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A Brief History of
The First 100 Years of the Automobile Industry
in the United States

Chapter 2 - American auto industry is born amid the snow of the great Thanksgiving Day Chicago race

by Richard A. Wright

It did not look promising.

The Great Chicago Auto Race of 1895 had all the earmarks of a fiasco. It had already been delayed twice and when it finally started on Nov. 28, 1895, there was snow on the ground.

A snow plow (pulled by a team of horses, of course,) was brought in to clear the starting area. There were disappointingly few entries and most of them were European, German-built Benz cars. Boys pelted the vehicles -- popularly called "motocycles" then -- with snowballs.

But the race went on and, when it was over, an American car had beaten the best from Europe. (Cars had been in production in Europe for 10 years. No cars were yet in commercial production in the United States.) More importantly, perhaps, it had beaten the horse.

The American auto industry was born. But it was an unlikely beginning.

Herman H. Kohlstaat, who had made a fortune in the bakery business, took his public service responsibilities as publisher of the Chicago Times-Herald seriously and decided to drum up interest in the automobile (not yet called that), which was becoming all the rage in Europe.

He announced early in 1895 that his newspaper would sponsor the first race in the United States for horseless carriages, offering $5,000 in prizes, including $2,000 for the winner. Within a month, Kohlstaat uncovered a startling fact -- the newspaper received 60 letters and telegrams from people who wanted to enter a car in the race. Some of these automobiles were imported from Europe, but a surprising number of them were being built by their owners.

The publisher had discovered that there was a widespread effort in the United States to build automobiles and that most of these inventors were not aware of the work of others, either here or in Europe.

Many said they wanted to enter their cars in the race, but would not have them ready by Labor Day, which was the date Kohlstaat had in mind. Since he wanted as many entries as possible, he delayed the race until Nov. 2.

Excitement mounted. When the big day arrived, 80 automobiles had been entered. Two showed up.

The only contestants on Nov. 2 were Frank Duryea, of Springfield, Mass., in a car he built based on designs by his brother, Charles, and Oscar Mueller in a Germanbuilt Benz owned by his father, a machine shop operator in Decatur, Ill.

Most of the other 80 entrants urged Kohlstaat to delay the race one more time, until Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28. Kohlstaat was in a difficult position. A race with only two contestants seemed a bit ridiculous and rival newspapers, sensing a possible humiliation, were already picking up the scent. The Times-Herald had hyped the event and there would be spectators waiting to see a race.

So Kohlstaat talked to Duryea and Mueller and they agreed to stage an exhibition for the spectators. The actual race would be delayed one more time to Nov. 28, Thanksgiving Day. The exhibition was to run from Jackson Park to Waukegan and back, 90 miles roundtrip.

Frank and Charles Duryea quickly pulled ahead of Mueller's Benz, but their car frightened a team of horses at a crossroad near Evanston. The team bolted onto the road into the Duryea's path. Frank, who was driving, ran into a ditch to avoid hitting the wagon and smashed the car's differential housing.

The car was pulled back to the railroad station by a horse and transported back to Springfield for repairs before the big race. The Mueller Benz won the exhibition, but the horse was still champion.

Thanksgiving Day, Chicago was covered with four to six inches of snow. Several cars entered in the race either broke down or were unable to get through the snow to the starting line. But the race, looking more and more like a disaster, finally got under way.

Six cars started. Two were electrics, which quickly ran out of power. So the race -- shortened because of the snow to a 55-mile run to Evanston and back -- pitted the Duryea against three Benz "motocycles."

One Benz was Mueller's. Another had been entered by the R.H. Macy store of New York, which was importing German-built Benz cars and hoped to sell them in Chicago as a result of publicity from the race. The other was entered by the De LaVergne Refrigeration Co. of New York.

Outside Chicago, the Duryea passed the Macy Benz, which later collided with a hack and did not finish. On the way back from Evanston, Duryea passed the Mueller Benz, then overtook the De LaVergne Benz. The Duryea crossed the finish line with no other car in sight. An hour and a half later, the Mueller Benz appeared, the only other car to finish the race.

The Duryea had beaten the three German cars, but perhaps even more importantly, it had made clear the days of the horse as the prime mode of transportation were numbered. No team of horses could have done what the Duryea did.

Each car carried an umpire and one of the umpires, assigned to Mueller's car, was Charles B. King, the first man to operate a car in Detroit, who had hoped to enter his own car in the race, but did not have it ready. King, incidentally, did get to drive in the race because Oscar Mueller, apparently overcome by fatigue and excitement, had passed out during the race and King drove the car to the finish line.

The Duryeas built their car in Springfield, Mass., but the American car is a creature of the Midwest (as were the Duryeas they originally came from Illinois). With a few notable exceptions, most of the early automotive pioneers were from the Midwest and Great Lakes area.

In fact, the industry very nearly was located in New England. After his success in the Chicago race, Frank Duryea returned to Massachusetts and began building the Duryea car. In 1896, Duryea was the biggest producer in the United States, turning out 13 units. The cars were hand-built. Mass production of machines as complicated as an automobile was still years away.

The reason for the Duryeas' success where so many others failed was the efficient two-cylinder, four-cycle internal-combustion engine which powered it.

New England had one more shot at becoming the motor capital before Detroit took that title. Col. Albert Pope, who had served on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's staff during the Civil War, converted his bicycle plant in Hartford, Conn., to automobile manufacture with the help of Hiram Percy Maxim. After their victory in Chicago, the Duryeas considered having Pope build their car, but Pope was not very interested. He did not think the internal-combustion engine could compete with steam or electric power.

While his plant did build a few gasoline-powered cars, its production heavily favored steam and electric. By 1899, Pope was the biggest manufacturer in the country, with output of 2,092 vehicles, almost half of the cars built in the United States that year.

But Pope had bet on the wrong horse. While steamers and electrics hung on as late as the '30s, they began losing out to the gasoline engine not long after the new century got under way.

In Lansing, Olds had built his first steam-powered auto in 1886. He switched to internal combustion, thinking it the most promising powerplant, and he entered the Chicago race, but did not have a car ready in time that he thought would be good enough to compete with the Benz models from Europe. He did not even know about the Duryea.

When Olds became the first to mass-produce autos, he powered them with internal-combustion engines. So did Henry Ford when he showed the world what mass production really was all about. The Stanleys and Dobles built some magnificent classic steamers into the '30s and electrics were still favored by a few Grosse Pointe dowagers into the '40s. But it soon became clear that the automotive mainstream would be dominated by the internal-combustion gasoline engine.

Another midwesterner, Elwood Haynes, demonstrated his automobile in Kokomo, Ind., in 1894, a year after the Duryeas took their horseless buggy for its first test drive on the streets of Springfield.

Haynes had not only been unaware of the Duryeas' work before he found out about it in 1895 at the Chicago race, he refused to believe that he had not been the first. In fact, for the 30 years that Haynes manufactured cars, the company's ads always carried the line: "The Haynes is America's first car."

Another of the very earliest cars makers -- probably the third to go into production after Duryea and Haynes -- was Alexander Winton, a short-tempered Scotsman who built his car in Cleveland.

Winton was the first to use a steering wheel instead of a tiller, he put the engine in front of the driver instead of under the car and he developed the first practical storage battery. He is also credited with signing the first franchised new-car dealer.

But he is perhaps best known now for the effect he had on others. James W. Packard, a maker of electrical products (whose firm later became the Packard Cable division of General Motors) visited Winton's office in Cleveland to offer a few suggestions for improving Winton's car. Winton blew his top and said: "If you don't like the car, why don't you build your own?" Packard did and it became one of the world's great nameplates.

On March 7, 1896, this report appeared in the Detroit Journal:

"The first horseless carriage seen in this city was out on the streets last night. The apparatus seemed to work all right and it went at the rate of five or six miles an hour at an even rate of speed."

The car was built by Charles Brady King, railroad mechanic and Chicago auto race umpire and co-driver in Mueller's Benz.

Following the car intently on a bicycle through the cold, snowy Detroit streets was a lanky, 32-year-old mechanical engineer who worked for the Edison Illuminating Co. His name was Henry Ford.

Copyright 1996, Richard A. Wright
Published by Wayne State University's Department of Communications