“Children growing up today will think Henry Ford invented the automobile.” – Charles Duryea, sometime before his death in 1938.
Charles and Frank Duryea – the inventors of the American automobile industry?
The brothers hailed from the Midwest, and, much like the Wright Brothers got their start in the then booming bicycle business. While living in Peoria, Illinois, Charles got the idea to build a “better” bicycle. He called it the Sylph and the business it created took them to Springfield, Massachusetts where they could produce the Sylph in volume numbers.
It was Charles (the brains) who came up with the idea for what he called an “engine powered carriage.” Legend has it that the idea sprung forth after he read an article about Karl Benz and his pioneering work in the field in Scientific American. He discussed the idea with Frank, a mechanic, (the brawn) and they both began work on the project. Charles however had to return to Peoria in September of 1892 to keep tabs on the production of one of his bicycle designs.
Left to his own devices, Frank tinkered around with the design and by the middle of 1893, (September 20th to be exact) they were ready to put it to the test. The crowd that gathered in Springfield that day consisted of a handful of investors, a reporter for the local newspaper and the owner of the farm where the test was to occur. With a minimum of pushing and shoving to get it started, the vehicle, equipped with a 3.5 to 4 horsepower engine roared off and came to a stop about 200 feet away. It seems that a pile of dirt that it encountered caused it to come to a stop. Its estimated that along the way, the vehicle topped out at a whopping 7.5 miles per hour.
News soon spread about the Duryea’s and their feat and the public wondered when they were going to take their invention to market. It wasn’t until two years later that Frank, after much more tinkering, decided that the model was now much superior to its predecessor.
Enter the spirit of competition. The publisher of a Chicago newspaper, one Herman H. Kohlsaat, became intrigued by staging the first American road race. He had read of similar accounts of a race staged in France between Paris and Rouen. His plan was to sponsor the American version over a 54 mile course that covered the distance between Chicago to Evanston and back. The race was to be held on Thanksgiving Day in 1895. Naturally, a snowstorm occurred a few days before the race was to take place.
Undeterred, six vehicles showed up to take part in the race. Three were imported from Germany and built under the supervision of Karl Benz. Two were powered by electricity and the third was the Duryea brothers entry.
The “race” became more of a test of endurance. A mere seven hours and fifty three minutes later, the Duryea entry, driven by Frank himself, crossed the finish line. At the time it was considered a huge upset since the Benz company had been working on automobile production since 1886. The American public, then as now, was ready to embrace the winners.
Actually, the first American company that was created for the sole purpose of building automobiles came before the race. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company, headquartered in Springfield, Massachusetts was incorporated in September of 1895.
In 1896, the company churned out 13 identical (almost) models from its operations in Springfield. It marked the birth of the American automobile industry.