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Car History - Get a Horse!   Part 5: Society Embraces the Automobile

By Carl Burgess Glasscock

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

New York appeared to be the center of the infant automobile industry. It was so partly because there was more wealth in New York to play with the new toys, and partly because persons so socially prominent that their names were known throughout the country promptly adopted the automobile as something which, incidentally, would reveal their superiority to convention. Auto­mobile Topics lost no time in revealing that interest. Its first issue carried the following social notes:

“The automobile has been extensively taken up by society, and during the past season in Newport and Lenox it played a most important part in social life. Women like Mrs. Stuyve-sant Fish, Mrs. Herman Oelrichs, Mrs. Wm. K. Vanderbilt, Jr., and others who are noted for their daring in taking up sports which have the merit of unconventionality, will not be satisfied until they have driven their motor carriages through the city streets.”

And this, containing an authoritative note on what the well-dressed gentleman motorist wore in 1900:

“William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., presented a novel appearance when he arrived in this city at eleven o’clock at night, after his ride from Newport in his Daimler gasoline machine. He was attired in leather jacket, large goggles over his eyes and a patent leather cap. Accompanying him was his French chauffeur and a footman. . . . Mrs. W. K., Jr., was waiting at the Waldorf-Astoria for him. . . . Mrs. Vanderbilt had left Newport by train and had waited all day for her husband. ... Mr. Vanderbilt took no account of miles and hours, for he was delayed by rain and going much out of his way by not knowing the roads. He thinks his fastest time was at the rate of about forty miles an hour.”

It will be noted that Mr. Vanderbilt drove a foreign car. Most Americans who wanted and could afford the best in available motor transportation at that time did the same. Still, numerous factories were springing up in the United States. The outstanding advertisements in Automobile Topics during its first year of pub­lication were those of the Riker Motor Vehicle Company of Eliza-bethport, New Jersey; American Bicycle Company’s Steam Runabout, Park Row Building, New York; Gasmobile, Jersey City; Waverly Electric Vehicles, Rambler Runabout, Cleveland Motor Tricycle, Locomobile Company of America, Automobile Company of America.

But despite roads which were almost invariably bad, a few hardy souls were demonstrating that the motor car could traverse them if supplied with sufficient gasoline, spare parts, and a patient and understanding driver. Alexander Winton, a manufacturer of bicycles in Cleveland, Ohio, with experience as a machinist gained as assistant engineer on an ocean liner, built his first four-wheel, gasoline-driven car in his bicycle shop in 1895. In the winter of 1896-97 he built two more. He sold one of them, but either de­spite or because he was of Scottish birth, took it back from the dissatisfied customer and tinkered over the two until both would run to his satisfaction.

Then, in the summer of 1897, he set out on the first cross­country automobile tour recorded in this country. It was his intention to drive from Cleveland to New York. It was his hope that this accomplishment would bring the Winton car favorably to the attention of a skeptical world. He completed the trip, but probably more because he had the persistence of a Scot than because he had a superior automobile. At that, any automobile which could make that journey of mud and ruts and chuckholes and dust in 1897 must have been pretty good. It took Winton ten days, but he got there.

New York was entertained but not excited. It had seen a few foreign-built cars and a few electrics. Perhaps the thick coating of mud on the Winton car and the Winton person tended to discourage any incipient enthusiasm for cross-country touring.

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