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Motorized Buggy

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The Unseen Enemy
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The Car The Duryea Brothers Made

By James Donahue

Contrary to popular belief, Henry Ford did not build the first working gasoline powered automobile in the United States. That honor went to brothers Charles and Frank Duryea who installed a four horse engine on a used horse drawn buggy and drove it on a public road at Springfield, Massachusetts on Sept. 21, 1893.

Henry Ford had an engine built and running by that same year, but it wasn’t until 1896 that he built his first car. It was a simple open buggy with a seat, four wooden wheels and an engine that Ford called a Quadracycle. He sold it for $200 and used the money to build another one. He didn’t offer a real car for sale until 1903. And thus began the story of the great Ford Empire in America.

The Duryea car had a friction transmission, spray carburetor and low tension ignition. It was only operated that one day and then went into storage until 1920 when Inglis M. Uppercu found it, and presented it to the United States National Museum, now known as the Smithsonian.

The Duryea brothers were one step ahead of Ford from the start. Frank built the second Duryea in 1895 and entered it in the first motor car race in America. That race among six home-built “horseless carriages,” sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald, was held on Thanksgiving Day at Chicago. The Duryea came in first and Frank took home the $2,000 grand prize. He used the money to found the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in Springfield.

It was there that the brothers build and sold 13 identical gasoline-powered vehicles, thus becoming the first American automobile manufacturing company. This enterprise was closed in 1898, but the Duryea automobile wasn’t finished. Frank joined the Stevens Arms and Tool Company in Massachusetts and there produced the Stevens-Duryea automobile. This car remained in production until 1927.

It may be of interest to note that the first recorded traffic accident in the United States involved a Duryea. It happened in New York City, in the spring of 1896, when motorist Henry Wells struck a bicyclist with his new Duryea. The rider suffered a broken leg in the mishap and Wells spent a night in jail.

Neither the Duryea brothers nor Ford were the first to build and run a vehicle on a gasoline powered combustion engine. That honor went to French inventor Etienne Lenoir, who patented the first practical gas engine in Paris in 1860 and drove a car it powered from Paris to Joinville two years later. Lenoir powered the vehicle on benzene and his drawings show an electric sparked ignition, thus making him the first to operate a car on a petroleum-based fuel.