Karl Benz founded the company that would one day be called Mercedes-Benz in 1883, and they sold their first automobile in 1886. Big whoop. Henry Ford made cars ubiquitous not long after founding his factory in 1903. Everybody knows that. That Messers Rolls and Royce first rolled out their long-hooded luxury cars in 1906 is less surprising than the Queen loving corgis.
Here are six car companies that you might never have guessed are among the oldest auto manufacturers in the world. Each has passed the 100-year mark, making them worthy of a birthday shout-out on the morning news.
© GM Company
Like many of the oldest car manufacturers, when Opel opened its doors in Germany in 1863, it wasn’t building cars. No one was at that point. Opel made sewing machines, then bicycles, and then, in 1899, started building automobiles. While the family that owned the business learned how to build these infernal contraptions, they partnered with companies like Darracq of France, which built carriages. By 1902, Opel was confident enough to debut its very own automobile at the Hamburg Motor Show, but not so confident that it ditched the sewing machine business. That bold step wouldn’t come until the whole plant burned down; when Opel rebuilt, they decided to only produce cars from then on. By 1913, they were the largest auto manufacturer in Germany, and by 1930, they made more cars than anyone in Europe (with a little help from their new friends at GM).
In an industry filled with dreamers, firebrands, and fierce family pride, Fiat is a bit of an exception. It was founded in 1899 not by a man with a vision, not by a lowly Italian engineer with more guts than business smarts who was determined to make it against the odds, but rather by a board of directors wielding the sexy power of a company charter. And sure, in Latin “fiat” means “Let it be done,” which sounds strident, but don’t dye your toga purple for the party yet. The name is an acronym taken from the charter: Società Anonima Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino. S.A. FIAT. Now they own Chrysler, so don’t discount the allure of a charter.
When most of us think of Tatras—if we think of them at all—we think of them as cars driven by the East German bad guys in spy movies of the '60s, or as conveyances for Soviet apparatchiks in vintage newsreels. By that time, this company was already over a hundred years old. It was founded in 1850 in the Czech Republic as a carriage builder (under the tongue twister of a name Nesselsdorfer-Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft). Building carriages made the transition to building horseless carriages pretty smooth, and in 1897—only one year after the pioneering Benz car—the Präsident (above) was available to purchase. The company changed its name to Tatra, after the nearby mountains, in 1919, and though it is struggling, Tatra is still making trucks today.
Peugeot goes way, way, way back as a French family business. The automobile company counts its start as 1810, when the grain mill was converted to a steel foundry. But it would take eight decades for technology to catch up and the Peugeots to start building cars. Their first was the type 3 of 1891, which puttered along behind the Paris-Brest-Paris bike race to prove its mettle over 2045 km. This made perfect sense, given that Peugeot made bicycles in the same room where the cars were being built (cars got their own plant in 1897).
While many of the earliest auto manufacturers were established by nerdy engineers, the Renault brothers of France were a new breed and in it for speed. They fired up their first cars in 1898 and started racing immediately. (The oldest automotive joke, by the way, is that the first-ever car race happened when the second car was built.) The Renaults were young and saw racing as a way to promote their cars, little one-seaters called voiturettes. This race-on-Sunday-sell-on-Monday strategy is still used today, despite the fact that Marcel Renault crashed during a race in 1903 and died as a result.
6. Aston Martin
A big happy hundredth to Aston Martin, which was founded in 1913 by Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin in the UK. Why wasn’t it called Bamford and Martin, you ask? Well, it was, for a year. They changed the name in 1914 after Martin raced the Aston Hill Climb, a peculiar type of race whose point is to make it to the top of a steep hill fastest. Brits apparently love it. Astons kind of flew along under the radar until they hit the pop culture jackpot in 1965. James Bond first drove a DB5 painted Silver Birch and sporting all the deadliest gadgets from Q’s lab in Goldfinger. That car sold for $4.4 million in 2010.