Ride into yesteryear

Columnist Dan Neil takes a trip into the past while riding through Pasadena on a reproduction of the first automobileĀ—the 1886 Benz Patent Motor Car. (Wally Skalij / LAT)

EIGHTEEN EIGHTY-SIX was a very big year. John Stith Pemberton invented Coca-Cola. Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty. King Ludwig II of Bavaria died, much to the delight of Bavarians. Also having a good year were mutton chops and diphtheria.

And on Jan. 29, 1886, pioneering automotive engineer Karl Friedrich Benz was awarded patent No. 37435, for a Fahrzeug mit Gasmotorenbetrieb, an auto car with a gasoline-powered engine.

L.A. would never be the same.

Fettled in his modest workshop in Mannheim, Germany, Benz's Patent Motorwagen didn't look much like a car as we know it today. To the town's mildly alarmed burghers, it didn't even immediately suggest a horseless carriage, whatever that was. With its spoked rear wheels and tuck-and-roll upholstered seat, it looked rather more like a park bench gone walkabout. But it was, in all the ways that matter, the first proper automobile. This was the life-evoking lightning stroke in the primordial pond, the rudimentary sorting of nucleotides from which a new species would arise. It was only a matter of time before real estate agents driving three-ton Escalades would overrun the Westside.

Automotive history begins with the 1886 Benz Motorwagen. And here I am, driving it down the quiet streets of Pasadena.

Well, at least they were quiet.

As auto critic for The Times, I've had my share of E-ticket rides — a Ferrari in the Alps, a Land Rover across Patagonia. I've gone over 200 mph in a jet-powered dragster, and not entirely on purpose either. But this — this quaint bit of blacksmithing and woodcraft, this spindly, oil-spitting cat's cradle — this is the coolest vehicle I've ever gotten hold of.

And not because it's fast. With a top speed of around 18 mph, the Motorwagen can't outrun a decently thrown bowling ball. Of course, it feels a lot faster when you're actually in the driver's seat, perched in the open air at the height of a stepladder.

No, it's cool because this is the real deal, the echt automobile, the genuine article (excepting the fact what I'm driving is actually a factory-built replica of the vehicle that's in the Deutsches Museum in Munich). And from this over-tall seat you can feel all the familiar tinglings, the infatuating sensations of the automobile, pared to their essences. Why did the automobile succeed? And why is it still succeeding, in places like China and India, where citizens are mortgaging their meager lives to get a car? Here truth is revealed: The pleasure of cars isn't about high-end audio systems and heated seats. It's about mechanically multiplied self-determination. Free will with leverage.

It sure beats walking.

I wonder if, at the moment of the patent clerk's pen stroke 6,000 miles away, the people in 1886 Los Angeles didn't feel the wind change. Did they hear distant thunder coming across the orange groves? Did pedestrians at that moment bump into each other, mysterious auguries of the fender-benders to come?

Yes, well, probably not. The truth is, no one at the time — not even, I should say, the editors of a certain homely, recently bankrupted newspaper called the Los Angeles Daily Times — had the slightest conception how the invention of the automobile would transform L.A. from the moseying hoof-and-heel town it was to the furiously hypertensive, drunk-with-mobility monster city it is today.

Los Angeles would become the world's first Autopia, a city whose essential metabolism — its twice-daily freeway migrations, its map-quilting pattern of municipalities, its social and cultural life — is predicated on autonomous mobility. The automobile was social engineering at its most literal.

Above all, the automobile's increasing speed, range and comfort would endow the city with its distinctive mega-scale. Which, in retrospect, may have been not so great a mega-idea. One hundred and twenty years into the automotive experiment, the wisdom of putting nearly every living soul in 500 square miles on wheels and letting them run all over the place is clearly debatable.

Ironically, Los Angeles has forgotten more about mass transit than most cities will ever know. In 1886, the year of Benz's patent, construction began on the nation's first overhead electric transit line, the Los Angeles Electric Railway, a modest little route that ran through the streets of downtown L.A. A couple of decades hence, Henry Huntington consolidated various transit companies to form the Pacific Electric Railway, which at its peak had more than 1,100 miles of track and 900 of its famous Red Cars serving, in 1944, more than 109 million riders.

And then it all went away. By midcentury, freeways had begun supplanting rail lines. Tracks were paved over. Compared to the beguilements of the automobile, the electric railroad never had a chance. Mass transit? Playa, please.

Meanwhile, as the car was defining L.A., the city was returning the favor. Los Angeles is the incubator of American car culture, from hot-rodding to lowriding, from cruising to pimping. Starlets and moguls in block-long cars. Causeless rebels in '32 Fords. James Dean in a doomed Porsche. A crazed Swede in half a Ferrari. Limo racing. Drive-by dining. Riding dirty.

That's how we roll.

MY rendezvous with the Patent Motorwagen comes courtesy of the Mercedes-Benz company. This replica is one of 150 built in 2003 and 2004. So, yes, this isn't literally the world's first car, but absolutely faithful, right down to the German oak slats on the floorboards. The only practical concession is the use of a modern spark plug instead of the dinner candle-sized ceramic device that Benz invented for the purpose. The ersatz Motorwagen thus offers the identical experience that Benz and his early customers had when they climbed aboard, and occasionally the same Gott-im-Himmel aggravation.