This animated history of the van is delightful. It's well-written, the animation is fantastic, and it was done by people I like. Too bad some key facts just aren't true. It's not the fault of the people who made it, though. I blame Mercedes-Benz.

The reason I'm blaming Mercedes-Benz is that this little animation, sponsored by them, pegs the "invention" of the van, by Gottlieb Daimler, in 1896. The animation says:

"Gottlieb Daimler, tired of tired horses, slapped a gasoline engine on a cart. He had invented the first truck."

That's not correct at all. It's not surprising, though, since Mercedes has been pushing themselves as the "inventors" of the car (Daimler and Benz later merged to form Daimler-Benz, later Mercedes-Benz) which is a fiction I've been fighting to dispel for some time.

If we take the formula given in the animation, "slapping a gasoline engine on a cart," then we can peg the "invention" of the truck all the way back to 1863, with Étienne Lenoir's Hippomobile. Okay, it wasn't precisely a "gasoline" engine, but it did use an internal-combustion engine that ran on "coal gas" or hydrogen gas.

Lenoir's Hippomobile was literally a gas engine slapped on a cart as well, and did actually run, and could carry stuff, just like Daimler's truck 33 years later.


If you want to be a stickler for gasoline, Sigfried Marcus had a crude gasoline-powered cart in 1870, though that was quite experimental.

Really, though, I think disqualifying trucks or cars or vans by the sort of fuel used is kind of weaselly, and if we're being really forthright, I'd point all the way back to Cugnot's 1771 Steam Drag as the first truck.


Really, Cugnot's ungainly steam-powered beast was the first human-scaled motorized vehicle of any kind, but you can't ignore the fact that it was designed to haul around artillery. Meaning, it was a truck. A clumsy, not-exactly-successful truck, but nevertheless a truck that predates the Daimler "invention" by over a century.

As far as vans go, there were so many steam-powered van-like vehicles (that is, using the criteria of this animation, a motorized box, basically) in the 1830s that they even became a bit of a joke in places like the UK.

Steam omnibus (think passenger van) service was pretty regular on certain routes in 1830s Britain, and from the 1870s or so all the way up to the 1920s, large, steam-powered traction engines were used as trucks in England, America and other countries. These were beasts that resembled road-going locomotives, but they were used in ways pretty much exactly like we use cargo-hauling trucks today.

Sure, Daimler and Benz were hugely important in the development of the automobile, cars and trucks and vans alike. But Mercedes-Benz really needs to give up their persistent and frankly misleading claim that these two men "invented" the car or truck. It's just not true.

The company is still one of the oldest (perhaps the oldest) car-maker still around, and they have a rich enough history that they really shouldn't need to try and shine it up with things that just didn't happen. It'd be one thing if they weren't so insistent on their version of history they want to be true. They come out and say in the description of the video

... if it weren't for two competitive Germans and a lot of beer, the van wouldn't even exist.

Sorry, no.

So, enjoy this fantastic little history of the van, but take some of the facts with a nice vanload of salt.