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Posted by portugalpress on September 27, 2018

Looking through my old postcards, I found one sent 104 years ago in September 1914. Joaquim Mendes wrote: “Bia, dear daughter, we are in Bussaco where we came for an outing in good health, thankfully. We came from Coimbra by car and we spent the trip by automobile. Tomorrow we visit grandfather and we are going by automobile. Missing you...” Joaquim mentions the car three times, which is understandable as in 1914 a car in Portugal was a rarity.

In the early 1900s, there were 150 cars registered in Portugal compared to 23,000 in Britain and, by 1910, there were 600 and 100,000, respectively. Who would believe that 100 years later, in 2010, there would be an estimated 1.015 billion motor vehicles worldwide and that they would be responsible for much of the air pollution that today threatens the world?

Car ownership in Portugal boomed in the 1960s with 179,000 cars registered in circulation. Today there are 4.6 million vehicles registered here, with Renault continuing to be Portugal’s most popular make since the 1990s. Living near Estoril, in the 1970s we had a maroon-coloured Renault 4 and I remember the whole family used our leftover yellow and blue bedroom glossy paint to re-paint the car, leaving it with three different colours!

Did you know that the first car imported into Portugal came from Paris in October 1895? It was a Panhard & Levassor imported by the 4th Count of Avillez, who also happens to be my niece’s ancestor! Jorge d’Avillez had to pay 120 Reis importation costs to the confused customs men who did not know whether to tax it as an agricultural or a locomotive steam run machine, opting for the latter. Driving to Santiago do Cacém at 15km/h, the 146km journey took three days and Jorge was also responsible for the first car causing death, when he hit and killed a donkey which had refused to move from the road. The donkey’s owner was awarded three times the value of the donkey in compensation! This infamous car is today owned by the Automóvel Club de Portugal.

It was an exciting and frightening time when cars first appeared as people were distrustful of these new machines. A horse-drawn cart travelled around 16km/h and soon people were having to jump out of the way of the ‘horseless carriages’ driving up to 72km/h.

Cities were modernising rapidly with large avenues being formed, although outside the main towns, the roads were of bad quality and drivers had to be resilient and efficient to deal with regular breakdowns. There were no traffic signs, driving licences or road markings, and no petrol stations, so drivers had to carry sufficient fuel for their journeys. People just bought a car and drove it!

Early cars were like “horseless carriages”, powered by simple internal combustion engines fuelled by steam, hydrogen, electricity and gasoline.

Karl Benz (1844-1929) is recognised as making the first car after he patented, in 1886, the processes that made the internal combustion engine feasible for use in an automobile.

Benz’s cars were expensive, and it was Henry Ford who, in 1908, started production of his affordable, easily-maintained car for the masses, the Model T.

By 1927, Henry Ford saw the 15 millionth Ford come off the production line giving him the largest share of the world market.

Writer Rudyard Kipling, who had his first car in 1897, described a car journey like a catalogue of “agonies, shames, delays, rages, chills, road-walking, burns and starvations”, but he loved them right after his first 20-minute ride when he “returned white with dust and dizzy with noise”.

Another intrepid pioneer, Hubert Egerton, drove in the winter of 1900 from Scotland to Cornwall in a steam motor car and described the experience as “rather like sitting on a garden seat with no more protection than was provided by one’s own overcoat, while the garden seat meandered along through rain sleet and snow at anything between 10 and 20mph”. I just love this description!

Despite the discomfort, cars provided a previously unknown freedom to travel and their popularity grew rapidly, changing social patterns and altering living standards as a result.

Initially seen as eccentric, automobiles were used for pleasure trips or racing. The racecourse in Belém was the meeting point for Lisbon society and on August 17, 1902 it hosted the first automobile race which had three cars racing 10 laps over 11.2kms. The exciting day’s programme also included bicycle and motorbike races and a football match between the English Union and the Portuguese Lisbon football clubs. I wonder if Joaquim Mendes, who lived in Lisbon, attended this epic event!

On October 27, 1902 Portugal’s first inter-town car race took place with nine automobiles and five motorbikes leaving Figueira da Foz at 6am and racing to Campo Grande in Lisbon. Ten km/h speed restrictions were imposed in towns and professional drivers were hired by some car owners, including by D. Afonso, the King’s brother. His Italian driver won the first prize, arriving in 13 hours, 29 minutes and 25 seconds. Nowadays, this journey would take less than two hours!

The official race report said that there had been “a few dead dogs and one or two crashes of no importance”.

First cars are always special. In 1983, I asked my grandfather to find me a car to buy, adamantly stating I did not want an old one … he soon presented me with a 1964 grey Morris Minor which cost 300 pounds! I did not even know what a Morris Minor was and I was slightly disappointed, but, in the end, the car, nicknamed Morris, was great fun. I had my driving lessons in it and passed my driving test with the grumpy inspector informing me “Miss Costa, you passed by the skin of your teeth” and this because I would not go at the maximum 70mph on the dual carriageway.

I grew to love Morris, despite most years it needing to have the floor welded as it rusted away from the puddles caused by many water leaks. It was also freezing cold in the winter and we had to have blankets and snow suits on the children for long journeys! Morris was faithful for 16 years and we even spent a fun afternoon with friends spraying him bright red. In 1999, the rust finally won the battle and Morris had to be scrapped just before we moved to Portugal. I cried all the way home from the scrapyard and I still miss him, as my newer cars have never quite had the same character!

So now you know!

By Isobel Costa

Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.