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Did Doagh man John beat Karl Benz by creating world's first car?

By Eddie McIlwaine

The towering statue in honour of engineer John Rowan, which dominates the centre of Doagh in east Antrim, has been looked on for years by villagers as their lucky mascot.

Even employment problems that cropped up in local businesses, which could have resulted in redundancies, don't dent the way folk in Doagh feel about the handsome edifice in memory of the talented inventor.

They'll tell you that apart from the ploughs, threshing machines and other farm implements he built and which were new-fangled in his day, Rowan's finest achievement was creating the first car.

Now Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy in Washington DC, whose wife, Siobhan Bullock, is Rowan's great-granddaughter five times removed, is researching - with a little bit of help from yours truly - the truth of this claim.

Mike, a former speech writer in President George W Bush's administration, wants children Jack (14), Saskia (12) and Rafe (7) to know more about their famous ancestor.

"I want them to understand the past and develop a pride in their roots," he confides.

There is no doubt that Rowan (1787-1858) designed and built a steam-powered road vehicle "on an entirely new principle" in 1835 - 50 years ahead of German inventor Karl Benz.

It was introduced to public gaze on January 5, 1836, and Rowan predicted, when he drove it through the streets of Belfast to the amazement of crowds, it would be a success.

Alas, his dream came to nothing, as potential investors shook their heads and turned him down. Perhaps if John had been a better driver they might have been impressed by what he maintained was the world's first car.

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