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Car History - A Vision Becomes Reality   Part 3: The Duryea Brothers

By Carl Burgess Glasscock

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

Such was the publicity for the automobile when men who are now only fifty years old were boys of ten to fifteen, as eagerly interested in the new machines as their sons today are interested in airplanes, radios and television. No publicity worthy of the name came forth from the Duryea workshop, the Olds shop, the Haynes-Apperson shop with the first gas-powered automobiles. They didn’t even call them automobiles. The common term was horseless buggy. H. H. Kohlsaat’s Times-Herald in Chicago, pro­moting the first automobile race in America in 1895, incidentally offered a prize of five hundred dollars for the best generic name for the contraptions. “Motocycle” won the money, although “quadricycle” was popular, “petrocar” was considered. The French name, “automobile,” was not in the running.

Charles E. Duryea entered what he called a “buggyaut,” his second practical car. With it he won the race from Jackson Park, Chicago, to Evanston and return, about fifty-two miles at an aver­age speed of seven and one-half miles per hour. An imported Benz was the only other car to finish, out of five which actually left the starting line. Those five, of which three were built in Europe, rep­resented an original list of sixty entries, most of which were by inventors with plenty of ideas but no money, and no automobile. The sad fact was that there were not enough automobiles and drivers in the United States in 1895 to make a race worthy of Mr. Kohlsaat’s five thousand dollars in cash prizes. Because of that the start was postponed from the original date, July Fourth, to Labor Day, again to November second, and finally to Thanksgiving Day.

Charles Duryea and big brother Frank had organized the first automobile factory in America in Springfield, Massachusetts, under the name of the Duryea Motor Wagon Company only two months earlier. With the important stimulation of two thousand dollars first prize in the Chicago race they promptly set about the building of a dozen cars. Four of those cars they completed in time to enter in John Brisben Walker’s Cosmopolitan Magazine race from the New York City Hall to Irvington-on-the-Hudson and return, Memorial Day, 1896. Competing against several for­eign and a few American-made cars they won all the prizes, total­ing three thousand dollars. Quickly then they completed produc­tion of their first year’s schedule of twelve machines. They sold three, sent one on tour with Barnum & Bailey’s circus, and shipped two others to England. There they planned to compete in an international race of fifty-odd miles from London to Brighton. That race, November 14, 1896, was in the nature of a celebration of repeal of a British law which had restricted automobile devel­opment in England for half a century by requiring that a man on foot, carrying a red flag, must precede each horseless vehicle at a speed of not more than four miles an hour.

More than forty automobiles, variously powered by gas, steam and electricity, were entered in the big event. Most of them were French and German machines of types which had made a success­ful showing in the world’s first automobile race, from Paris to Rouen, about eighty miles, in July, 1894. Similar machines had won international acclaim in the competition from Paris to Bor­deaux, seven hundred and forty-four miles, in 1895. The Duryeas were permitted to start near the tail of the procession. Despite the difficulties of dust and stalled cars on the narrow road, Frank Duryea worked his way into the lead and drove the Duryea ma­chine into Brighton nearly an hour ahead of his nearest com­petitor.

Duryea had beaten the world. His place in the history of the automobile business in America was assured. Few will deny that between the year 1892 when he demonstrated the first gas-pow­ered automobile to run in America and the year 1896, when a Duryea car won the great international race in England he ac­complished more than any other man in the initial stimulation of the present vast automobile business in the United States. That he lacked something essential to the development of his business as successfully as he had developed and advertised his car is beside the point.

The interests of the Duryea brothers soon parted. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company passed out of existence, one of the first of hundreds of automobile companies to do so. Frank Duryea became associated with the Stevens Arms Company in the manu­facture of gasoline automobiles. The Stevens-Duryea rather than the “Duryea buggyaut” is the name more familiar in the roll-call of American automobiles.

All that was of vital importance to the early stimulation of the industry. The fact that in later years considerable difference of opinion made its appearance as to priority in manufacture, first sales, and improvement of essential parts merely serves to indicate how independently the pioneers were working. Not one had any direct help or information from another. This record is not de­signed to judge between the claims. Where those claims conflict probably it is merely another indication of the fact that in the ‘nineties practically no one in the United States except a few experimenting mechanics was interested in automobiles. Ameri­cans were interested in the first Chicago World’s Fair, the panic of ‘93 which extended into a four-year depression, the Klondike gold-rush, the Spanish-American War.

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