Who first took to the roads in a horseless vehicle will most likely always

be a bit of a mystery. Likewise with exactly who first pinned the term automobile to the horseless carriage. Even the year is an unknown but by the early 19th century a few daring, or crazy, visionaries and inventors were terrorizing their neighborhoods with steam powered carriages. However, it would be the mid 1880’s before the concept of a road vehicle driven by any means other than the horse was given serious consideration.

An argument could be made that the American automobile industry was born in 1877. That was the year George B. Selden obtained patents for a horseless carriage with internal combustion engine. Interestingly enough, he did not actually build an automobile, or even a functioning prototype, until 1905 when a lawsuit necessitated that he do so.


Front Street, latter Andy Devine Avenue in Kingman, Arizona. In 1915, Edsel Ford stayed at this hotel during his odyssey along the National Old Trails Highway. Photo courtesy Mohave Museum of History & Arts. 

One of the earliest proponents of the automobile was Ransom E. Olds who built an operational steam powered vehicle in the late 1880’s. In an interview published in the Scientific American on May 21, 1892, Olds said that the horseless vehicle  “never kicks or bites, never tires on long runs, and never sweats in hot weather. It does not require care in the stable and only eats while on the road.”

In the same year Charles and Frank Duryea built their first operational prototype, and the following year launched the first automobile manufacturing company in America. In 1895, a Duryea took first place in a Chicago to Evanston automobile race, and in 1896 the companies motor wagon received top billing at Barnum & Bailey Circus over the albino and fat lady. Meanwhile, Elwood Haynes launched his motor vehicle manufacturing enterprise in Kokomo, Indiana in 1894. In 1897, Olds Motor Vehicle Company initiated production. By 1895 the interest in automobiles was fast becoming a tsunami as evidence by the launch of Horseless Age magazine.

Copy of 11uel7h_4tf4_l

By the dawn of the new century it was evident that the automobile was far more than a passing fad. It was quickly becoming a multi million dollar industry, and supportive or related technologies were advancing at dizzying speeds. Roads, however, to drive the automobile on, especially in rural areas were little changed from the era of the Civil War, or even the Revolutionary War. In fact, to a large degree, road construction had devolved since construction of the Appian Way by the Romans. Pioneering “automobilists” often shared the road with stage coaches, freight wagons, and twenty mule teams. In By Motor to the Golden Gate written by Emily Post that was published in 1916, she wrote of sharing the road with covered wagons in New Mexico.

Aside from vintage photographs and journals, the best time capsules from this era are the advertisements produced to market and sell the automobile. As an example, an advertisement for the 1900 Porter Stanhope, a vehicle the company proclaimed to be “the only perfect automobile” listed attributes that included an ability to travel over rough roads, climb steep grades, and do anything a that a span of horses could do.

Counted among the intriguing vehicles manufactured and marketed during this period was the 1901 Phelps Tractor. Essentially this “vehicle” was simply a three wheeled steam engine that could be coupled to a “surrey, light spring wagon, or cart.” Perhaps the most intriguing aspect was in regards to steering. The driver controlled the tractor with the reins just as they would a team of horses. Loosening the reins increased speed, drawing them in cut speed, and pulling them tight engaged reverse.

For the 1902 Oldsmobile, “no roads were too rough or uneven.” The Friedman Road Wagon “will climb any grade up to thirty percent.” The 1904 Cadillac was “the automobile all makers hope some day to equal.” The Pope-Hartford of 1905 was “an exceptional hill climber.” The 1907 Gale “climbs hills like a squirrel and eats up the road like a freight train.” For the owner of a 1907 Model Automobile “hills and sand become level land.”

Between 1895 and 1930, more than 3,000 companies would manufacture automobiles in America. Some were manufactures in name only. Others, though forgotten today, produced automobiles for decades and often developed a staunch customer loyalty. Surprisingly, even though the Good Roads movement grew in strength, it would be decades before the cross country traveler could enjoy the luxury of all weather roads. Even legendary Route 66 wasn’t fully paved until 1936.

The infancy of the American auto industry is a most fascinating moment in time. For a very brief moment, it looked as though science and technology were about to usher in a golden era, a time when man would be freed from the confines of travel being limited by the speed or health of a horse. It was a time when the world stood with one foot in the stirrup, and the other poised over the throttle.

Jim Hinckley’s America, including the weekly Facebook live program, podcast, video series, Facebook page, and blog are sponsored by Grand Canyon Caverns, Promote Kingman, the Route 66 Association of Kingman, and by the contributions of readers. Tips for the story teller are greatly appreciated.



If you enjoy Jim Hinckley\'s America, take a second to support jimhinckleysamerica on Patreon!