On July 14, 1896, the first Russian automobile was put on display at the All-Russia Art and Industry Exhibition in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. Designed by the outstanding Russian engineers Evgeny Yakovlev and Pyotr Freze, the new vehicle fused together state-of-the-art technologies and easily kept up with its foreign competitors. It failed to impress Russian imperial authorities, however, and never made its way into mass production.
The prototype for the first Russian vehicle was Karl Benz’s experimental “Velo” model, which both Freze and Yakovlev had come across at the Chicago Exhibition in 1893 and found very impressive. At the time Yakovlev designed internal combustion engines, while Freze owned a carriage factory. Both engineers had already earned themselves credit in the automobile industry, as Freze was awarded a bronze medal and a diploma at the exhibition and so was Yakovlev.
In 1895 they began construction of a rear-engine, two-seater carriage, with all parts manufactured in Russia. Yakovlev was responsible for the engine and the transmission, while Freze took care of the running gear and the body.
The new vehicle weighed more than 600 pounds, and had a four-stroke engine generating two horsepower. Its top speed exceeded 13 miles per hour, and its fuel tank could last for 124 miles or 10 hours of driving. Yakovlev introduced a number of never-before-seen elements to the engine, like electric ignition, a removable cylinder head and force feed lubrication.
Disillusioned by Emperor’s Nikolas II total indifference to their creation, the engineers closed the project. To this day it is still unclear what happened to the automobile itself; according to some sources, it was destroyed by its creators.
Even with Yakovlev out of the picture, Freze did not give up on the idea of expanding the automobile industry. In 1899, with the permission of Nicolas II, he organized his own joint-stock company producing carriages and automobiles. He was also the first one in Russia to produce trolleybuses and buses. He even appealed to the Parliament, asking it to design special automobile-friendly roads in St. Petersburg. The Duma reluctantly gave permission, but only for a three-month period, forcing a disappointed Freze to give up his plan altogether.
Throughout his career Freze was given a number of orders from various organizations for making automobiles. But while his plans were generally appreciated, and despite his being awarded a grand medal for his contribution to the automobile industry at the First International Automobile Exhibition in St. Petersburg, he was never given a green light by the government to go ahead with the mass production. As recent research has shown, the Russia of that time was simply unable to handle mass production due to the absence of a qualified workforce and the weakness of associated industries.
Freze was eventually forced to end his enterprise. He sold his plant to Russian Baltic Automobile, and the blueprints of his carriages were bought by French car manufacturers.