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Duryea Motor Wagon

Duryea Motor Wagon

By Jack Nerad

Duryea Motor Wagon Imagine inventing not just a product, but an industry, and then imagine the disappointment of failing to reap the benefits of your enormous achievement. So it was with the Duryea brothers, Charles E. and J. Frank. The two brothers were, arguably at least, the first Americans to build a successful automobile, and there is less argument that they were the first to incorporate an American business for the expressed purpose of building automobiles for sale to the public. Further, Frank drove a car they designed and built to victory in the first automobile race ever held in America. Yet, when all is said and done, the two brothers are but an obscure footnote in the history of the auto industry they created.

If the Duryeas are a footnote, though, it is certainly a widely varied, colorful and, ultimately tragic footnote. The brothers hailed from the Midwest and like two other famous inventor brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, they became intimately involved in the burgeoning bicycle business, one of the greatest "growth sectors" of the 1880s and 1890s. While living in Peoria, Illinois, Charles designed an improved bicycle he called the Sylph, and business took the brothers to Springfield, Massachusetts, to begin volume production.

Charles, though, had other interests in addition to bicycles and one of them was an idea for an engine-powered carriage. Some say the idea was spawned when he read an article about Karl Benz' work in an issue of Scientific American. Others suggest that the magazine article simply reinforced an idea Charles had already begun to develop. In any case, by the early 1890s both Charles and Frank were in Massachusetts, and Charles invited his brother to join him in the pursuit of building a viable motor car. Frank, a machinist by trade, eagerly jumped into the task, and he continued to work on the project when Charles returned to Peoria in September 1892 to oversee production of one of his bicycle designs at the Rouse, Hazard company.

A year later, after a great deal of tinkering, Frank Duryea was ready to test the brothers' motor wagon. The test run took place on the outskirts of Springfield, Massachusetts, on September 20, 1893. On hand were Erwin Markham, an investor in the project, Howard Bemis, who owned the farm on which the test began, and Rudy MacPhee, a reporter for the Springfield Evening-Union. Though Duryea wasn't confident enough in his machine to stage his first drive in downtown Springfield, he obviously was confident enough to have a reporter on hand to chronicle what transpired. And what transpired was memorable if brief. With Duryea at the tiller, the three other men pushed the carriage until the motor sputtered into operation. Then the vehicle moved under its own power for about 200 feet until a pile of dirt in its path halted its progress.

In retrospect, there was nothing earth-shattering about the vehicle's design. In fact, calling it crude might be giving it a compliment. The automobile was essentially a four-wheeled carriage whose large-diameter rear wheels were driven by a single-cylinder gasoline-fueled engine mounted horizontally under the carriage body. The water-cooled engine used "make-or-break" ignition and produced what has been variously described as 3.5 or 4 horsepower. Friction drive transferred the power to the wheels, so it is not surprising that its top speed was approximated as 7.5 miles per hour.

That first drive got the Duryeas some publicity, but Frank didn't believe the first car was ready to take to market, and, unlike some other early automotive builders, going to market was exactly what the Duryeas had in mind. With his brother still in Illinois, Frank continued to tinker with the design and by 1895 he had built a car that he considered much superior to the original.

Luckily, Frank soon got the opportunity to show off his handiwork. At the same time the Duryeas were toying with the idea of a horseless carriage, a Chicago newspaper publisher named Herman H. Kohlsaat became enamoured of the idea of staging an automobile race after reading about the 1894 road race between Paris and Rouen that had been sponsored by the French paper Le Petit Journal. He decided that his newspaper, the Chicago Times-Herald, would sponsor a similar race, but over a decidedly less romantic route. The first American automobile race was run over a 54-mile course that extended from Chicago's Jackson Park to Evanston and back. Certainly, it was a challenging route for vehicles that topped out at seven-and-a-half miles per hour, but the joker in the deck was that it was contested on Thanksgiving Day, immediately following a snowstorm. Amazingly, six vehicles appeared at the starting line on November 28, 1895: three cars built by the Benz works and imported from Germany, two electric vehicles drawing their power from batteries, and Frank Duryea's new car. It was better than his first version in virtually every way, but the biggest improvement was a significantly more powerful two-cylinder engine.

The race, contested in frigid temperatures in open cars, became an endurance contest, but when the first car crossed the finish line seven hours and 53 minutes later, it was piloted by none other than Frank Duryea. Besting the Benz models, built by a company that had been manufacturing motorwagens since 1886, was an incredible achievement for the Duryeas, and it wasn't lost on the American public, who were eager to claim automotive leadership for the glorious red, white a blue.

The formation of the first American company formed for the purpose of building automobiles actually pre-dated the Chicago race by a couple of months. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company, with headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts, was officially organized in September 1895, but the victory in the first American race gave the new concern significantly more momentum.

The new company built 13 nearly identical 1896 model Duryea Motor Wagons the following year in its Springfield shops. As modest as this seems, it marked the beginning of the American automobile industry. At the same time, Charles Duryea took the Chicago race-winning car to Peoria in the winter of 1896 in an attempt to interest investors in establishing a manufacturing operation there. While that unsuccessful foray seems redundant and ill-advised today, Charles was simply applying the standard practice of the bicycle industry, which was littered with regional manufacturers, to the infant auto business.

While Charles was failing to gather any headway in the Midwest, the Duryeas had much better success in the East. On Memorial Day 1896 Frank was victorious in the Cosmopolitan Race held in New York City, while Charles finished second, both men in series-built 1896 Duryeas. A third Duryea in the race was involved in the first recorded American automobile accident, and its driver was arrested and thrown into jail.

Later that year Charles inexplicably decided to move his family to New Jersey to work for a firm called the Canda Company. Almost simultaneously, Frank traveled to England where he won the first Brighton to London "run" by more than an hour, much to the consternation of the British. For his efforts Frank was awarded a medal commemorating his "prompt arrival."

Sadly, despite all this seeming momentum, 1896 proved to be the high-water mark for the Duryeas. Frank and Charles began to argue about the direction of their fledgling Massachusetts operation, and in 1898 they sold their interest in the company, which quickly was absorbed by the National Motor Carriage Company. Later that same year Charles moved back to Peoria and was again intent on getting an automobile manufacturing operation started there. The Duryea Manufacturing Company was incorporated for that purpose in 1898 with some of the funds apparently coming from his sale of shares in the Duryea Motor Wagon Company.

By July 1898 Charles Duryea was proudly displaying a prototype of his firm's vehicle, called the Duryea Motor Trap. Equipped with a three-cylinder engine, the Charles Duryea design was somewhat advanced over previous Duryea models. The only trouble was getting real production to commence.

Under-capitalized, the Duryea Manufacturing Company contracted with another local firm called the Peoria Rubber and Manufacturing Company to build Duryea automobiles. But Peoria Rubber soon found itself absorbed by the "BicycleTrust," and serious production of cars was sporadic at best. A projected production run of 100 for 1899 ended up at 15 or so. By the beginning of 1900, Charles had had enough of Peoria, and he moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, where a few more Duryeas of his design were produced.

Meanwhile, his estranged brother Frank was busy nearby. In 1901, he made a deal with the Massachusetts-based J. Stevens Arms and Tool Company to build automobiles and in 1904 the Stevens-Duryea Company was formed to manufacture Stevens-Duryea automobiles in factories in Chicopee and East Springfield. That company had moderate success initially, but it closed its doors in 1915 having built about 14,000 vehicles.

When his Reading operation went sour, Charles Duryea built some cars in Saginaw, Michigan. After that, he moved yet again, this time to Philadelphia, the fire still burning inside to become a mover-and-shaker in the industry he created. Well before he died in 1938 he lamented, "Children growing up today will think that Henry Ford invented the automobile." A sad ending for the brothers who created the American auto industry.
Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.
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