The Gilded Age was in full swing by the time Charles E. and J. Frank Duryea began building their bicycles in Washington. Known as the “Bicycle Brothers,” they were already working to usurp the centuries-long method of travel: the horse.
Creating the ‘Buggyaut’The Duryea brothers became well-known for their ability to consistently improve their bicycles. Always tinkering with ways to go faster, Charles encountered a eureka moment in 1886 at the Ohio State Fair. On display was a gasoline engine, which he perceived as having the capacity to create propulsion. Over the next five years, he and his brother tinkered with the idea of creating a form of transportation that would be solely gas-powered.
By 1891, Charles had completed the design for what they termed the “Buggyaut.” Instead of a bicycle, the vehicle prototype would be a buggy or wagon typically pulled by a horse. Now it came down to building it.
While the economy came to a near screeching halt with the Panic of 1893, the Duryea brothers had finally completed their invention that would greatly benefit the American economy in the years to come. This formerly horse-drawn carriage was powered by a single cylinder four-horsepower engine and guided by a tiller, rather than a steering wheel.
On the day before autumn began in 1893, the Duryea brothers were beset with excitement at trying out their new invention. In front of their shop along Taylor Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, the two maneuvered the vehicle to the street. With Charles at the tiller, Frank started the engine, and it was this week in history, Sept. 22, 1893 (although there is debate on whether it was Sept. 20, 21, or 22) that the first gas-powered automobile was tested on the road.
A Falling Out and a WinnerThe two brothers had a falling out after they argued over whose design they had used. Charles left Springfield and returned to his home state of Illinois to continue selling bikes. Frank remained and continued working on the automobile.
The following year, Frank drove the upgraded vehicle into Hartford, Connecticut―the first time an automobile had appeared in the state. The fanfare only encouraged Frank to continue making improvements.
Those improvements would be on display during America’s first ever car race held in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day, 1895. Frank raced his car (#5) against five other vehicles, covering 54 miles at a speed ranging between 5 and 7 miles per hour. The event was sponsored by the owner of the Chicago Times-Herald, H.H. Kohlsaat, and although 70 entered the contest, only six showed up.
Despite the few number of contestants, Kohlsaat offered the winner of the race $2,000 (around $73,000 today). Frank won.
Kohlsaat also offered $500 to anyone who could come up with a good name for these new forms of transportation. Three people came up with the acceptable name of “motocycle.” Though the name didn’t stick for the long term, it was enough to win the prize money, which was split evenly among the three.
Uniting for a Car CompanyAfter winning the race and much fanfare, Frank and Charles reunited to form their own car manufacturing company: the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. The two launched the company in March of 1896 and sold 13 automobiles. The first 10 vehicles were the first to ever be sold in the United States. The brothers also entered one of their vehicles into the 1896 London to Brighton Car Run and became the first American-made vehicle to win the race, finishing an hour ahead of the other 32 cars.
Progress and PreservationAs the 20th century progressed, so did the automobile. Soon after the Duryea brothers drove through the streets of Springfield, another tinkerer out in Michigan began working on a gas-powered vehicle. In January of 1896, Henry Ford assembled his first car: the Quadricycle. He sold it for $200 in order to have enough money to build his second car. By the time his Ford Motor Company became a success, he bought his first car back for posterity’s sake. Interestingly, of those first Duryea-manufactured vehicles, only one survives and it resides in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
That very first vehicle, the “Buggyaut,” however, had been somewhat forgotten, although not completely abandoned. The car sat in the Springfield storage from 1894 to 1920 until an engineer by the name of Inglis M. Uppercu found it and gifted it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.