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Home > Automobile Pioneers > J. Frank Duryea

J. Frank Duryea   1869-1967

By M. M. Musselman

Brothers Charles E. and J. Frank Duryea are generally given credit for operating (successfully) the first American-made automobile. Born in Peoria, Illinois, both brothers were mechanically inclined. After school, the brothers moved to Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, where Charles landed a job with a bicycle company and Frank went to work as a toolmaker. In 1891 Charles found a book that described and pictured an Otto gas engine. He and Frank both studied the book, and Charles, who had read about the horseless carriages that were being manufactured in Paris, used his spare time to design his idea of a gasoline road wagon. That same year, Charles secured financial backing and in 1892 the brothers moved to Springfield and began work on a horseless carriage. On September 22, 1893, the official debut of the first Duryea car was recorded in the Springfield “Evening Union”. In 1895, after proving the vehicle’s reliability in numerous races, the brothers went into business as the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. Two years later both Duryeas left the company and Charles organized the Duryea Power Company of Reading, Pennsylvania, which manufactured a three-cylinder car until 1914. After 1914 Charles Duryea devoted much of his time to the writing of textbooks about the automobile. There has been much controversy as to which brother should receive primary credit for creating the first American-made automobile. The Duryeas, themselves, made conflicting claims, and Charles has traditionally been given the most credit. In his book Carriages Without Horses: J. Frank Duryea and the Birth of the American Automobile Industry, Richard P. Scharchburg notes that Frank Duryea did the actual work of construction on the cars, and was responsible for the practical designing and engineering of all components (aside from the steering mechanism) of the Duryea cars.

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