For more than a century, the automobile has been an American obsession. We have even rebuilt our entire culture around it. As a result, it can be difficult if not impossible to imagine a time without it, the infrastructure that supports it or living without one.
In 1896, all of this was just beginning. In that year just four years before the dawn of a new century, few saw a future for the “horseless carriage.” This is not say the primitive automobile was seen as worthless. The Barnum & Bailey Circus gave the Duryea, the first American company to produce motor vehicles for sale, top billing over the albino, the giant, and the fat lady that year.
Even those far sighted enough to see a brighter future in these revolutionary vehicles were confused as to mode of power, exactly what it was and what it was good for. Many, such as Ransom Olds, sought to refine steam. Others such as Henry Ford leaned more towards flammable fuels.
Charles and Frank Duryea were definitely not the first to build an automobile in America but they were the first to build one for sale. This was in 1892 and the simple slogan, “It actually is operated under its own propulsion!” was their sole advertisement.
For a brief period, the confusion as to the automobiles role in societal evolution allowed the Duryea brothers to have a monopoly on the American market. As a result, the first American automobile race held on Thanksgiving Day in 1895 was to a large degree a race between Duryea owners.
The run of fifty-two miles was from Chicago to Evanston and back again. As an indication of the difficulties involved in the operation of these early motor vehicles one driver dropped out of the race the result of exhaustion. This driver was a blacksmith!
Within a few years, the Duryea monopoly was no more. Elwood Haynes completed his first vehicle in 1894. Ransom E. Olds was heading the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897. Alexander Winton sold his first car in April of 1898.
By the turn of the century, the fledgling American automobile industry had gone from second to third gear and was about ready to hit high. By 1905, the throttle was wide open and the industry was picking up speed.
The White Steamer introduced in 1900 received wonderful free publicity as the mode of transport for President Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. In 1906, Fred Marriott astounded the world when he drove a Stanley to a record of 127 miles per hour. In 1903, Tom Fetch became the first to drive an automobile from coast to coast. His captivating story of driving the Packard from San Francisco to New York City in just sixty-one days propelled that manufacturer to the head of the rapidly growing pact.
Within just ten years, the automobile industry had gone from the cottage and barn to the factory. More importantly, it had become a hundred million dollar business.
The consumer was confronted with a dizzying array of makes, models, and manufacturers. The Rambler produced by the Thomas B. Jeffery Company was, “The Leader in its Class.” Cadillac was, “The automobile all makers hope some day to equal.” Ford was, “Boss of the Road.” The Jackson Automobile Company produced steam as well as gasoline-powered vehicles. There was Haynes-Apperson and Packard, Flint and Pope Hartford, Mitchell and Premier, Flanders Colonial Electric and Baker Electric.
Incredibly even by this late date, there was great confusion about most every aspect of the automobile. Many were steered by tiller; a few such as Rambler were by a steering wheel. Some were chain drive. There was left hand and right hand steering, three wheels, four wheels and even six wheels.
The Adams-Farwell featured a five-cylinder revolving air-cooled engine, a four-speed transmission with two clutches. The Lambert utilized friction drive. Nevertheless, the number one reason the automobile had yet to rise to its full potential was sales price. The DeSoto Six started at $2,185. Kisselkar produced vehicles started at $1,850 (a very nice home could be had fro $2,500). The Moline was bit closer to affordable with a base price of $1,000.
Since those halcyon days Americas love/hate relationship with the automobile has never truly waned. There have been ebbs and flows in the level of excitement over new models or technology just as there has been in the perception of whether it is a blessing or curse.
For most of the past thirty years, those who sought their automotive excitement in American built automobiles were to a large degree adrift. Here and there were blips of interest, on occasion a vehicle would spark actual excitement.
In the past few years, the excitement has been coming faster and faster. With the reintroduction of the high performance Charger and Chrysler 300 series it would seem we are at the dawn of a new era.


*PHOTOS COURTESY OF GM ARCHIVES

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