Monday, September 25, 2023 Detailed Auto Topics
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Today cars are a part of life.  Imagining a time before them is hard.  In the late 1890s, things were different.  Names like Chevrolet, Chrysler and even Ford, mean nothing concerning motorcars. This is a brief glimpse into that time.

The first U.S. production gasoline powered car

Many people believe Henry Ford built the first American, production gasoline car. An almost forgotten vehicle holds the distinction.  Charles and Frank Duryea were producing gasoline powered vehicles, with their name, several years earlier.  At the time, the horseless carriage was little more than an expensive curiosity.  

1894 Pre-production model Duryea in the Tallahassee Automotive Museum

Shown in the photo above is an extremely rare 1894, pre-production model Duryea.  This vehicle is in the collection of the Tallahassee Automobile Museum.  It is one of the finest examples of an early motor-carriage that exists.

Automobile racing

Even with the small number of motorcars in the 1890s, they soon invent vehicle racing.  Frank Duryea wins one of the first recorded automobile races.  They hold the race in Chicago, on Thanksgiving Day, 1895. Soon horseless carriage racing was in demand and Cosmopolitan magazine sponsored such an event on May 30, 1896.

In 1896, the average wage-earner receives around thirty-dollars a month. Three-thousand dollar prize money only attracts seven entries to the race. The costs of building and transporting a car was significant.  Many potential racers could not afford to get their inventions to New York.

An exciting event, perhaps the race was not the best idea for a busy Decoration Day (Now Memorial Day.) Bicycles and onlookers crowd the streets. Five of the seven vehicles are Duryea MotorwagonsAccording the New York Tribune, the same vehicle that won the Chicago race has a problem and is withdrawn. Another, driven by Carlos C. Booth, pulls to the start line and runs out of gas.  It has made several trips around the area prior to the race and burned the two-gallon capacity.  It is refueled and starts with the other three Duryeas, a Booth-Rogers and an Armstrong. 

The race was to begin at 10:00 AM, but is delayed.  Starting at Noon, near City Hall, the automobiles race up Broadway and through the streets of New York.  The destination is the Cosmopolitan building, about 30 miles to the North, and back again. Duryea Motor Wagon wins the race, driven by company co-founder, Frank.  He arrives back at City Hall at 7:13 that evening.  Another, driven by Henry Wells of Springfield Massachusetts, earns a different spot in history.

The first recorded U.S. pedestrian/motorcar accident

The area of the first automobile/pedestrian accident, recorded in the US


The racers head up Broadway, often called "The Boulevard."  Somewhere around Broadway and West 74th street, Henry’s vehicle begins to swerve, out of control.  People at the scene describe a situation similar to what we call the death-wobble.  Evylyn Thomas is riding her bicycle and struck by the vehicle.  Knocked down, the accident fractures her leg.  This is the first recorded, pedestrian injured by a motorcar, in the United States.  The above photo shows the intersection, as it appears in 2012.

The opposite corner, as it appears today.  Miss Thomas may have been traveling in this direction.  Likely, she was confused with the appearance of the swerving horseless carriage.  She is taken to the Manhattan Hospital and eventually recovers from her injuries.

The Columbia bicycle was priced around $100 in the 1890s

Such an event is understandably perplexing to the police, at the time. The lady has serious injuries, and damage to her bicycle.  A Columbia bicycle can cost around $100 or over three-months salary.  They arrest Henry, but they allow his vehicle to continue in the race, with another driver.

In a large city, such as New York, the incident went almost unnoticed.  Motorcars are very new, but not accidents.  Newspapers record many occurrences of pedestrians hit and sometimes killed by trolley cars, wagons, bicycles and taxi cabs.  Even without motorcars, the risks of pedestrians injured in such an accident are many-times greater than today.  Then as now, careless behavior and not cars cause accidents.

Horse manure, and sometimes dead animal carcasses, litter the roads.  The smell is horrible and flies are everywhere.  The introduction of the motorcar greatly cleans up the environment and makes life far safer and more pleasant.

The following is the conclusion, written in Cosmopolitan Magazine, following the race. The writer seems very enlightened as this was well over one-hundred years ago.

 "Do the tests made under the auspices of The Cosmopolitan show the horseless carriage in shape for practical, everyday use?" is the question which the reader will ask.

"Yes," and "no," must be the reply. To the person already familiar with machinery, and capable of exercising proper intelligence and care, the horseless carriage stands ready to his hand.

That it is already the complete motor carriage, prepared to meet all the various requirements demanded by the public, must be doubted. That it is making the most rapid strides toward such perfected condition we can not doubt. That horseless carriages will soon be on the market, of qualities and prices suitable for general use, we must believe.

In just a few years and only a few blocks away, the first recorded U.S. traffic fatality occurs.  Please see next week's Detailed Topic, Some Early Motorcar History II for details.

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