Saturday, October 14, 2017

Early Automobiles

By Gabrielle Meyer

The first vehicle known to move under its own power (in recorded history) was 1769 in Paris. The first patented internal combustion engine was created in Paris in 1860. Several variations of motorized vehicles were built and driven in the following thirty years, but it wasn't until 1891 that motorized vehicles were being built in the United States, in Connecticut.

While the internal combustion engine was being perfected, people were also experimenting with steam powered automobiles in the United States as early as the pre-Civil War era. These tended to be heavy and cumbersome.

Duryea's First Car
The Duryea sold for $1,250
in 1898
Things started to really heat up in 1893 when brothers Charles and Frank Duryea built the first gasoline powered car in America. The first time it ran on a public road was September 21, 1893 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Using an old horse drawn buggy, which they had purchased for $70, they installed a 4 HP, single cylinder gasoline engine.

In 1896, the Duryea brothers built thirteen motorized wagons, creating the first automobile manufacturing company in the world.

Ford's First Car
1893 marked the year Henry Ford had an engine running, but it was 1896 before he built his first car. At the end of 1896, Ford sold that car for $200 and used the money to build another one. In 1899, he formed the Detroit Automobile Company with the financial backing of the Mayor of Detroit and other wealthy Detroiters. The company was dissolved in January 1901 and it wasn't until 1903 that Ford would offer another car for sale.

Ransom E. Olds at the tiller
The engraving to the left shows Ransom Eli Olds at the tiller of his first powered car. This automobile was built in 1896, but the Olds Motor Vehicle Company of Detroit was not in production until 1899.

In 1899, the Curved Dash Oldsmobile sold for $650. By 1901, the company had sold 600 vehicles. In 1902 they sold 2,500, 1903 it was 4,000 and in 1904 they sold 5,000. Though Duryea was the first manufacturer with his 13 cars, Ransom E. Olds was the first mass producer in the United States.

Charles Duryea in the winning auto
The public was fascinated (and skeptical) with the idea of a horseless carriage. A notable event happened in November 1895 that helped to improve public opinion. The Chicago Times-Herald held the first automobile race in the United States and they awarded $5,000 to the winning team. Six vehicles participated, but only two finished the 54-mile trek from Chicago to Evanston and back. It was only 38 degree outside and it had just snowed. Charles Duryea took first place with an average of 7 mph, and made his name common among automobile enthusiasts of the day.

After 1899, automobiles became a more common sight in America, but there was still much progress to be made. Ford's assembly line began operation on December 1, 1913 to create the Model T, and the rest is history.

Your Turn: Are you surprised that self-propelled automobiles have been around for so long? Did any of this history surprise you? I was surprised to discover there were earlier producers than Ford, were you?

Gabrielle Meyer
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  1. Welcome, Gabrielle! Interesting post. The turn of the century (the last century, lol) was such a fascinating time. There were so many new inventions in the early 20th century, including automobiles. And now in this century, the electric car is starting to take off!

    1. Thank you for the welcome, Donna. Interestingly, at the start of the automobile craze, electric powered vehicles were just as common as gasoline powered. Some people thought they were the future. Love seeing that electric is making a resurgence.

  2. I was aware that Ford wasn't the first car producer, but was important for his moving assembly line. (R. E. Olds actually had an assembly line first) I have been to both the Henry Ford Museum and the R. E. Olds museum. (I live in Michigan) but I didn't know about Duryea (probably because he wasn't from Michigan!)

    1. I would love to go to the Ford Museum! I've heard it's amazing, filled with all sorts of Americana. What a wonderful place to live. :)

    2. We didn't see much of the Henry Ford Museum. We were there for a movie shoot (We were extras in a Civil War era film that I don't think ever developed into anything) so we were on a break. Now, the Gerald R. Ford Museum, I've seen many more times since it is much closer to where I live!

  3. I vaguely remember hearing about a motor driven vehicle in Europe but not in this country. $1,200 + was a lot of green then! Looking forward to reading your upcoming posts as I really like historical fiction. My father used to be interested in earlier autos, as did one of his brothers, so it is like having a bit of them here to have read this. jeaniedannheim (at) ymail (dot) com

  4. Welcome to this blog, Gabrielle! This was a great first post. 7mph?! Wow, too funny. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Many years ago, when I was a teen, we went to Dearborn and Greenfield Village and toured a Ford plant. ( that was back when windshield washer fluid was just new) It was fascinating. I know a little history of automobiles but didn’t know about Olds having so many cars early on. Thanks for the post. I always learn something new on this site!

  6. In my research for a novel set in 1910, I found all kinds of cars available from roadsters to trucks to touring cars, but none of them were a Ford, so that didn't surprise me. I've been to the Thomas Edison museum in Florida and saw his automobiles on display there. My great-uncle, Robert (Bob) Russell, was instrumental in the invention of the automatic drive which replaced the clutch system.