts in any form.