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Networkblog.hemmings.comDuryea’s debut: 120 years of the American automobile, maybe

duryeas-debut-120-years-of-the-american-automobile-maybe
duryeas debut 120 years of the american automobile maybe
Photo courtesy Library of Congress Even Charles E. Duryea was quick to point out that he (and especially his brother, J. Frank Duryea) was not the inventor of the automobile. Duryea, certainly an automotive pioneer and in

Duryea_1200

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Even Charles E. Duryea was quick to point out that he (and especially his brother, J. Frank Duryea) was not the inventor of the automobile. Duryea, certainly an automotive pioneer and in later years an automotive historian, often cited examples of American-built self-propelled carriages from the 1860s through the 1880s, Cugnot, and even Heron’s steam engine. Yet he remained steadfast in his claims of being the first American to build and sell a gasoline-powered automobile, and he even gave us a date for historical posterity: April 19, 1892.

So why do so many references to the first Duryea automobile note that it debuted in September 1893?

In fact, there are plenty of discrepancies in the Duryea story from reference book to reference book, all likely due to the very public spat between the two brothers behind the pioneering effort (a third brother, Otho Cromwell Duryea, attempted to market a Duryea car of his own, but only built one in 1901 and then exited the automobile industry). The first contemporary account of a Duryea automobile was indeed in September 1893, when a reporter from the Springfield Evening-Union described a trial run of the Duryea brothers’ horseless carriage (literally – it was a secondhand horse-drawn carriage into which the brothers planted a 4hp 1,302cc single-cylinder engine) at the Howard Bemis farm just outside Springfield. The Springfield Republican thus made sure to show up a couple of months later to report on a subsequent test run out front of the brothers’ shop on Taylor Street. By January 1894, the automobile was capable of completing a six-mile test run.

Whether Charles was even present at these early test runs doesn’t seem to be clear. He left Springfield in September 1892 for Peoria, Illinois, to help launch a bicycle he designed, leaving Frank behind to carry out the work on the automobile that Charles conceived. After the test runs, Frank went to work building a second car that incorporated a number of improvements, including a purpose-built body, three forward speeds and pneumatic tires. The first car went into storage until 1920, when Duryea engineer Inglis Uppercu retrieved it and donated it to the Smithsonian, where it remains today. The second car went on to compete in the Times-Herald race in Chicago in November 1895, a couple of months after the brothers formed the Duryea Motor Wagon Co., which built 13 cars before going belly-up in 1898. The brothers’ major patents for gasoline-powered automobiles (585159, 586084, and 588103) were all issued during this period.

After that, the brothers never worked together again. They formed separate companies to manufacture automobiles, and years later, after automobiles became widely accepted, they disputed publicly who between them should get credit for building the first American gasoline automobile. It was into this fray that Charles Duryea submitted not only that he alone was “Father of the American Auto Industry” and “the great reason why we use gas cars today” but also that he first thought of using a spark-fired gasoline engine to propel a vehicle in 1886 (a convenient date) and that work on the first Duryea automobile began in August 1891, with testing on April 19, 1892. (According to Duryea, the first and second cars were nearly identical, but it is in fact the second car that’s housed in the Smithsonian.) Interestingly, he also noted that the first car was tuned and completed in September 1892, the same month he left Springfield for Peoria, thus intimating that Frank’s efforts after then were insignificant.

Of course, Charles Duryea’s motivations in making these claims were questionable, and as L. Scott Bailey wrote in his article on Duryea history in Automobile Quarterly (Vol. 23, No. 4), “Charles’s life was more complex, diverse, controversial, and difficult to tie down. His writing offers conflicting dates, with lapses of entire sequences, and yet is extremely exact about others.”

All that said, we’ll just note one last thing: In the photo that illustrates this story, we see Charles Duryea in what the Library of Congress describes as the Chicago race-winning Duryea, the brothers’ third vehicle (other photos taken the same day show both Charles and Frank sitting in the vehicle). We’ve also come across a newspaper clipping from 1920 that notes the Duryea that Uppercu donated to the Smithsonian was the Duryea brothers’ second vehicle, so it seems that there may be more to Charles Duryea’s claim than mere bravado. In either case, here’s to 120 years of American motoring.

Original: Hemmings Blog: Classic and collectible cars and parts


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