Little Bits of History

Motor Wagon

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 20, 2015
Duryea Brothers 1894 model

Duryea Brothers 1894 model

September 20, 1893: The Duryea Brothers test drive their new conveyance. Charles, the older brother (born 1861) and Frank (born 1869) were initially bicycle makers in Washington, D.C. They later moved their business to Springfield, Massachusetts and it was there they tested their new vehicle. They audaciously road-tested the first working American gasoline-powered automobile. The area they used for the test is now part of the City of Chicopee, Massachusetts. Their “motor wagon” was literally that. They purchased a used horse drawn buggy for $70 and added a 4 HP, single cylinder gasoline engine. The car had a friction transmission, a spray carburetor, and low tension ignition.

It worked. They parked it and then test drove it again on November 10. For this second tour, they brought the car to a much more prominent area of the city. They drove past their garage at 47 Taylor Street. The event was so startling, it was written up in the local newspaper, The Republican, the next day. The trial car was put in storage in 1894 and stayed safely stored away until 1920 when a former Duryea engineer presented it to the United States National Museum. The two brothers continued to work on their cars. Charles engineered the cars and Frank built, tested, and raced them.

Frank’s first race was on November 28, 1895. It was held in Chicago and was not only Frank’s first car race, but America’s. The cars were driven to Evanston, Illinois and back to the starting point. There had been three Benz cars also entered in the race and two other cars, for a total of six entrants from the 83 cars which had hoped to race. Only Frank and one of the Benz cars managed to even finish the race, sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald with a winning prize of $5,000 (about $150,000 today). The trip was 54 miles long with an average blistering speed of 7.5 mph. The race took over seven hours to complete.

With this success in hand, the brothers were able to make a go of their new business, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. Demand for American cars grew along with the brothers’ orders. They were able to produce 13 cars in the following year. All were made by hand at their garage on Taylor Street. They became the first successful commercially-produced American car maker. Nothing is all peaches and cream and one of their cars was also involved in the world’s first known auto accident when Henry Wells, new owner of a Duryea, was driving in New York City and struck a bicyclist. The biker suffered a broken leg and Wells spent a night in jail. The cars were hand-made and so expensive few could afford them. Vehicles were produced as late as 1917, but automated manufacturers took over the market with their cheaper cars.

I’d ban all automobiles from the central part of the city. You see, the automobile was just a passing fad. It’s got to go. It’s got to go a long way from here. – Lawrence Ferlinghetti

A business like an automobile, has to be driven, in order to get results. – B. C. Forbes

We are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poor house in an automobile. – Will Rogers

The automobile changed our dress, manners, social customs, vacation habits, the shape of our cities, consumer purchasing patterns, common tastes and positions in intercourse. – John Keats

Also on this day: Cannes Film Festival – In 1946, the first Cannes Film Festival was held.
Girl’s Night – In 1973, Billy Jean King won the “War of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs.
QE2 – In 1967, the British cruise ship was launched.
Across the Deep Blue Sea – In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan began his journey around the world.
Walk This Way – In 1737, the Walking Purchase walk ended.

* “Talla1894DuryeaFrontDisplay” by Infrogmation of New Orleans – Photo by Infrogmation. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


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