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Home > Articles > Car History - A Vision Becomes Reality  (Part  1 2 3 4)

Car History - A Vision Becomes Reality   Part 4: Conflicting Claims

By Carl Burgess Glasscock

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

Probably the pioneers of the automobile industry were all hon­est in their contentions. They simply did not know what the other fellow was doing. Few and inadequate records were kept. There was no clearing house of information such as the National Auto­mobile Chamber of Commerce of today. There was no individual sufficiently interested to collate claims which did not appear to conflict until years later. Alexander Winton has been most fre­quently credited with making the first commercial sale of an American gasoline automobile, in 1898. Some authorities give him credit for putting the industry on a commercial basis as of that date. In contradiction is Charles E. Duryea’s assertion that he sold three cars manufactured in the Duryea Motor Wagon Company’s plant in 1896. Elwood Haynes has asserted that he and the Appersons sold a gas car to a Mr. Lewis of Poughkeepsie, New York, late in 1896 or early in 1897, and another to Doctor Sweeney of Chicago in 1897.

But Mr. Haynes has also claimed to have fathered the first American gasoline car to run successfully, on July 4, 1894. Pos­sibly it was the first he had ever heard of, but unquestionably it was not the first to run. If he were so clearly in error on that point he may also have been in error as to the date of the first sale. Henry Ford has been quoted as saying that his first sale was in 1896 when he disposed of his gas buggy to Charles Ainsley of Detroit for two hundred dollars after having driven it about one thousand miles. Probably no one will deny that that was the first used-car sale.

It really is of little importance except to the sticklers for the minutiae of historical accuracy. It all goes to show the lack, the confusion and the disparity of records in the automobile game of that time. Even some of the men who have appeared most positive of their authority have made strange contradictions of what later have been admitted as facts. For example: Motor, one of the leading magazines of the trade since the early days, in an article by Alexander Johnson in January, 1918, gives Elwood Haynes credit for producing a practical road vehicle driven by a marine motor in 1893, while the same magazine in an article by W. A. P. John in January, 1922, makes the year of that successful demonstration 1894. Such an oft-quoted authority as H. L. Bar­ber, in his Story of the Automobile, published in 1917, says the first “successful” steam car in the United States was built by S. H. Roper in Massachusetts in 1889, while Arthur Pound, author of The Turning Wheel, says John and Thomas Clegg, in their machine shop in Memphis, Michigan, built a steam car which ran five hundred miles over Michigan roads in 1885. A man so thoroughly respected for devotion to facts as Peter Clark Macfarlane, in an article published in Collier’s in January, 1915, makes the palpable error that Henry Ford’s first car, running on the streets of Detroit in 1892-3, was steam driven, and that not until late in 1896 did Ford produce his first gasoline automobile. More popular, and far more widely circulated, is what might properly be called the Henry Ford myth. That myth is to the effect that Henry Ford in his youth was inspired with a vision of a light, strong, efficient, simple automobile which could be pro­duced in large quantities and made available at low cost to vast numbers of persons; that he stuck to that .one idea through thick and thin, never wavering in purpose, never taking his eye off the goal, until he became the greatest individual manufacturer with the largest private fortune in the world.

Without attempting to take any credit from Henry Ford for his great accomplishments, that widely accepted myth is false. The facts are that he worked for ten years to produce his first half-dozen automobiles; that the first two automobile manufacturing companies with which he was associated as chief shop executive folded up; that he was forty years old before he began to build cars profitably, and even then he built and offered a line of heavy twenty-eight-hundred-dollar cars which were a commercial fail­ure; that not for fifteen years after he had demonstrated his first horseless buggy did he get a real start toward fame and fortune with the Model T. In evidence that he had no such vision as has been credited to him in the years of his great success is the fact that in 1908, the year in which he launched the Model T, he was willing and ready to sell the Ford Motor Company for three mil­lion dollars.

Facts or errors, they have all made little difference in the devel­opment of the automobile industry. Contradictions as to dates and priority in this or that incident of invention, manufacture, sale, merely tend to show that America in general was keeping no automobile data and revealing no interest in automobiles forty years ago.

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